The Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz is probably best known for his aphorism, Politics is war by other means. It has always struck me that the word sport could easily be substituted for politics, given the nationalism that often accompanies sporting competition.
The period when sport is politics by other means was most obvious was probably during the Cold War. There was a lot of sabre rattling between the leading powers, the USA and USSR; the newly elected President Kennedy backing the abortive CIA invasion of Cuba, known as the Bay of Pigs in 1961; Kennedy then redeeming himself a year later with a masterly stand-off during the Cuban Missile Crisis. But the big battles were fought on the sportsfield, notably during successive Olympic Games.
The two best known incidents are probably the basketball final in Munich 1972, when the Soviet team convinced the judges that a time-out call had gone awry; granted an extension, they overturned the US lead, to win gold. Eight years later at Lake Placid, a US college ice hockey team beat the all-conquering Soviet ‘giants’ on the way to winning gold, in what became known as the Miracle on Ice.
But all of that left-field animosity came to head a few months later, to the detriment of the Olympic movement when, under the pretext of the rejecting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the US and several allies boycotted Moscow1980. That was followed in turn by the Soviet bloc boycott of Los Angeles 1984. By this time there could be no doubt whatsoever that sport was being used as a prime political tool.
But at least, war never actually broke out as a result of these sporting stand-offs, unlike the four-day conflict between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969, precipitated by a football World Cup qualifying match. This insanity, which lasted four days and resulted in 6000 deaths was captured in an eye-witness account by the famous Polish journalist/writer, Ryszard Kapucinski, in his story entitled appropriately enough, The Soccer War.
Speaking of which, the infamous British tabloid press comes into its own on the military metaphor front whenever England plays Germany at football. The worst example was the Mirror headline of over a decade ago, World War III. All right-thinking Brits, or rather, English are embarrassed by this jingoistic nonsense, while Germans remain mystified. But in these cases, the only ‘wars’ are between the imbecile fringe of fandom.
Which finally brings me to an extraordinary example of fighting talk, for which I am grateful to Alfons Juck and his marvellous EME newsletter, which keeps recipients abreast of news from far flung frontiers of track and field enterprise.
According to a blog in the Kenyan newspaper, The Standard (formerly the East African Standard), Paul Tergat bemoaned the fact that, while Kenya again dominated the World Cross last Sunday, they didn’t win the senior men’s individual title.
But the prize quote came from John Ngugi, another five-time world cross champ. Ngugi is not quoted directly, but according to Fever Pitch (the blogger), Ngugi, “averred that, without the men’s 12km title, it was like killing the animal but not bringing home the most important parts of the carcass”.