Across the globe, sport has been known to be a crucial anchor of most societies. Whether you are in the isolated island nation of Fiji or the landlocked country of Paraguay, sport seems to be a mainstay of everyone’s lives. However, despite many viewing sport as a way to bring people together through a common interest, there are those who argue otherwise. These individuals point to times where the platform of sport has been used to push specific agendas and turned into a tool to drive home divisive ideas and disrupt communities instead. Although there are times when individuals can go against the spirit of sport and create greater division and instability in the community , it is undeniable that sport has the uncanny ability to transcend racial and religious boundaries and unite individuals and societies through a shared passion.
Sport unites people by allowing them to see past racial lines through their shared passions and desires. Sport allows individuals from different racial backgrounds but who support the same team to bond over a shared interest and common passion. This encourages them to look past whatever prejudices they may bear towards their counterparts to the extent where it can displace years of disdain and mistrust. This was most notably seen after the events of the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa, where decades of violence, apartheid and mutual distrust which had characterised the relationship between the white Afrikaners and the black indigenous Africans gave way to greater acceptance and understanding as the country united in support of the nation’s national rugby team known as the Springboks. This led to unprecedented levels of dialogue and consensus building between the two racially segregated political factions. The shared desire for the success of their sports team allowed the citizens of South Africa to look past the long-seated hatred between their two racial groups and see each other as human beings by giving them a common interest that the whole country could bond over despite their tumultuous past. Similarly, the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality is a non-profit organisation which uses sport to empower more than 30,000 students and staff to initiate and discuss America’s complex racial relations and the concept of inclusivity within their teams. It has successfully managed to promote cohesiveness between players of different races. Thus, sport does have the powerful ability to unify even the most racially divided people, cutting through stereotypes and preconceived notions keeping different racial groups apart and even breaking down barriers of racial tension and allowing these groups to come together as one people through their love of sport.
Sport also has the ability to unite individuals by blurring geographical boundaries and reducing distance and bringing people together based on their love of sport. The international nature of sport makes it an effective channel through which individuals can bond over their common love for sport even to the extent of bringing together individuals from countries with a history of animosity with one another in the spirit of sport. This was witnessed during the 23rd Winter Olympic Games in 2018 where both North and South Koreans marched together at the opening ceremony, and even entered a combined women’s ice hockey team to participate at the games. The unification of the two Koreas through sport at the winter games despite their long history of war and tension and their ever-present geographical divide along the 38th parallel, shows the possibility that sport has to tear down walls and bring together people based on the spirit and love of sports. Similarly, tennis doubles players Aisam-Ul-Haq from Pakistan and Rohan Bopanna from India burst onto the world stage in 2010 with their unconventional pairing, and showed the world that sport can help surmount political divides. Cases like this demonstrate the unique place sport holds in the world due to its ability to allow nations to put aside their disagreements and come together for a common interest, further emphasising why sports unites to a much greater extent than it divides.
Sport also has the potential to unite people in times of extreme chaos and violence. Even in the most tumultuous of circumstances, sport gives people from all sides a respite from the endless conflict and violence and allows combatants to see each other once again as human beings instead of merely enemies. This was most notably witnessed during the Christmas ceasefire of 1914 during World War One between British and German troops who laid down their weapons and came together for a game of football on the battlefield. This unexpected show of unity between men who at that point had been trying to kill each other for months is a clear example of the power of sport to bring communities together and give even the most hated of enemies a means of escape from the cycle of hatred that pervaded those times. In fact, the Olympic Truce can trace its origins to the 9th century, where Iphitos convinced other rulers to end any conflict for a week before and after the Olympic games in the spirit of sportsmanship and universal peace. The amazing unifying ability of sport to allow individuals to cast aside their differences and come together in the spirit of the games amplify the unique place sports occupy as an instrument for unification that is strong enough to bring people together even during the most divisive times in human history.
However, when passion for sport is taken too far, it can lead to an excessive and unhealthy rivalry amongst athletes and their fans which could have a divisive effect on the community instead. When passion is taken to extremes and transforms into unwarranted hatred and violence amongst rival fans and players, this can lead to an incredibly divisive and unstable atmosphere that could lead to hostility and even violence. This was unfortunately seen during the 2016 European Championships in France where rival fans took their sporting rivalries too far and engaged in violent brawls with opposing fans throughout the tournament leading to many being thrown behind bars and even more ending up in hospitals due to the mass violence and chaos that these confrontations caused. Instead of being a time for fans to come together over the spectacle that was supposed to be Euro 2016, the hyper-intensified passions and rivalries of these fans caused the tournament to be marred by violence and resulted in divisive sentiments amongst the different countries and their supporters, who pushed the blame to one another for the outbreak of the violence. Thus, when taken to excess, passion and rivalry in sport can transform into mass hysteria and violence, leading to the division of sporting communities as they begin to clash over their loyalties and overzealously express their support through violence.
Furthermore, when sport is exploited to push political agendas, it can be used as a tool to create divisive sentiments, which goes against the true spirit of sportsmanship. Despite many believing that sport and politics should remain at arm’s length from each other, political agendas and sentiment often creep into sport as governments sometimes see it as one of the easiest and most publicly visible avenues to drive ideas and agendas, some of which are detrimental to harmony. One example of this exploitation of sport can be seen through the recent denial of visas for two Pakistani shooters to enter India to participate in the shooting World Cup. This was attributed to India’s belief that Pakistan has not done enough to tackle the violent militias hiding within its borders. This fuels the international and domestic narratives that India is trying to champion, which is that Pakistan is a terror state and that it should not be trusted. This blatant use of sport as a political tool disregards the rights of athletes to free and fair competition. It also uses sport to push political agendas in a highly visible public setting, leading to the rise of division as these actions are debated and even championed by some in the public. When governing bodies go against the spirit of sport and use it for their own political gain, it can lead to greater divisions in society as the use of such a publicly visible medium often riles up support for these actions and in turn causes people to see these divisive acts as justifiable and necessary.
Ultimately, sport on its own is designed to unite communities through the shared values and interests associated with sport. Sport allows individuals to grow and learn together, giving people an avenue to interact while leaving all preconceived notions and animosities at the door, allowing them to see past their differences and bond as human beings with the same shared interests. However, if the competitive nature of sport is taken too far without restraint, or if sport is used as a means to a political end in particular, we detract from the inclusive nature of sport, and inadvertently promote divisive violence and animosity throughout society. Thus, despite the fact that sport does unite much more than it divides, if left unchecked and allowed to continuously be exploited, sport could become one of the greatest tools to divide communities around the world.