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Don't take it politically: It's just a game

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August 30, 2004 by Christina Lee

Recently, I watched a documentary that was aired on SBS called The Forbidden Team ( dir. Rasmus Dinesen and Arnold Krøigaard, 2003). It is a touching story that follows Tibet's national soccer team — comprised of mainly exiled citizens — as they travel to Denmark to play their first-ever match against Greenland. The documentary accentuates the disparities between cultures, economies and geography.

When the Tibetans first set foot on a local football field in Denmark, they are overcome by this 'paradise'. It is a world away from their muddy, dirt pitch in India that also doubled as a major thoroughfare for livestock and pedestrians. It is an emotional journey for the Tibetans — filled with hope, joy, frustration and disappointment. Throughout the narrative, constant bureaucratic obstacles — in the form of the Chinese government and FIFA — threaten to stop the game from taking place at all.

The Tibetan team does reach Denmark. They do compete against Greenland. And they lose. By the end of the film however, the audience is so relieved that the Tibetans reached their destination that the final score is largely irrelevant. It is a rousing conclusion as the Tibetans cheer and shed tears of thankfulness for the opportunity. The packed bleachers are teeming with supporters waving the national flag of Tibet. It is clear that the Greenlandic team was not the only victor that day.

I am reminded of something the optimistic Tibetan manager, Karma Ngodup, said at one point in the documentary. When red tape matters endangered the match from occurring before the team had even boarded the airplane, he broke down in tearful frustration. He could not comprehend why the authorities were so adamant to forbid the soccer match. After all, they only wanted to play a game — not start a war.

Now that the Olympics are upon us, the words of Karma Ngodup are stirred up again in my head. While the players on the field may play for the passion of the game, the adrenaline of the experience, the camaraderie — sports is rarely 'just a game'. No matter how innocent or steeped in goodwill and peace the sentiments of players are, they cannot escape the socio-political milieu in which they emerge from. Sports is politics in play. As the directors of The Forbidden Team Rasmus Dinesen and Arnold Krøigaard commented in an interview:

"It meant everything for Tibet to play that game — to hear their national anthem, to see all the Tibetan flags at the arena and feel the national identity that comes from playing for your country in a national kit… It means something not to feel lonely; it means something to have your own country": "Interview with Rasmus Dinesen and Arnold Krøigaard", Global Game, 28 June, 2004.

A sense of belonging and identity share characteristics with nationalism, but they are not conflatable. There is nothing inherently 'wrong' with having a national identity. As Dinesen and Krøigaard's poignant statements elucidate, it means "something to have your own country". Citizenship anchors a sense of self, acceptance and legitimacy. Exiled persons without a country are like individuals without a name. This denies them sovereignty and authority — not only over others, but more significantly over their own selves. When FIFA and the Chinese government refused to recognise the soccer match as valid, the blurred lines between politics and sports became even more evident.

The sporting arena has become a symbolic space where identity — personal, provincial and national — is forged and acknowledged. The battlefield is swapped for a swimming pool or a rubber mat. Bullets and angry fists are exchanged for the 'disciplined rules' of the game. Disputes are manifested at the level of (reasonable) 'civility'. Resolutions — at a symbolic level — can be achieved. For instance, the Olympic Truce was unanimously adopted by the 48th Session of the UN General Assembly and observed at the 17th Olympic Winter Games in Lillehammer in 1993: International Olympic Committee. The Olympic Games: Fundamentals and Ceremonies. International Olympic Committee, 2000. p. 19. It was the first in modern history to resurrect a tradition of the Ancient Olympic Games in which a holy truce was declared between Greek cities two months before the Games commenced. It provided safe passage for athletes travelling to and from Olympia and during the Games. This 'peaceful event' was evidenced by the fact that Olympia was the only Greek city that did not construct walls around the metropolis to protect itself from enemies: International Olympic Committee, The Olympic Games: Fundamentals and Ceremonies, 2000. p. 20.

The ethos of the armistice was echoed by the forefather of the modern Olympic Movement Pierre de Coubertin in 1919, who envisioned "Olympism as the holder and distributor of social peace, this will be the final rung to climb": Pierre de Coubertin. "Selected Writings, Vol. II. p. 396, 1919", cited in The Olympic Games: Fundamentals and Ceremonies. International Olympic Committee, 2000. p. 16. Only in this arena could North and South Korea be unified as was seen at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. During the parade of the athletes, both marched under the banner of a single Korea. The delegation had dual flag bearers and team members clasped hands which they held high in the air. Of course after the Olympics ended, the boundaries between north and south were re-erected — although they were never really taken down in the first place. The effect was short-lived. It was paradoxical, however not an empty gesture. My point is that sports has the capacity for social change. The ceasefire may only be momentary — but it is nonetheless significant.

Only in Utopia could sports ever be apolitical. Here, boundaries do not exist. Communities do not fight over resources but share them with a sincere desire for global harmony and equality. In this ideal world, athletes do not compete for 'million dollar bonuses' and lucrative contracts — but for the love of the spiritual transcendence that physical activity enables, and for their fellow human beings. 'Governments' do not (ab)use individuals as commodities to be shamelessly paraded. Such hypothetical situations appear fruitless propositions — but they do provide pragmatic approaches to the way sports could (and should) be conducted.

The current sporting culture of heroic myth-making is complicit in the continuation of what David Rowe and Geoffrey Lawrence refer to as "ideologies of dominance": David Rowe and Geoffrey Lawrence. "Beyond national sport: sociology, history and postmodernity", Sporting Traditions, Vol 12 (2), May 1996. p. 4. It is embedded in the relationship between the troika of nation-state, economy and culture. When a game is no longer simply about power, national supremacy, selfish political gains and the need to win at all costs — that is where we will see the full potential of the human spirit that sports is capable of bringing out. The example set by the Tibetan soccer team proved that this is not just an altruistic fantasy — but very possible. Although they lacked the luxuries of a professional field to practice on and multi-million dollar sponsorship deals — they were way ahead of the game.