Sport, Identity, Migration
Unlike ethnicity, race and religion, gender and sexuality, sport is not a marker of identity as such. But it is an activity that people of all cultures participate in as professionals, amateurs and spectators, and one that can generate a shared sense of belonging, a passionate commitment, and a significant investment of time, effort and resources. For participants and spectators everywhere, team sports can be tribal and territorial, generally played in a good-natured but competitive way but occasionally spilling over into verbal or physical violence both on and off the pitch. At times, these team rivalries map onto other ethnic, national and religious differences. When there is a history of conflict between communities and their teams, feelings can run deep and tensions build up.
Today, at national or international level it is not uncommon for sports teams and clubs – from table tennis to football, and athletics to cricket – to be ethnically mixed and multicultural. They bring together people from different backgrounds for the purpose of playing together, learning and getting the best from one another, and creating a successful team that it greater than the sum of its parts. Whether such teams are truly cosmopolitan and inclusive depends on the extent to which players’ differences are shared and celebrated, or simply put to one side and ignored. At local level, mixed leagues and teams can certainly help people to integrate and to build friendships across borders, but these are rare. In many towns and cities people from different ethnic groups tend to play sport in separate leagues.
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Sport, migration and globalisation
International sport is big business. It features multi-million dollar investments, corporate brands and rivalries, global media coverage, and – because of its rewards, and potential for reputation and power – an undercurrent of corruption and cheating as well as first class entertainment and excellent individual and team performances. The globalisation of sport has led to the development of international sporting bodies – such as FIFA, the International Olympic Committee, the International Cricket Council, and the International Cycling Union – which manage and regulate the industry, and oversee global competitions such as the World Cup, the Olympic Games, the Rugby World Cup, test matches and Twenty20 tournaments, and the Tour de France. Two issues related to this are, first, the migration of players, and, second, the transnational movement of fans.
In many team sports there is now a global market for the buying and selling of players. Footballers (male and female), and players of rugby, baseball, ice-hockey and basketball are regularly traded for large sums of money. Elite migrants such as these often command high salaries. National immigration and employment legislation is designed in part to facilitate transfers and to enable top players to be mobile. Even in individual sports, such as athletics, some players migrate and change nationality in order to have a greater chance of being selected for top tournaments. The money earned in such transactions may well contribute to the development of sports facilities and opportunities back in home countries. Some 25 athletes changed nationality in the run up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
In the first decade of the 21st century, there was a large increase in the number of players migrating from African countries to Europe to play in the football leagues. According to the sports sociologist, Paul Darby, “at the 2000 tournament co-hosted by Ghana and Nigeria, just over 50 percent of the players were signed to a European club. For the 2002 competition in Mali, this figure had increased to 66 percent and for the 2004 edition in Tunisia it stood at 67 percent”. Other sporting migrations include Finnish ice-hockey players to Canada and the US, Pacific islanders and New Zealand rugby players to the UK and France, and cricketers from Britain, Australia and South Africa to India for the Indian Premier League (IPL).
The Baseball Factory, produced by David Goldblatt for the BBC World Service in 2008, revealed that in America’s national game, almost half of all professional baseball players came from overseas, with about 40 per cent coming from the small Caribbean state of the Dominican Republic.
Turning now to travelling fans, it is clear that the international sporting calendar generates significant temporary population movements as fans follow teams within and between continents. National and local governments, as well as international sports bodies, have to plan and take responsibility for the provision of facilities, policing and security arising from travel to popular events. Although such fans are not migrants in any formal sense, the resulting pressure on transport networks, local resources and community relations is a cost to be weighed against the economic contribution they make. The mobility of fans from wealthier countries to developing ones can also sharpen inequalities as stadiums and accommodation are built to house visitors in close proximity to residential areas with poor facilities and little access to the services that Westerners take for granted.