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Throughout much of history contestations between nations have historically been expressed through violence and war and out of these conflicts, societies have created their own national identities which have helped shape and cement beliefs throughout much of history, however with the formation of the ‘self’ (Perry, 1943.) in what can be called modern society, there has been a greater focus on not only the identity of a collection of people but the identity of the individual. Sporting and in particular, multi-national ‘mega-events’, have helped form these individual identities and have expressly allowed and emboldened a sense of national pride and belonging to those who have engaged even tangentially with these ‘mega-events’ (Elling et al, 2014.
). However these events are not without their faults and with such an extreme responsibility when it comes to the formation of identity and nationhood for many of its spectators, there is a potential to create a possibly unauthentic experience which in turn could breed a misguided sense of identity (Jackson et al, 2005.
). Sporting events and the roles they fill in society are also an important tool when evaluating the general cultural status of a society and is critical in examining what a nation and more specifically what a subset of individuals both value and identify with.
When discussing sporting ‘mega-events’ the Olympic Games are the largest and most influential in the creation of identity and national character, the games themselves often draw audience ranging in the billions and are participated in by almost every nation on Earth (IOC, 2016.
). The modern Olympics are a far cry from the ancient games held in Olympia by the ancient Greek states in reverence to the King of Gods Zeus, the ancient games held a great religious significance to both those spectating and those participating, it being considered a great honour to represent the gods in the sporting arenas (Golden, 1948.). These ancient games were said to be highly focused on the elevation of the individual beyond the ‘self’ to a higher state of being in service to the Gods and although concepts of nationhood at the time were primitive to what is praxis today, they were put aside as they were deemed inferior to the theocratic beliefs that were the primary focus of the Games. The modern Games however serve a different ‘purpose’, often cited as the entertainment of the masses through international competition, the focus on the theological ascension of man has been lost to a more grounded sense of creating national identity through sporting aptitude (Steinbach, 2016.).
The modern Olympic Games are often grand in scale and take several years to organise and fund, with the past 3 Olympic Games each costing over 5 Billion Euros to organise (IOC, 2016.). With such vast sums of money, much of it funded by national government, each Game is often mired in controversy and protest with the latest Games, taking place in Rio de Janeiro, being at the centre of protest concerning the destruction of Favela settlements for what many cite was to appease international concerns about the security of the sporting tourists around such high crime areas and also the Zika Crisis which had been framed as a widely Brazilian problem (Weatherhead, 2016.). This controversy serves to highlight this essays first criticism of sporting ‘mega-events’ specifically aimed at the Olympic Games, that criticism being the homogeneity of the Games and the expectation placed on the nation hosting them that are often highly Westernised and more specially Europeanized (Price, 2009.). For example following the lead up to the 2008 Beijing Games, much of the Western media coverage of the Games was often highly negative with much criticism stemming from an anti-communist stance rather than any real criticisms about the organisation of the Games
(Askew, 2009.). This ideological clash between much of the West and China highlights the Western dominance over the content of the games and to what standard they are judged. The general homogeneity of the games can be easily visualised in the stadiums that host the sporting events, with an almost universal stylisation of steel, glass and rounded corners, these stadiums lack any national character or identity, they are merely vessels for events whose backdrops change every four years but actual content’ does not (Xuefei, 2009.). The games themselves are further westernised in their branding and sponsorship deals with various Western corporations such as Coca Cola and McDonalds who have been key advertising partners with the international Olympic Committee for several decades (IOC, 2016.). This corporatisation of such a key international event which has the ability to reshape and rebrand national identity, has been critiqued by many who claim that identity is no longer being formed out of the achievement of nations but rather sold and pre-packaged in a Happy Meal in increasingly corporatized public space (Weber-Newth, 2013.). There is great concern even outside of the international sporting sphere that there is a growing portion of society, namely the younger generations, who are identifying more with corporations and products than with any nation state or more precisely sporting team (Giardina and Donnelly, 2012.), this has the potential to be hugely damaging to the sporting industry as a whole where there is a possibility that in some point in the near future, Team GB or Team Japan may be replaced by Team Rolex and Team Coca Cola.
International Sporting events can be a window into how society at large identifies with nationhood and how this ‘nation hood’ is constructed and utilised by various different parties. Competition is the primary tool for creating national identity in respects to large scale sporting events, such as the Olympics, as it instils a sense of pride for the winning side and a sense of unity in loss for the losing side (Mangan, 1996.). National pride however has some very clear draw backs, the most obvious being the formation of an ‘us versus them’ mentality which can used to justify violence and general tension with others who belong to a different nation or team. This can be seen in a far smaller scale with what has been aptly dubbed ‘British football hooliganism’ where adherents to different football teams, even those that are very close geographically, will seek conflict with each other over issues relating to team pride (Mangan, 1996.). Space also plays a key role in how both individual and groups find identity within sport, many feel a strong sense of topophilia (Yi-Fu Tuan, 1972) when in places that are deemed to have significance to a particular team or player, for example this can be seen on a wider scale in terms of an entire nation state where supporters of a particular nation team In the Olympics will experience an increase in how they identify with a team when said team is competing on its ‘home territory’e.g the 2012 London Olympics. Territory is also displayed in a more specific spacial dimension in both the stadiums and surrounding venues with specific areas allocated for the different supporters and, far more spontaneously, in bars and other public spaces close to the sporting hubs (Bale, 1992.). Sporting competitors also experience this spacial segregation in spaces that are allocated for their temporary residence, the teams are segregated from each other in different zones often within what are called ‘sporting villages’ (Scherer, 2011.). Colour and imagery are both tools used to distinguish national teams from each other and often hold crucial significance to those adhering to specific teams (O’Mahony and Huggins, 2012.), many identify solely with the colours and symbols displayed rather than any deeper contextual meaning behind a team or nation, a key example of this can be found in the Irish teams use of the colour green which can often be found engulfing any space which is used by predominantly Irish supporters. The use of the colour green extends even beyond the sporting sphere in public holidays such as Saint Patricks day where the colour green can be found even in spaces where there is little to no ethnically Irish presence.
The media plays a crucial role in both the transmission of global sporting events to billions and also in shaping identities through their portrayal of the winners and losers of sporting ‘mega-events’. This therefore draws out a further critique that identities that individuals develop out of the consumption of media on sporting events can be misleading on wholly manipulative in service to some government or corporate agenda (Hundley and Billings, 2009.). It would seem that sporting as an alternative to conflict serves a similar purpose in giving citizens a sense of national identity and pride which can be utilised by those in power, the identity is however, not one which has been developed by the citizen themselves but rather one which has been purposely constructed to ensure loyalty and also equally serves as a suitable distraction from ‘everyday life’ (Billig, 1995.).
Commodification of identity has been observed within the sporting industry at large (Horne, 2005.), many items which bear national sporting significance, such as t-shirts and toys, are sold at high cost and are purposely limited to give said items a prestige and finiteness, which psychological studies have shown, makes the commodities highly desirable. This commodification ties strongly into notions of fandoms, being a fan of something or someone, indeed many within a sporting fandom may judge an individual’s devotion to a team or nationality simply by the commodities said individual owns, creating a contrast between what are dubbed ‘true-fans’ and the ‘other’ (Brown, 2002.). This contrast creates an outwardly hostile environment and can be strongly observed within football culture particularly in the UK, it is usually most pervasive among the older, more established ‘fans’ and can be cause for open hostility and even direct violence (Brown, 2002.). Fandoms and national identity could be seen in great detail at the UEFA Euro 2016 Championship which was held in France, the event itself was under close observation by the international community at large due to several previous high profile terrorist attacks that had taken place in France, most notably the November attacks in Paris in 2015 which left 130 dead, many feared that the large sporting event would be a target for international terrorist groups and so a great deal of concern was placed upon the events security (Rumsby, 2016.). The main footballing events themselves were preceded by swathes of violence by footballing hooliganism primarily from the English and Russian team supporters in Marseilles, the violence became so severe that the completion organiser UEFA threatened to disqualify both the English and Russian teams if their supporters continued the violence (Ough and Morgan, 2016.). This high profile display of violence in the name of national team identification further draws out criticisms that the identities being constructed through the use of international sporting events are wholly confrontational in manner, it has been argued by many that international sporting events should focus more on international cooperation rather than pitting one nation against another in the hopes of winning some arbitrary award.
Within the bounds of identity construction it is key to note that many across the world associate with sporting teams that are not of the same origin ethnicity as those who support them. This nationality driven disconnection presents several notable points about national identity at large, most notably the notion that a person can identify with a national sporting team and perhaps the nation itself despite not belong to said nation, what the individual can identify with may include notions of ethics and ideologies that are unique to that nation or most commonly simply taking pride in said nations sporting prowess (Cronin et al, 2005.). Spanish footballing teams such as Real Madrid and Barcelona are host to a great many fans from the across the world and this is primarily due to the excellence in the sport, this in itself draws conclusion that perhaps many seek to identify with what are perceived as the winners rather than identifying with something that may represent them more ‘truthfully’. The
brand of nation is also as transient as that of identity with many opting to further associate themselves with nationalities that are not their own for reasons usually associating with identity, familial heritage or once again nations that are deemed as winners within the sporting sphere. Corporations also play a crucial role in the rebranding of nation particularly in regards to westernising sport, when looking at events such as the Olympics and the World Cup it is interesting to note that a majority of the advertisements are from companies that originate from the West and are also often in English, the lingua franca of the western world (Price, 2009). This excludes those whose nationalities are not deemed to belong to the ‘west’ and instils a sense of dysphoria in one’s own national identity which can in turn create a personal crisis in which an individual no longer feels a connection to their nationality or heritage and instead rejects it for one which is deemed part of the homogenous west (Jackson and Andrews, 2005.).
Sporting events can be viewed as a parallel to the human experiences of identity both personal and national, it allows society to format their own ‘self’ based upon what is being displayed to them on the pitch or in the gymnasium and, with such a vast audience, are key in entertaining the masses. However the role that sporting ‘mega-event’ fulfils is one which can be easily corruptible and used for unintended purposes, the ‘self’ and identity that is on offer to those observing can be manipulated to serve some other means and the general competitive nature of sporting draws into question what sort of identity do we as society want others to create. Sporting was a historic past time aimed at unifying and entertaining communities but has since been changed into a multi-billion dollar industry which is both highly westernised and deeply flawed in its approach at creating identity for its spectators. Perhaps it is now time to examine the roots of sporting and critically evaluate what has so tragically gone wrong.
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