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Member Insights: “Sport’s growing social and political presence in turbulent times”

September 20, 2023

Sport is changing and holding up a mirror to our world as a catalyst for reflection and change in profoundly uncertain times. Michael Pirrie looks at sport’s growing social and political presence in turbulent times.

Sport has become increasingly important post pandemic in our personal and national lives, and life of the planet.

More people seem to be spending more on sports tickets and merchandise, and more time on-line and on screens and at sporting events.

Like a giant television monitor, sport is also providing a spotlight into areas of society that need attention beyond playing fields and facilities.

Major international sporting occasions have  become global gatherings and meeting places to consider post pandemic issues impacting on society and on the future of sporting events themselves.

These include Russia’s genocidal war on Ukraine, climate change, disability sport and inclusion, major event costs and gender relations. 

The infamous Rubiales kiss has sparked an unprecedented restraining order and revolution in sport. 

The impact of the unwanted kiss has been felt around the world, sparking a global conversation about the safety and protection of women and young girls in sport.

This has also involved the recent sentencing in France of a tennis coach to 18 years in prison for the rapes of minors between 12 and 17 years of age. One victim admitted: “I thought several times about committing suicide.”   

Sport is moving in new directions post pandemic. 

While Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has scorched the international landscape, sporting federations, event organisers and governing bodies have taken decisive, unprecedented action.

Bans on Russian and Belarusian athletes at some of this year’s biggest major events, including the FIFA Women’s World Cup and World Athletics Championships, have provided important support for the international community and sanctions strategy.

The sports bans have helped isolate Russia on the world sports stage, which Putin craves to project his nation’s image and power.

While the Kremlin continues to pressure the IOC to allow its athletes to compete at the Paris Olympic Games, despite enormous international opposition, a final decision is anxiously awaited.  

Sport has become woven increasingly into the social, political and diplomatic fabric of global society since the turn of the century and 9/11 terrorist attacks.

I vividly remember the late, visionary UK Secretary of State and Olympics Minister, Dame Tessa Jowell, telling me how she convinced Chancellor Gordon Brown to back the London 2012 Olympics by explaining how the Games would help the Blair Government to deliver on key election manifesto promises.

Tessa highlighted how the London Games and its legacies would help progess key priorities on the government’s national agenda.   

“…things like affordable housing, better health, regional development, better inclusion, urban regeneration, and employment…” she said.

Sport is also helping to spotlight some of the great tragedies of these turbulent times. 

News of the deaths of some of Libya’s elite footballers in the recent cataclysmic floods helped to highlight the biblical scale of the catastrophe, enormous suffering, and urgency of aid.  

Sport captures and holds our imagination, pushing the boundaries of possibility, like space exploration, in new directions.

Like Sir Roger Bannister did with the first sub four-minute mile that shattered a supposedly unbreakable time barrier – sport’s original moon landing, long regarded as improbable if not impossible.

Sport also continues to grip our imagination in turbulent times – like training in a freezer for a polar run, as imagined by an ultramarathoner.

Assistant Professor Donna Urquhart, from Australia, is preparing to set a Guinness World Record for longest polar ultramarathon. 

To acclimatise to the Antarctic conditions, the coldest place on earth, she trains on a treadmill inside a portable cold storage container designed for frozen food and vaccines. 

Sport’s impact on wider society in these uncertain times is still involves events and developments linked to playing fields and competition but is not left there.

Sport’s influence can extend from the personal to the political and could even shape the future direction of a powerful sporting nation. 

This could include changing of a constitution. 

A coalition of Australia’s leading sporting bodies, codes and champions have united in support of amending the constitution to better meet the needs and priorities of First Nations people.

These include several of Australia’s most beloved world and Olympic champions, such as 400 metres gold medal sprinter Cathy Freeman, and former Wimbledon champion Ash Barty.

A video to promote the change, which must pass a national referendum, includes some of Australia’s most cherished sporting moments, including the America’s Cup win and Freeman’s famous victory at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, the most watched event in the country’s television history.    

The change will enable the establishment of a voice to parliament to advise on disadvantages faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

The coalition of support for change at this constitutional level from leading indigenous and non-indigenous athletes and national sporting bodies is unique.

It includes Tennis Australia, Football Australia, Netball Australia, Motorsport Australia, the Australian Olympic Committee and the Brisbane 2032 Olympic Games Organising Committee. 

In a telling sign of the times, rallies against the Indigenous Voice to parliament are reportedly being planned around the country this weekend by a pro-Putin-Kremlin activist living in the Russian consulate in Sydney.   

As well as uniting communities in troubling times, sport can also be used to conceal harrowing political, social and cultural crimes and conditions. 

Multi-award winning US sports journalist Christine Brennan, said comments by former LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman constituted “one of the most reprehensible sentences ever heard in the world of sports.” 

Brennan was referring to Norman’s comment that “We’ve all made mistakes,” in relation to a question about the brutal murder of Washington Post columnist and Saudi critic, Jamal Khashoggi, by agents of the Saudi regime, LIV’s financial backers. 

The Saudi funded breakaway golf tournament was widely condemned as an attempt to cleanse its blood stained history of human rights violations by sport washing. 

Sport’s influence has been increasing as sport grows.

With an estimated 33% of the world’s population reported as regularly participating in some type of sports activity, the world is increasingly engaged with sport.

As sport becomes more integrated into the community and across society, its influence is also increasing. 

The sport industry’s revenue in 2022 was estimated at nearly $487 billion, while growth projections indicate the global sports market may be worth over $623 billion by 2027. 

Football prevails at the apex of the sport pyramid.  Few can rival football as the Everest summit of sport.

Football remains the world’s dominant spectator sport and the most played sport, from grassroots up. 

In the last global census undertaken by FIFA, it was estimated that there were about 265 million people who play the sport along with approximately 5 million referees.

Badminton, Field Hockey, Volleyball, Basketball, Tennis, Cricket, Table Tennis, Baseball and Golf, usually round out the most recent surveys of the world’s top 10 most participated sports. 

While sport is expanding in social and political influence, moments of hope and of personal and national belief will remain sport cornerstones.

Moments like Jonny Wilkinson’s perfect drop goal that won the 2003 Rugby World Cup for England.

Moments like the Fijian men’s national rugby team catching a small seafood cargo delivery plane to the Tokyo Olympic Games during Covid to successfully defend its gold medal.    

Sport can’t solve the world’s troubles, but it can point to what’s important – the humanity and spirit of sport.   

Like a young boy who gave a detailed kick by kick verbal description of a football game to his friend, who was blind due to brain cancer, after commentary on the radio the boy was using to visualise the game suddenly broke down during a vital end of season match.

Or the heart break of a father mourning the loss of two young sons in a house fire, grief stricken that he had not been able to take the boys to their first football match.     

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