Are sports merely ritualized warfare, as so many have suggested? Is the competition, the winner-take-all nature of sports antithetical to the values of conflict resolution, peace and nonviolence? Is peace scholar Johan Galtung (2004) correct when he asserts, "Acceptability and sustainability are incompatible with having lost" (p. 12).
Generally, in terms of conflict, Galtung is clearly correct. Beating someone up or down is a surefire method of assuring they will be plotting their revenge, even if it takes them months. Or years. Or decades. Or generations. War's causal factors often include revaunche, the payback for some previous humiliation. Indeed, peace advocates urge victors to be generous in their peace accords if they would like to even further delay that day of vengeance. The temptation is to crush them so they cannot get back up, but that requires genocide. Anything less horrific guarantees a statistically faster resort to war again, and the case studies explored by Kegley and Raymond (1999) are a cogent illustration of that pattern. From the Napoleonic era through the wars of 1870 to World Wars I & II, the analysis shows the longer period before the next outbreak correlates to a rehabilitative rather than retributive set of peace terms.
Sports and politics offer possible substitutes for harmful conflict, if done well. As we see in the US now, that isn't happening with politics, a field of increasing incivility that has degenerated into mudslinging camps rather than debate opponents. We see Republicans not only hoping for economic failure and misery so they can blame Obama and his Ds, but they vote for policies that accelerate financial ruin and block recovery, just to spite their hated elected president. And Obama and the Democrats sell out fast to corporadoes out of abject fear of the power of massive corporate money. There is almost nothing gentlemanly left in politics. It is destructive conflict.
Are the Olympics the last best hope for healthy competition, for fair play and good sportspersonship? We see the contamination of the corporate hand in everything, distracting from the athleticism, and the athletes are as worried about their corporate sponsors as about anything else. This is a pity. And sports writers gloat about crushing or humiliating athletes from other nations, e.g. this excerpt from a Washington Post piece on the US women gymnasts' outstanding gold medal performance,:
This denigrating jingoism erodes the joy of the sport and guarantees hearts burning to crush the Americans next time--and also downgrades the performance of the US team, since the Post writer clearly describes the competition as awkward, bumbling, weak and pathetically easy to beat.This sort of insult will ensure that the losers go from passive to aggressive explosively as soon as possible.The Russians? They trembled and shook, they wilted and they cried, and one of them nearly landed on her head. “Pffft. Crash,” said Karolyi, who was in the audience to watch his wife Martha coach this one.There were pretty moments from other countries — little bits of wavy-armed elegance from the Chinese and Romanians — but in the end, they all slid or blundered or fell off something. Meantime, the Americans were (standing) on their apparatus.
As we learn the costs of incivility we might choose to make transformative conflict more likely by incorporating appreciation for others. This may seem unnatural at first (I'm certainly struggling with Republicans!), but it will enable a better and more sustainable outcome every time. Give sustainable relationships a sporting chance.
Galtung, J. (2004). Transcend and transform: An introduction to conflict work. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.
Kegley, Jr., Charles W. & Raymond, Gregory A. (1999). How nations make peace. New York: St. Martin’s/Worth.