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September 18, 2017 | by  | in Features |
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Sport and Politics

The influential Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz famously observed that war is “a continuation of politics by any other means.” It is an equally compelling idea that competitive sport is a form of substitute warfare which allows groups to compete and savour victory without any meaningful risk. This creates a syllogism: if politics is a substitute for war, and sport is a substitute for war, then what’s the connection between politics and sport?

This year, I have found two new obsessions — New Zealand politics and professional ice hockey — and anyone (un)lucky enough to find themselves in an extended conversation with me will find that the topic will eventually steer towards one or the other. At first glance these things may seem to have nothing in common — what are the similarities between ten overpaid men chasing a rubber disc every other night and the real-life issues of poverty, homelessness, and the economy?

This year’s election, and each one before it, has been described as being a “contest” or “race” to a point that goes beyond cliché. Remember National’s now-slightly-infamous “Eminem ad”? Its key feature was a uniformly strong National-blue rowing team defeating a chaotic red/black/green rowing team. The message resounded well with the majority of voters who sided with National in the election, very likely because it played upon the idea that politics and sport are inextricably linked. The idea is simple: parties are rivals, with rivalling fanbases. Each undecided voter is a point to be scored. The media provides analysis and commentary that is often useful, but not always necessary. The list can go on.

Essentially, both politics and sport feature competition for a favourable evaluation. In politics, this evaluation comes from popular assent; in sport it is generally found on a scoreboard.

I deliberately made my definition of politics vague because, like sport, competition can occur at any level. Football, for example, does not maintain its global popularity solely through the World Cup and the Premier League; its appeal derives from how it can be played by almost anyone who wants to, in any space, with anything that can be kicked. Politics occurs any time a group has to make a decision, so every day people have the opportunity to act politically. In this regard, politics can be seen as the most widely-played sport in the world. While the vast majority of people will never write a letter to their MP, much less become one, this does not mean that they cannot argue for an idea (and thus be political) any less than a group of schoolkids can play soccer. Of course, there has to be a level of willingness to play, and the higher the level one plays at, the more resources and time are needed.

But at all levels, a favourable outcome can only come from the correct combination of strategy and star power.

No successful politician or sports team has ever entered a competition completely unprepared. A sound “game plan” is essential to any victory in either field. Both political and sports scientists have come to appreciate the role of statistics in understanding strategy, and raw data is just as appealing to amateur analysts. The fascination for batting averages and win/loss/draw ratios that sports fans can have is virtually identical to a political pundit’s love for poring over budget allocations and polling numbers.  

Harder to quantify, but no less important, is the concept of star power. As comforting as it is to reassure ourselves that both politics and sport rely on collective decision-making and teamwork, certain individuals have the ability to change the outcome of a given scenario.

In 2016, the Edmonton Oilers (an until-then consistently mediocre Canadian ice hockey team) gave their captaincy to a 19-year old player named Connor McDavid. McDavid is probably the foremost ice hockey player in the world — he hasn’t earned the nickname “McJesus” for nothing — and his influence meant that the Oilers started to win more plays and games than they lost. Now the Oilers are contenders to top the National Hockey League this season, almost entirely thanks to McDavid.

Comparisons can easily be drawn to Jacinda Ardern’s single-handed reversal of the Labour Party’s fortunes over the last few weeks. Irrespective of whether she is lipstick on the Labour pig (to borrow a controversial Morganism) or whether she simply made already good policies more appealing to the electorate, Labour’s spectacular rise can only be attributed to Ardern, just as the Oilers’ can only be attributed to McDavid.

While high-level politics and sport can to some extent be reduced to raw data, people initially care about them because of the issues and conflicts that provide connection on an emotional level.

Take the underdog story. It is often the case that those in power will spend vast resources to remain there, so a great degree of schadenfreude can be gained when they are usurped. The most recent America’s Cup was an example of this. According to the New Zealand media and wider public, the competition could be summed up as follows: Despite the zealous backing of the sixth richest man in the world, the sinister (and American to boot) Team Oracle was soundly thrashed by a team of plucky New Zealanders armed with nothing but bicycle pedals and no. 8 wire. Their victory was all the more sweet because of the supposed unlikeliness of it.

Now consider a certain Mr Trump. Two years ago a Trump presidency was something in the fever dreams of satirists, and yet despite the efforts of both the Republican and then the Democratic party to defeat his candidacy, despite the condemnation from the mainstream media and from every sane person alive at the time, we are here. If one compares that story to that of Emirates Team New Zealand, it becomes far easier to understand how affirmed Trump and his supporters feel in their cause. This is because they feel that they are underdogs who have overcome adversity. The feeling that brings Trump supporters to his rallies even after the presidency has been won is the same feeling that brought New Zealanders to the streets for the Team New Zealand victory parade.

It may seem odd — if not taboo, when one considers the true underdogs of the American political system — to think of the cartoonishly rich Republican Trump as an underdog. While it is true that his campaign spent marginally less money per vote than Clinton’s, and that the mainstream media were (rightly so) consistently critical of him, Trump still had millions of dollars to spend and the norms of white male America in his favour. But as the inexorable rise of Trump has presciently shown those of us who look on in horror, the facts don’t actually matter — only feelings do. The point is that both he and his supporters feel like underdogs, and this gives them validation and a sense of righteousness.

In a similar way, Team New Zealand also enjoyed vast amounts of government and corporate funding — the full name of the syndicate is Emirates Team New Zealand for millions of green-backed reasons. But like the millions of angry white voters who flocked to Trump, New Zealanders found a connection (on nationality instead of race) with “our” sailors, and celebrated triumph over exaggerated adversity.  

I go back to the earlier examples of Ardern and McDavid. While each is extraordinarily capable at what they do, in reality they are still small parts of much bigger movements. The individuals are performing alongside other players or candidates, and both the Edmonton Oilers and the New Zealand Labour Party have thousands of workers performing essential tasks that keep their organisations competitive. Despite this, these two individuals have allegedly redeemed their respective “teams” single-handedly, something which has earned them accolades and wider support for their organisations. Any way you look at it, people’s perceptions seem to matter more in both politics and sport than any reality.

The sole difference between sport and politics is method. While sport seeks to determine who is physically skilled, politics is (supposedly) concerned with whoever has the best ideas. It is comforting to think that they can thus be separated, that the high passions of sport will never interfere with politics, and likewise the ruthless ideologies of politics will never affect sport. But this is not, never was, and never will be the case. Ideas are only relevant when they are put into action in the physical world — Marxism was for academics until the Bolsheviks stormed the Tsar’s palace. Likewise, physical actions aren’t really meaningful if they don’t represent an idea — as Clausewitz pointed out, when nations fight each other they do so to carry out their political will.

Accordingly, it is virtually impossible to separate politics from sport. In 1981, those who supported the Springbok tour did so on the grounds that politics should be left out of sport. But toleration of its segregated team still equated to toleration of Apartheid. It was fitting that South Africa’s sporting isolation became as instrumental to the end of apartheid as the economic sanctions placed upon it.

So what does this tell us? While it may make politics more appealing for sports fans and vice versa, it’s hard to see much application for this argument. But if we accept that people think about politics in the same way they think about sports, it could make it easier to understand how one’s political opponents think, instead of being preoccupied with what they think. This could be the key to engaging — and winning over — those who have been lost to bigotry and hate.

Earlier this year, a North Korean ice-hockey team played for the first time in New Zealand. Did any of them look out of their team bus window and see a better life? Did anybody see their bus to be pleasantly surprised to see that North Koreans enjoy sport as much as any New Zealander? Could this be the difference between peace and war?

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