Sport and the State

Since the end of the nineteenth century the dynamics of the sport–state relationship are best understood by taking into account (1) the dramatic growth of sport relative to other forms of physical activity (gymnastics, traditional games, etc.) and (2) socially significant changes in the operation and status of the state.

Sport is a competitive form of physical activity, codified to ensure equal opportunities of victory to competitors and guarantee physical security in contests. This mode of physical game, a unique feature of industrial and parliamentary societies, emerged first in England during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Elias & Dunning 1986). Between 1880 and 1900 it had become common in western industrial societies and territories controlled by the British Empire (Mangan 1985) and it became worldwide after the era of decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s.

The British state, under which modern sport was invented, was also the first to adopt a parliamentary form of government. As these developments occurred, British society also was characterized by relatively stable internal social relationships (i.e., during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries). However, as organized forms of competitive sports spread during the twentieth century, they were appropriated and incorporated into diverse social formations and different state structures, including those that were socialist, fascist, corporatist, liberal, etc. These recent historical developments raise a series of questions about sport and the state. Through what processes did states acquire power over sports (Harvey et al. 1993)? What functions were fulfilled by sports in different political systems? How are institutionalized forms of sports shaped and developed as autonomous activities in different types of states? What relations are formed between institutionalized versions of sports and public powers?

Scholars in the social sciences have raised these questions only since the 1960s. Although research on the state is common among scholars in political philosophy, law, sociology, and political science, is has only recently been undertaken by scholars in the sociology of sport. There have been English, French, and German speaking scholars with interests in political economy and the sociology of sport who have published research and theoretical essays on the relationship between sporting institutions and the state. This work varies with the underlying conception of the state used by scholars. Some have employed a Marxist or neo Marxist definition of the state and focused attention on the nature of the state, domination by the bourgeois classes (employers, capitalist class, leisure class), and the role of class power in the reproduction of the social order in general and institutionalized forms of sport in particular. This approach is structural and theoretical. Other scholars have done empirical analyses of the state, including its agencies and policies related to sport. They have provided sociohistorical accounts of the making and transformation of the contemporary state through the twentieth century (Houlihan 1991; Calle`de 2000). They have focused on nationalism, imperialism, and the form of the nineteenth century state, and then on the forms of the state that emerged in connection with advanced capitalism and the formation of public welfare policies during the twentieth century. Less functionalist than Marxist analyses, these studies have revealed a less monolithic state and produced typologies of state forms.

Among sociological traditions that deal with relations between sport and the state, only figurational theory produces specific insights on the making of the modern state and the place of sport in this process (Elias & Dunning 1986). The civilizing process that occurred during the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries in Western Europe assumed an associated process of state formation and the state’s monopoly over the exercise of legitimate violence. Norbert Elias’s analysis of the civilizing process in eighteenth century England shows that the English inner political space was pacified through a civilizing spurt, in which political elites agreed to challenge each other for access to governmental offices by using non violent strategies. Two factions of the upper classes struggled to gain power through the use of rhetoric and persuasion in a parliamentary system, rather than using coercive force. At the same time, political elites transformed their pastimes into sports, that is, into rule governed competitive games in which opponents, regulated by the norms of civility, compete for victory without destroying each other. Elias uses historical data to show that the quest for domination in the realm of the state and on playing fields is grounded in a competitive disposition shared by those elites attracted to both political involvement and sporting activity. This theory also takes into account that as social space has divided into separate spheres through the twentieth century, it has broken the direct class based links between political activity and sporting practice. Chris Rojek addressed this divergence and proposed a complementary analysis to the work done by Elias and Elias and Dunning (Dunning & Rojek 1992).

Scholars using forms of critical theory have studied the growing involvement of political bodies in capitalist and socialist industrial nations/states in sport since the beginning of the Cold War. The sociology of culture and political sociology have been used as frameworks for developing explanations of the ways that government involvement have influenced sport ing practices and the development of elite level sport in the USSR, the US, Japan, and Europe. A ‘‘pluralist’’ sociological model is employed by some political scientists who analyze diverse management methods across the nations, and the social functions that sport fulfills for contemporary political powers (Meynaud 1966).

Work based on a Marxist model defines the state as an apparatus dominated by the bourgeoisie, whose control is gained through a struggle among different groups competing for power (hegemony theory). This work shows the ways that sport fits into state policies, market mechanisms, and commercial entertainment regulated by the state (Cantelon & Gruneau 1983; Hargreaves 1986). It highlights the similarity between the sport related values of physical efficiency and competition, and capitalist norms of productivity and economic competition, all of which are fostered by the state (Brohm 1978). Much of this work is conceptually limited, but it has pointed out the contradictions between (1) the development of a sporting culture which attracts popular classes (soccer in Europe, football in the US, hockey in Canada), (2) the domination of bourgeois values in the sporting ethic and the control exercised by dominant classes over sport organizations, (3) the state, and (4) the corporations that sponsor sport.

In England and North America, hegemony theorists, inspired by Gramsci, and sociologists using cultural studies frameworks, have studied the ways that the working classes construct and interpret sporting practices according to their ideological and material interests. Similar work has been done by sociologists analyzing the sporting field and habitus; they identify the historical circumstances in which members of lower classes have succeeded in using the symbolism of sport to support protest and opposition to dominant economic and political norms. The state usually assists mainstream sport organizations in condemning protesters and marginalizing grassroots sport forms. However, in the US, for example, there have been cases of collective protests, such as those by African Americans in the 1960s and women in the 1970s, when the state enacted legislation to make discrimination by race and sex illegal in sports (e.g., in 1972, Title IX of the Equal Education Amendments to the Civil Rights Act made discrimination by sex illegal in schools receiving federal funds).

When scholars have analyzed sport and its functions in international political relationships they have focused on the ways that the state promotes or restricts international sporting relationships. They examine the autonomy of sporting powers and the degree of politicization in the sphere of sport. This work has examined foreign affairs and diplomacy, but has ignored other aspects of relations between sport and the state.

The material support given by the state to sport, mostly during the 1960s, enhanced the legitimacy of sport in many societies. As a result, sport and sport related values were introduced into the school curriculum in several European countries and Canadian provinces such as Quebec. The sociology of education and culture, therefore, has focused some attention on the conditions under which a bond is established between the state and sports organizations in order to impose a sporting culture in school. Some research has tried to identify the ways that state agencies are influenced by sport related lobbying interests that work in and through committees for school reform, with representatives of sport industries, or under the leadership of coaches’ associations and elected representatives. The receptiveness of public officials to sporting interests indicates a spurt of ‘‘sportization’’ in connection with the state. Conversely, the situation in some countries shows state interference in sport in the form of government control and a corresponding lack of autonomy in the sporting field. This was the case in the USSR with the socialist sporting system (Riordan 1977), in the Fascist regime in Italy and Germany in the 1930s, and it is still the case in nations with authoritarian regimes and military dictators (e. g., some African nations and Western Asian kingdoms). Partial forms of government control exist in strongly centralized democracies like France, where the state manages sporting centers (e.g., the National Sporting Center in Paris established in 1942), creates state guaranteed diplomas (state certificate for sporting educators established in 1962), and employs and finances technical staff in sporting federations, among other things.

In the US there is another type of articulation between the (federal) state and the sporting field dominated by men’s professional leagues (such as the National Football League and Major League Baseball). Until the 1960s, the state seldom intervened in sports, except when a dispute between officials or other parties threatened the system, or when a scandal or unsavory events occurred and received public attention. The state then played a regulatory role in reconciling conflicting interests and providing equal opportunity to practice sports; it also mediated conflicts that interfered with winning medals in international competitions such as the Olympic Games. When the economic stakes associated with sports increased dramatically during the 1960s and 1970s, and when a dispute subverted the process of selecting athletes for national teams, the federal government intervened and restructured the organization of amateur sports. Like other states, the US government has influenced sports through its economic and fiscal policies (Johnson & Frey 1985).

Studies on sport and the state increased through the 1970s and early 1980s, when public sports policies reached their peak. They decreased afterwards, when neoliberal policies reduced state interventions in all social and cultural domains, including sport. At that point, research in the sociology of sport began to focus on the professionalization and commodification of sport, and other issues in which public policies do not play a major role.

The revival of state theory in political science served as an incentive for research based on Marxism during the 1960s, and research focusing on welfare policies as state funded social programs were reduced during the 1980s. Functions of the state, as a normalizing, regulating, and repressive agent, were reexamined during the 1990s and 2000s.

The concepts used to study the state have come from the political sciences, history, and the sociology of social relationships and conflicts. Although scholars need to clarify concepts such as ‘‘the state,’’ (sporting) ‘‘ideology,’’ ‘‘public policy,’’ and ‘‘domination,’’ they have used the theories of Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Elias, Giddens, and Bourdieu in their research on sport and the state. Some research has helped us understand details in decision making processes and the financing of sport, but many questions remain unanswered. A clear definition of a frame of analysis for the ‘‘world of sports,’’ conceived as precisely as the models of the state, would permit the development of a more coherent body of research, as it is proposed by the theory of ‘‘fields,’’ borrowed from Pierre Boudieu (Defrance 1995). Comparative studies are needed to explain the relationships between sport and various state forms, such as those organized around religious power, those established alongside a strong industrial capitalist sector, those that have been militarized for a long time, and others.

Questions related to the culture of the state personnel (qualified occupations in public administration) and their perception of sport should be examined to understand the public administration of sport, as well as when and where it prevails over private administration. The specific transformations of the neoliberal state since the 1980s form a new topic in the analysis of sports policies. During this period, the issue of controlling sport doping practices has become a topic that enables scholars to study alliances and oppositions between public and private powers in the governance of contemporary sports.


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  2. Callede, J. P. (2000) Les Politiques sportives en France: elements de sociologie historique. Economica, Paris.
  3. Cantelon, H. & Gruneau, R. (Eds.) (1983) Sport, Culture and the Modern State. University of Toronto Press, Toronto.
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  8. Harvey, J., Defrance, J., & Beamish, R. (1993) Physical Exercise Policy and the Welfare State: A Framework for Comparative Analysis. International Review for the Sociology of Sport 28(1): 53-64.
  9. Houlihan, B. (1991) The Government and Politics of Sport. Routledge, London.
  10. Johnson, A. T. & Frey, J. H. (Eds.) (1985) Government and Sports. Rowman & Allanheld, Totowa, NJ.
  11. Mangan, J. A. (1985) The Games Ethic and Imperial ism: Aspects of the Diffusion of an Idea. Viking, New York.
  12. Meynaud, J. (1966) Sport et politique. Payot, Paris.
  13. Riordan, J. (1977) Sport in Soviet Society. Blackwell, Oxford.

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