Anyone who knows me well would be reluctant to associate sports with me. Music, movies, and theatre: those are the domains which readily come to mind, but sports? The relationship is questionable to say the least. Indeed, I have always been insecure in my place in the athletic realm. At an early age I participated in the pre-school soccer league where I didn’t necessarily excel but didn’t completely flounder either. Throughout the early elementary school years I have many fond memories of pick-up football games with friends, after which we would finish off the evening playing Madden NFL 2005 — one of the most popular sports video games at the time. Yet once it became obvious that I had finally caught the “sports bug”, it seemed my friends suddenly surpassed me in ability (and not-so-coincidentally, height) and joined more serious programs outside of school. Frustrated and no longer able to relate to them in quite the same way, my love of sports, both spectating and playing, gradually faded as I immersed myself in other interests. It wasn’t the least bit shocking that I suddenly felt somewhat out of place or on my own since I was missing out on a valuable social opportunity. On the importance of after-school activities Fredericks and Simpkins (2013) write:
“Organized activities, such as sports and school clubs, are structured in a way that affords greater opportunities for peer interactions and developing friendships than traditional classroom contexts. In fact, some elements, such as size, school transitions, and teacher-directed pedagogies, can actually impede the development of peer relations in classroom- and school-based settings. Organized activities tend to be smaller and less structured than classroom-based settings, which give youth more opportunities to interact socially. In both school and community-based organized activity settings, peers of different ages and races can mix together in settings of relative equality around a common activity…Furthermore, in some types of organized activity contexts, children’s social relations are often directed towards solving a challenging problem.”
It wasn’t until high school, after an unsuccessful attempt to make the cross country running team, that I learned to appreciate the value of athletics for their own sake. Competing in 5k and 8k races held around town, there was something about the anonymity of not being judged by my peers that allowed me to participate (literally) at my own pace. Grouped by age range and estimated finish time, the competition narrowed and I pushed myself to earn those coveted medals — generic, cheaply made, and mass produced, but nonetheless cherished today. Still, I could not help but feel like the informality of these races (they were open to the general public and typically held for fundraising purposes) and the fact that I wasn’t part of a team meant that my enjoyment was limited since I had no friends with which to share it. Jumping ahead to today, I can’t say that my interest in sports ever truly returned to the place it was at seven and eight years old, but the experience of intramural softball at Oberlin this past year revealed the spark to still be there. Paired against teams of comparable ability, our victories were often hard fought and the losses were sour but the casual atmosphere meant that hard feelings were (almost) always left on the field. These memories act as a jumping-off point and speak to the personal context I approach the integration of friendship into sports (and vice versa) from, and upon reflection a number of questions were raised. Specifically the relationship between competition and teamwork is addressed, as are the benefits and drawbacks of individual versus opponent-oriented sports. Above all, the implications for personal development and group identity formation are highly significant, and a sports-oriented friendship metaphor proves to be particularly applicable to global politics and international peace-building.
Early into Alexander Nehamas’s seminal book On Friendship he points to Aristotle as one of the first philosophers to take the subject seriously. He writes:
“Aristotle has always been not only the inspiration of most of our philosophy of friendship but also of much of our common sense about it…On the whole, and to an extent unparalleled in a field that sometimes considers agreement a form of discourtesy, the philosophical tradition is overwhelmingly on Aristotle’s side, from whose discussion of philia — which is almost always translated as ‘friendship’ — it has inherited two central ideas. The first is that friendship is an unalloyed good, a flawless sort of love and one of life’s greatest pleasures, making every life in which friendship plays a part a better life than one without it…The second Aristotelian idea that philosophical thought about friendship has incorporated without any qualification is that the three kinds of philia that Aristotle distinguishes are three distinct kinds of friendship,” (Nehamas 11-13).
The three kinds distinguished by Aristotle (pleasure-based, utility-based, and virtue-based friendships) initially present a challenge when applied to sports. On the one hand, pleasure-based and utility-based friendships are most prevalent in sports. When enjoyed casually, they seem to always foster pleasure-based friendships as the goal of victory is a secondary priority; the competition is a channel through which friendships are formed, with each participant sharing in a deeply emotional, but ultimately unserious experience. On the professional level, utility-based friendships are dominant. The goal of victory is the chief priority for the team and its coaches, and group cohesion and harmony is encouraged to the extent that it improves performance. Off the field, it makes little difference if teammates become true friends, and these friendships may inevitably deteriorate when the impetus is gone.
The dominance of these two forms in sports could be problematic for Aristotle because he holds the third form, virtue-based friendships, in highest esteem. While pleasure-based friendships in sports have the potential to grow into virtue-based friendships, this is by no means the sole motivation behind their formation, and the friendship can be enjoyed regardless of one’s moral character. By this rubric, utility-based friendships fare even worse, since they are mostly limited to the game itself. The virtue of the players is not only irrelevant but sometimes even deliberately ignored, particularly when there is a monetary incentive by professional sports organizations to, for instance, keep players with troubling criminal histories because of their skill. The Aristotelian notion of friendship is more easily reconciled in sports when the friend is understood as “another self”. In soccer, the positions of the players differ (forward, midfielder, defender) but all must work together in a streamlined, coordinated way, passing the ball to one another and moving effortlessly down the field. Each player is like a cog in a well-oiled machine, essential and invaluable. In fact, in any team sport that requires passing, the goal of scoring points always matters more than who it was specifically that scored. Showmanship and theatricality still ensues, but the player who assisted in the touchdown, goal, or basket often celebrates alongside the player who actually scored (the wide receiver may celebrate a touchdown with the quarterback who threw the pass); thus both players share equally in responsibility and enjoy a mutual and equivalent bond.
But the “friend as another self” idea is even more relevant when applied more broadly to national and international sports competitions. It is not happenstance that the period in which Aristotle wrote his most important texts on friendship coincided with the ancient Olympic Games (Aristotle: 384 BCE— 322 BCE; Ancient Games: 776 BCE — 393 AD). From this concurrence, one gets the sense that Classical Greece was an environment that was especially conducive to friendship, extending to all facets of political and social life. Athletic competitions were certainly no exception, and the games were central to societal harmony, remembered as both a form of entertainment and a shared public good. Yet they served an even larger ideological purpose as well: held in honor of Zeus in Olympia, the games attracted athletes from all parts of the Hellenic world, from Iberia in the West to Anatolia in the East. While a shared artistic and intellectual heritage, religion, and political tradition united the far-flung city states, the games also played a key role in unification, reinforcing the civilization as something of a nation itself. Over a millennium later, the architects of the modern games had a similar goal in mind when they planned their revival following a particularly violent nineteenth century marked by wars and revolutions. The logic follows that if the ancient Greeks were able to unite the city-states peacefully through sport, expanding notions of civic pride for the citizens and promoting an early concept of nationhood, then the modern games could likewise unite modern nations and empires under the banner of global solidarity. Allen Guttmann writes on the philosophy of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the International Olympic Committee:
“Modern technology — steamships, railroads, the telegraph and the telephone — had begun to transform the world into a ‘global village,’ and thoughtful men and women began to shed some of the xenophobia that has always hindered the development of international cooperation. Travel may not broaden everyone, but it seems to have extended Coubertin’s horizons…He was still a patriotic Frenchman, and he remained one for all his long life, but he was no longer a chauvinist. He was increasingly drawn to the humanistic vision of a peaceful world. Sports were still the means, but the ends had been transformed,” (Guttmann 10-11).
In many ways, Coubertin was also responding to both the rise of physical education and the growing popularity of organized professional sports and effectively combined these elements to provide some structure to the games. In Germany, public school educators found it important that their students be physically and mentally healthy, although these programs had military motivations; they appealed to a patriotic vision of the German Volk after the invasion and occupation of much Germany by Napoleon I. Elsewhere, the popularity of English sports like soccer and rugby at this time were less motivated by political or nationalist tendencies, rather the expansion of games and competitions formerly enjoyed only by the wealthy upper classes meant that now anyone could participate if skilled enough. (Interestingly, this also extended to cue sports like billiards and snooker, although they have yet to have their Olympic moment.) Industrialization had caused significant population increases and spurred urban development in places like Manchester, Birmingham, and Liverpool, and it is not at all surprising that some of the most popular English Premier League clubs today hail from these cities. While less concerned with nationalism, issues of identity and city pride were undoubtedly key factors when these clubs were established. As their popularity grew so too did their fanbases, and soccer fans are widely regarded as some of the most enthusiastic and energetic of all sports fans, although the rivalries are just as bitter. This speaks to the emotional component on sports fandom, and Mary E. Duquin elaborates:
“Emotions are significant in the construction of athletic identities, as well as in the formation of culture, class, gender, race, sexual, and moral identities…Much of modern sport involves learning to control emotions, of disciplining the self and managing emotional lives…Research on sport spectating is primarily about the pleasures of being a fan, expression of community, social bonding, and nostalgia. The emotional experiences of sport spectating are sometimes compared to the sacred emotions of religious rituals that give meaning to personal and cultural life. Media and communication studies of sport spectating have investigated the personal pleasures of looking: voyeurism and narcissism. These studies have probed the effects of mass mediated sport on the emotional experience of spectating. The study of emotions in culture-making institutions like sport and leisure raises a host of interesting questions about how individuals learn to define emotion, experience emotion, feel emotion, and share emotion in contemporary life,” (Duquin 477).
For the most extreme fans, the deep emotional connection they have to their team always intensifies the affinity they feel towards their fellow fans, although this heightens intergroup animosity towards fans of the rival team. In cases of stadium riots (for instance, the 2011 Stanley Cup riot in Vancouver, the 1990 NBA Finals riot in Detroit, and the infamous Ten Cent Beer Night held at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium in 1974), Coubertin’s original belief that sports competitions could peacefully resolve disputes and mend relations is noticeably absent, instead the sport itself has created divisions which were not previously there. (Ironically, while football equipment was originally designed to resemble a softer version of knights armor, with pads and helmets in lieu of metal plates, the most violent ‘battles’ have taken place off the field and in the stands). Maybe on an interpersonal level, hurt feelings shared between arguing friends may be soothed after a round of tennis, and likewise historical hostilities (like those between England and France or China and Japan) may seem less serious when played out on the Olympic stage, but spectator violence reveals a dangerous midpoint where the tensions are too high for a defeat to be quietly accepted and not high enough that the teams would refuse to participate.
On the tendency for teams to opt out of the competition, again the Olympics have their fair share of examples, the most notable being the 1980 Summer Olympics held in Moscow and the 1984 games in Los Angeles. While the 1984 Olympics garnered 140 nations, the 1980 games saw the smallest number in decades, only 80, due to a boycott led by the United States. In response, the Soviet Union boycotted the Los Angeles games; while less attended than all of the subsequent summer Olympics, the influence of the Soviet Union was not strong enough to match the low turnout of 1980. The Cold War had increased hostilities between the Soviet Union and the capitalist West and the then-ongoing Soviet-Afghan War was the primary motivation behind the boycott, although it is realistic that had the Moscow games been held in the 1950s or 1960s, the United States would have reacted in the same way. On a certain level, Olympic officials may have been relieved that the two nations’ teams (and fans) would not be sharing a stadium together, fearing riots or even terrorism. Even more telling, each nation’s refusal to attend the host nation’s games speaks to an unwillingness to resolve the conflict through competition. Tensions had escalated far past the point of a simple rivalry, and the Olympic dream that all nations could put cultural, religious, and political differences aside and come together as one seemed impossible in an ever-divided world.
However, antagonism between the Soviet Union and the West did not only manifest in the athletic sphere in boycotts, rather the entire foundation of the Soviet sports tradition was political — it was inspirited by national pride, specifically the sort of pride which seeks to denigrate or at least distance itself from opposing nations. James Riordan, one of the foremost scholars on sports in the Soviet Union writes:
“Few opportunities are lost to associate sporting events with a political occasion or to employ sport to cement loyalties within the bloc. Thus, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the formation of the USSR, a mass assault was made on its highest mountain, Peak Communism (formerly Peak Stalin — 7,495 m). In all, 87 climbers reached the summit and planted there the flags of the 15 union republics of the USSR and of eight other socialist states (Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Mongolia, Poland, Romania, and Yugoslavia) as a ‘symbol of unshakable friendship and inspired by the ideal of proletarian internationalism, peace, and friendship between peoples’,” (Riordan 381).
Taken at face value, this seems like an overwhelmingly positive, celebratory event free of any hard feelings. Each climber may ascend at his own pace prompting friendly competition, but what is emphasized is the shared struggle of climbing together and the euphoric sense of unity upon reaching the top. Like the city states of ancient Greece, each hails from a different republic, each with a vastly different culture and history, but there is a sense of international solidarity which abounds. Outside of the realm of sports, Soviet propagandists reinforced this vision in commemorative flags, posters, and pin sets featuring iconography of the 15 republics, but this internationalist idea only goes so far and does not extend extend to the world at large. To contrast, in the 1990s there was a popular trend in sports apparel which widely appealed to football fans in general. For example, one of the most iconic articles of clothing was a varsity style jacket featuring all the logos of every NFL team, as if to suggest that one could be a fan of the game without swearing allegiance to one team. Realistically, the wearer of such an item cares more about the national pastime itself and is less likely to view fans of other teams in a negative light since the jacket encompasses the entirety of the league. Initially, the memorabilia produced by the Soviet Union seems to share this inclusive attitude — that the republics (or teams) may compete in a non-serious and non-threatening way, and the result of their competition means the union (or the league) is stronger because of it. Yet the comparison falls flat because unlike the sort of self-contained incorporation of all NFL teams, rivals and otherwise, the Soviet propaganda described does not extend an olive branch to those outside of its domain. During a time when many feared the possibility of nuclear war, sports proved to be an insufficient instrument for bridge-building.
This is not to say that we should outright deny the potential for sports to aid in international friendship, but the ways in which the Olympics have evolved from ancient to modern times, and the politicization of sports as in the Soviet case, warrants a reevaluation. While the ancient games were partly intended to interrupt the wars between city states (a comparable example is the Christmas truce of World War I, where English and German soldiers arranged a ceasefire and played a soccer match), such a task seems too idealistic for today’s International Olympic Committee. Even though the ancient games were not actually as successful at quelling these conflicts as once thought, part of the belief that they could stems from an understanding of the Hellenic world as one; athletes were drawn from as far as Greece was able to reach, and conflicts between peoples outside of its territory did not shake the Greeks’ singular worldview. In the late twentieth century Cold War divisions prevented a reconciliation between the capitalist West and the communist East, as if each was a world unto its own, and the United States and the Soviet Union pursued athletic excellence for their own political purposes. Today, as global interconnectedness has increased a thousandfold we are even more divided. Some of us live in the capitalist world, others in Christian or Islamic worlds, the world of the working class and the world of the wealthy, the First World and the Third World, and so on. If sports can teach us anything it’s that the thrill of competition is a universal human emotion, but to expand the metaphor of sports to internationalism, it is better that we all enjoy ourselves than win at the expense of others.
Coakley, Jay J., and Eric Dunning. Handbook of Sports Studies. SAGE, 2010. Fredricks, Jennifer A., and Sandra D. Simpkins. Organized Out-of-School Activities: Setting for Peer Relationships: New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, Number 140. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2013.
Guttmann, Allen. The Olympics: a History of the Modern Games. University of Illinois Press, 2002.
Karen, David, and Robert E. Washington. Sociological Perspectives on Sport: the Games Outside the Games. Routledge, 2015.
Nehamas, Alexander. On Friendship. Basic Books, 2016.
Riordan, James. Sport in Soviet Society: Development of Sport and Physical Education in Russia and the USSR. Univ. Press, 1980.