publisher colophon
  • Sports and Collective Identity:The Effects of Athletics on National Unity

Sports are a formidable force for good at the national level, positively contributing to the formation of national identity. They also engender national unity and are an important mechanism of foreign policy, as they offer a unique arena through which diplomatic relations may be pursued. International sporting competitions like the Olympics and the World Cup bring together dignitaries, athletes, heads of state, and other national representatives, creating a forum that assists in the development of understanding and cooperation. Thus, despite evidence of their globalization, sports continue to retain an important national core that can act as a channel of soft power. Through the sports medium, underserved nations across the world create for themselves an identity and a voice, enabling them to be heard on the international stage.

For many countries, sports are a major component of national identity. Often, these countries are defined as much by their sporting pursuits as they are by their politics, economy, and geography. National sports act as a common thread, woven through society to connect citizens to one another. Such sports vary from nation to nation; in Canada, hockey is king. New Zealanders relish rugby, while India's most widely followed sport is cricket. In China, table tennis is a significant part of the national fabric. American football fervor is ubiquitous in the United States, and, while soccer is prevalent worldwide, every nation exhibits its own distinct iteration of the game.

World leaders recognize the importance of sports, both as an element of their nations' cultures and as a tool for diplomacy. Heads of state often utilize international sporting events as an opportunity to represent their country. The 2010 World Cup final alone, held in South Africa, was attended by at least fifteen heads of state, including delegations from all over Africa.1 German Chancellor Angela Merkel and South African President Jacob Zuma also attended. The Opening Ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver drew similar numbers of dignitaries, including U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Prime Minister Jan Fischer of the Czech Republic, Prince Albert II of [End Page 39] Monaco, and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.2 For these leaders, major sporting events serve as an opportunity to reach out to their peers in a slightly informal and relaxed setting.

Sports diplomacy is used regularly to overcome significant differences between nations. One of the most prominent examples of this was the famed "ping pong diplomacy" campaign of the 1970s, which saw the exchange of table tennis players between China and the United States. U.S. President Richard Nixon used this event to induce further openness in U.S.-China relations. Sports diplomacy continues to be prominent today, as was evidenced during the 2008 qualifying rounds for the 2010 World Cup. One of the matches pitted Armenia against Turkey and, in order to mitigate tensions between the two nations which harkened back to the 1915 Armenian genocide perpetrated by Turkey, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and Turkish President Abdullah Gül sat together and shook hands as an expression of goodwill and friendship.3

At the country level, sports present a foundation upon which national unity can be built. They are especially important in deeply divided or war torn nations, where they can offer a much needed respite from conflict and a common ground from which to begin reconciliation. Pakistani Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani recognized this fact on November 11, 2010, when he referred to sports as "vital to the promotion of national unity."4 There are a multitude of instances in the last two decades alone in which nations have rallied around sports as a unifying factor. For example:

  • • Following the collapse of apartheid and the subsequent election of Nelson Mandela as South Africa's first black president in 1994, racial tensions continued to permeate the nation, threatening to plunge it into civil war. While the black majority generally played and watched soccer, the white Afrikaner minority supported the Springboks, South Africa's rugby team. To black, Indian, and colored South Africans who suffered under apartheid, the Springboks were a symbol of hatred and oppression.

  • • South Africa was scheduled to host the 1995 Rugby World Cup, but the country was apprehensive. In order to ease tensions, President Mandela reached out to white Springboks captain François Pienaar, expressing his support for the team. This encouraged the black population to also cheer for the Springboks, who reached the World Cup Finals against the heavily favored New Zealand All Blacks. With the support of an entire nation behind them, South Africa prevailed. In a final moment of unity and pride, Mandela, clad in a Springboks hat and jersey, presented Pienaar with the championship trophy in front of a worldwide television audience, symbolizing racial harmony and the "rainbow nation" concept embraced and promoted widely by Mandela.

  • • Sub-Saharan Africa is home to many talented international soccer players, many of whom are genuine stars in the world's best leagues. Michael Essien (Ghana), Frédéric Kanouté (Mali), Samuel Eto'o (Cameroon), and Emmanuel Adebayor (Togo), some of the most well-known and accomplished players in the world, all hail from the region. Arguably none of these players, however, has done as much for their home nation as Didier Drogba has done for Cote d'Ivoire. [End Page 40]

  • • In 2005, as civil war raged in Cote d'Ivoire, Drogba led the Ivoirian national soccer team through World Cup qualifying matches in Germany. In November, Cote d'Ivoire emerged atop its qualifying group, earning a spot in the 2006 World Cup. Following the match, as Ivoirian soccer fans danced and celebrated throughout the nation, Drogba, via a live television feed, beseeched his countrymen to lay down their arms and work toward peace.5 The warring factions heeded his plea, initiating a peace process that culminated in the 2007 Ouagadougou Accords and a tenuous coalition between the opposing groups.

  • • Under the dictatorial rule of Saddam Hussein, Iraqi sports teams were expected to conquer all foes. If the teams failed to fulfill this objective, they were often subject to shame and torture at the hands of Saddam's son, Uday. Widely reputed to be one of the most brutal and vicious members of the Iraqi administration, Uday was the head of the Iraqi Olympic Committee. He carried out his role by disciplining athletes whom he deemed to be unsuccessful. Common punishments included being flogged, having one's head and eyebrows shaved, and being dragged through gravel pits.6 For the soccer team, Uday reserved a special treatment; following losses, he and his henchmen would cane the soles of the team's feet, breaking bones and leaving indelible physical and mental scars.

  • • After Saddam and Uday were removed from power, the Iraqi soccer team formed again. They entered the 2007 Asian Cup with low expectations. However, having emerged from under the shadow of Uday and Saddam Hussein, the team played well and reached the finals, where it defeated Saudi Arabia to earn the Asian Cup title. Iraqis rejoiced in the streets of Baghdad, celebrating a huge and unexpected victory for Iraq.

While sports today are undoubtedly following current trends toward globalization, they continue to also remain exceptionally important at the national level. The contributions of sports to identity formation, national union building, and diplomatic efforts cannot be overlooked. By offering unique opportunities at success and giving small, poor, and undeveloped nations a chance to equal themselves to larger powers, sports are an integral part of every nation's character.

Kari L. Jaksa

Kari L. Jaksa is an M.A. candidate in International Economics and African Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.


1. "15 African Heads of State to grace World Cup finale," BuaNews, Afronline: The Voice Of Africa, July 8, 2010.

2. Doug Ward, "Vice President Biden slated to attend Opening Ceremony," Vancouver Sun, February 3, 2010.

3. Tony Halpin Yerevan, "Turkey and Armenia start to mend old enmities via World Cup football match," The Sunday Times, September 7, 2008.

4. "Sports central to promotion of national unity and soft image: Prime Minister," World Tribune Pakistan, November 11, 2010.

5. Alex Hayes, "Didier Drogba brings peace to the Ivory Coast," The Telegraph, August 8, 2007.

6. Don Yaegar, "Son of Saddam," Sports Illustrated, March 24, 2003. [End Page 41]

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.