Jean-Michel de Wailly, political scientist: “The dam has disintegrated and sport is becoming more and more politicized”

The father of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, has long praised the non-political and global nature of the sport. If sports organizations continue to follow this dogma, it is clear that the boundary between politics and sport appears increasingly tenuous: From the Black Lives Matter movement to the global mobilization of tennis player Peng Shuai via the expulsion of Russian athletes after the conflict in Ukraine, the imagination of apolitical sport seems to be elusive. . Recently, Paris Saint-Germain player Idrissa Gaye’s refusal to wear a rainbow shirt in support of the fight against homophobia has revived the controversy once again. It appears that the political positions taken by athletes are increasingly resonating with changes in society, which put sports institutions in an uncomfortable position. We conduct an assessment with Jean-Michel de Wael, Professor of Political Science at ULB, who specializes in the world of Belgian and international sports.

Many recent examples tend to show that the world of sports has become politicized. Is that your opinion too?

Basically, the sports world is a very conservative world that often turns to the apolitical side. But the dam receded and Sport is becoming more and more politicized. The breakup occurred especially with the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. When there were problems with homophobia in Hungary, UEFA had to act under pressure from civil society. In tennis, there was also a completely unprecedented crowd around the Chinese player Peng Shuai. More recently, the war in Ukraine also marked a turning point with the expulsion of Russian athletes. It is natural for sports to be politicized because it is a product of society. How can we, in the current context, play a football match against Russia? We can, of course, rejoice at this politicization, but we must not be deceived. This is also expected to cause unpleasant things. Politicization can go in several directions…



Screaming monkeys and anti-gay attacks were always present in the stadiums. And even ten years ago, it was considered folklore.

Not necessarily in a progressive sense specifically…

exactly. Sports are associated with changes in society. Screaming monkeys and homophobic attacks, for example, were always present in stadiums. And even 10 years ago, it was considered folklore. Today, that no longer happens. Sports federations give themselves the task of calming and defending values. Because the bad atmosphere around the sport is above all less publicity, and therefore less profit. Therefore, the position of the sports federations is somewhat hypocritical. This contradiction stuck with sports organizations: if a sport wants to sell, it has to advance in terms of values.



Sport is nothing but a distorting mirror of our society. He can emphasize and highlight a certain number of tendencies or phenomena at work in society, but it is not he who creates them.

In general, do we have a caricatured vision of sports?

There are two great visions of sport. There are those who think that sports are adorned with positive and therapeutic virtues and can be used in all fields Solving societal problems. According to this view, if everyone played sports, then society would be complete. Another concept confirms, on the contrary, that sport has become The embodiment of what is wrong with our society: Sport is synonymous with fascism, corruption, violence, racism, etc.

None of these concepts is correct. In fact, Sport is neither good nor bad: it is neutral. It can be used for a better or worse reason. Sport is nothing but a distorting mirror of our society. He can emphasize and highlight a certain number of tendencies or phenomena at work in society, but it is not he who creates them. So the racism we observe in stadiums must be related to the normal racism that exists in our societies. It’s the same for violence.



No major sports competition has succeeded in changing the organizing country. Russia is a recent example… Qatar will make an effort for a few months. But there is no hope that the situation will improve in the long term.

Is boycotting the World Cup in Qatar desirable in your opinion?

I have always advocated a boycott of the Qatar World Cup. Today, unfortunately, it is too late. Until a year ago, it was entirely possible to go elsewhere. Some countries can quickly organize such an event without having to build a large number of stadiums. But Qatar carried out intense lobbying behind the scenes. It should also be noted that, from a strategic point of view, Amnesty International and workers’ rights organizations have not advocated a sports boycott, but rather the improvement of human rights and workers’ rights. We must be realistic, no major sporting competition has succeeded in changing the organizing country. Russia is a recent example… Qatar will make an effort for a few months. But there is no hope that the situation will improve in the long term. It should also be noted that if the World Cup in Qatar has sparked controversy, there have been no citizen movements around this question. In 1978, during the World Cup in Argentina, which was then ruled by the generals, there were demonstrations and petitions in Belgium and France.



The world of sports has yet to undergo its democratic transformation.

Does the question of democracy, then, express, in one way or another, the world of sports?

The issue of democracy and citizen participation is omnipresent these days. In the world of sports, it is strangely absent. We don’t discuss it. The world of sports has yet to undergo its democratic transformation. For the club, fans say ‘us’ while the owner says ‘that’s me’. There is a nice contrast here. In a way, the fan is right: he is the one who knows the history of his club and who keeps it alive. But on the other hand, it is the shareholders who run it. We’ve seen that after the Covid episode, clubs need supporters. Today, fans are better able to give their opinion 50 years ago. So their demands are more numerous and there is a real democratic issue here. When the biggest clubs wanted to make a league in their own right, among the richest, we saw that it didn’t fit with our community model. This explains the protest in part.



The feminization of the sport is present, but it is not currently seen as such.

Has the status of women in sports changed?

Yes, we talk more about women in sports, but because it’s a new market. The feminization of the sport is present, but it is not currently seen as such. How many club heads are there? Female rulers? When a woman comments on the Champions League final, we can say that there was a real evolution and transformation.



Football fully complies with neoliberal norms, i.e. the need for excellence, constant evaluation, over-statistics, fierce competition, etc.

In economic terms, the world of football is a mixture between the local and the global?

Exactly, this is called “glocalization”. Football is local and international. If he has experienced such prosperity around the world, it is on top of that because he has held up so well to globalization. Football fully complies with neoliberal norms, i.e. the need for excellence, constant evaluation, over-statistics, fierce competition, etc.

How do we imagine a slate of the world of football?

Football is a poorly organized economic sector compared to other sectors. Football player regulation remains to be done. If we don’t organize football it will always be the same people who will win and we will end up losing interest. Real football regulation is urgent if football does not want to lose its credibility by limiting itself to the “bling bling” stars. If the world of football is not regulated, it will become more and more unbearable in the eyes of the population who must face an increasingly difficult life.



We can prevent countries from buying clubs on the grounds that football is a common heritage.

But how do we do it concretely?

What is certain is that we cannot return to football 50 years ago. mayoThere is currently no alternative vision that offers us another world of football. However, there is evidence. In Germany, for example, club owners can no longer control more than 49% of the club’s capital. The remaining shares are those of the supporters, who therefore have some decision-making power. One could imagine creating this system elsewhere. Clubs must maintain local roots and connect them with supporters. We can also prevent countries from buying clubs based on the principle that football is a common heritage.



We cannot ask football to be better than the society of which it is a part.

Has the impact of sports icons on youth changed in your opinion?

Athletes can play the role of influencer, but they are on the record for emotion rather than awareness. When there is a fundamental movement in a society, their opinion is added to the existing discourse. It is a way of persistence. Besides, there is a facade of politicization in the world of sports. We could think of a “no to racism” spot, for example. It is clear that no voter from Vlaams-Belang will stop voting for this party because Kevin De Bruyne says “no to racism”. Leaving the field when you hear racist cries is playing politics; Believing that footballer rhetoric can prevent racism is an illusion. Crowds of superstars are ineffective in changing society. Rather, it is counterproductive. This amounts to permanently condemning people. We cannot ask football to be better than the society of which it is a part. And We can’t ask athletes to give their opinion on everything.

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