No doubt the world of corporate sport is rotten. Witness a corruption beleaguered FIFA and the processes of displacement that unwinds anytime a major occasion sets down anywhere from London to Rio. Yet things can be different. Turlough Kelly chats to Gabriel Kuhn who has uncovered a beautifully illustrated history of activism in sports going way back.
The book is full of extraordinary and arresting images, many from the early part of the 20th century. How did you manage to track them down, given that many are from private collections?
I’ve been collecting these images for the past twenty years during my travels. I also got support from numerous individuals, archives, and publishers from around the world. Without them, the project would not have been possible. The collective character of the work was one of its main joys.
The first chapter of the book deals with the history of the Workers’ Sport Movement from the late-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century. Why has such a vibrant mass organisation – which even extended to a kind of counter-Olympics – been so neglected?
My impression is that post-war Social Democracy has broken with much of the workers’ movement’s past, including the ambitious attempts to create a proletarian culture free from bourgeois traits and values. As a consequence, mass phenomena such as the workers’ sport movement have been hidden rather than celebrated even by those claiming to preserve the workers’ movement’s legacy. It’s shameful, really.
The Workers’ Sport Movement, with its emphasis on self-improvement and non-competition, contrasts markedly with the narcissism and tribalism of contemporary professional sport.
Do you think competition, in a sporting context, is inherently unhealthy, or simply twisted and distorted in that direction by capitalist society?
The latter. To a certain degree, competition is natural. In order to understand what you are capable of you need to compare your abilities with others; you’ll never know whether you’re a fast runner if you never run alongside your peers. Ideally, sport provides a venue where such comparisons can take place in fair and socially acceptable ways. The problem starts when winners receive social and economic benefits at the expense of those who lose. Otherwise, sporting competition is a rather innocent ingredient of joyful play.
Is there a hint of desperation about the manner in which leftists latch on to progressive sporting organisations like FC St. Pauli? Can we “opt out” and salve our consciences by supporting left-leaning teams, or should we simply accept that all professional sport is tainted?
It certainly makes it easier to follow sports in a highly commercialized context when there are individuals and clubs that embrace progressive principles. It is true that a St. Pauli shirt can be a mere token adorning “alternative” sport fans, while the sport industry is running its regular course. But that is no argument against seeking out progressive tendencies. What else are we going to do? Neither pure cynicism nor pure idealism will change anything. We have to start with the positive elements that exist, no matter how compromised they are.
There’s a remarkable image in the book of French footballers occupying the offices of the Fédération Francaise de Football in May 1968. Can you tell us a bit more about the Footballers’ Action Committee and their overlooked role in the events of 1968?
The uprising in France in May 1968 involved all sectors of society, including the sporting world. The footballers were doing what all workers were doing: challenging the bosses and demanding a democratic workplace with fair wages. It is unfortunate that the hopes of the uprising remained unfulfilled. But the occupation of the French Football Association’s offices stands as a an inspiring example; imagine footballers and their supporters descending on the FIFA headquarters in Zurich today.
The role of labour unions in US pro sport is mentioned in chapter two. You also hint at the strange dichotomy whereby Europe favours a free-market, every-club-for-itself model of professional sport, while the United States is home to strong player unions, centralised ownership and redistribution of profits amongst clubs. Why this curious reversal of roles?
Partly, it has to do with the history of the sporting leagues. European football was always based on a league system that linked the very top to the very bottom; relegation, and with it the opportunity even for smaller clubs to climb up the ranks, has always been a key factor. Professional sport in the U.S. was more of a commercial enterprise from the beginning. Perhaps ironically, this also means that it retains a certain level of fairness in today’s hyper-commercialization.
Essentially, it’s just a part of the business model: an even series with more than just two or three potential winners is more exciting to watch. In European football, the gap between the rich and the not-so-rich clubs has grown so big over the last twenty years that many competitions have become boring. Who wants to see the same four teams in the Champions League semifinal every year? In a commercialized sports world, the package that the US leagues provide have indeed certain advantages over the uncontrolled commercialization of traditional league formats.
Current left-wing political thought doesn’t seem to engage with professional sport on a theoretical level, beyond (justified) polemics about wealth and greed. Do you think this failure to grasp something so fundamental to the contemporary working-class tells us something about the perspectives of the modern left?
Yes. Much of today’s left-wing theory is confined to academic circles and left-wing activism often occurs in a sheltered and self-marginalizing milieu. This might be beneficial for feelings of self-righteousness and moral superiority but it keeps folks from engaging in the only struggles relevant for broad social change, namely struggles that involve a wide spectrum of people. Sport is a mass phenomenon and political struggles within it affect such a spectrum inevitably. The left is making a big mistake by underestimating sport’s political significance and by dismissing it as an arena entirely controlled by the enemy.
The Ultra movement is probably one of the most vibrant manifestations of cultural self-organisation amongst the modern European working-class. Why do so many Ultra groups tend towards bigotry and sexism, and what counter-examples exist?
What unites Ultras is a critique of football’s commercialization and a demand for stronger involvement of supporters. These anti-commercial and democratic elements are highly relevant for left-wing politics. At the same time, the movement is not decidedly left-wing, so you find all sorts of sentiments within it, including chauvinistic ones. Luckily, there exist many Ultra groups that take an explicitly left-wing stance and regularly initiate social awareness campaigns. The Rebel Ultras network, for example, includes more than thirty such groups, hailing from Canada and Mexico to Cyprus and Algeria.
Finally, in the conclusion to the book, you sketch out a vision of an alternative landscape to the profit- and spectacle-driven present. In a post-capitalist sporting world, would Cristiano Ronaldo be allowed to exist?
Cristiano Ronaldo would be doing just fine. He wouldn’t make more money than his barber but he’d be free to do as many step overs as he wants.
Gabriel Kuhn’s book Playing As If The World Mattered is available over at www.pmpress.org