When the French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin launched the modern Olympic Games in 1896, he hoped the games would help humanity build a more peaceful world. International sporting events, he believed, would inspire humanity to overcome its political, economic, and religious differences. The games, as the Olympic charter declares today, would “place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society.”
It is an attractive ideal. Sadly, it probably isn’t realistic. As the historian David Clay Large has written, the Olympics “indulge precisely what they claim to transcend: the world’s basest instinct for tribalism.” A growing body of social science research finds that international sports competitions do little to build bridges between countries. Instead, they tend to exacerbate nationalism within countries and reduce trade between countries that compete against each other. In rare cases, they can even trigger war.
But the news is not all bad for Coubertin’s vision: At the same time as sports competitions stoke international tensions, they can also increase domestic solidarity.
From early on, the Olympics were suffused with nationalism. In the very first modern games, Irish athletes refused to mingle with the English, nationalistic Hungarians rejected competing alongside Austrians in a team representing the dual monarchy, and there were no Turkish athletes at the games hosted by their Greek rivals. After witnessing the reaction of the home crowd when a Greek athlete won the marathon, the French conservative Charles Maurras told Coubertin: “I see your internationalism does not kill national spirit — it strengthens it.”
That proved true in the games that followed. The 1936 Berlin Olympics were a propaganda exercise for Hitler: The Nazis spent more on the Berlin games than had been spent on all the previous Olympics combined. In Italy, meanwhile, throughout the 1930s Mussolini deliberately used sports competitions to boost support for Italian expansionism. Before the 1940 Olympics were canceled, the Japanese Empire lobbied hard to host the games in Tokyo. George Orwell’s description of sports competitions, in a 1945 essay, as “war minus the shooting” was understandable. The Olympics, he wrote, produced nothing but “orgies of hatred.”
In recent years, social science has backed him up. One study, for example, showed that in six countries including the United States and China, watching the 2012 London Olympics was associated with significantly higher scores for patriotism and nationalism — but, unfortunately for Coubertin’s theory, not internationalism.
Or consider the effect of sports competitions on international economic relations. Nationalist fervor from sports events can disrupt the flow of international trade: One new paper finds that countries randomly selected to compete against each other in the World Cup experienced decreased levels of bilateral trade, with losing countries reducing their imports from the countries that beat them. The authors estimate that the World Cup caused about three dozen pairs of countries to experience drops in trade that would not have otherwise occurred.
International sports competitions may even make war more likely. Between 1958 and 2010, pairs of countries that played each other in the World Cup fought each other 21 times in the two years following the event, compared with only nine times in the two years before the tournament. In 1969, 2,000 people died in the “football war” between El Salvador and Honduras after riots broke out in the wake of their soccer game. In 2009, Egyptian fans attacked the bus transporting the Algerian soccer team, leading to the breakdown of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
On the bright side, sports competitions can be a force for domestic solidarity. Post-independence leaders in Africa used sports to foster shared national identities. Perhaps most famously, South Africa’s shock victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup helped bring Black and white South Africans together after the end of apartheid — the inspiration for the 2009 Clint Eastwood film “Invictus.” Similarly, Ivory Coast’s qualification for the soccer World Cup in 2006 helped unify the nation after years of civil war. And across sub-Saharan Africa, people surveyed a few days after their country’s national team won an important victory became nearly 40 percent less likely to identify primarily with their own ethnic group — and 30 percent more likely to say they trusted compatriots from other ethnic groups.
Most strikingly, sports victories may even make civil war less likely. Countries that barely qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations soccer tournament experienced 9 percent fewer episodes of civil conflict than (otherwise very similar) countries that narrowly failed to qualify.
In other words, sports competition may not be “an unfailing cause of ill-will,” as Orwell put it. But at a time when the Olympic ideals of international cooperation are needed more than ever, there is little evidence to suggest that this month’s upcoming Tokyo games will do much to help.
Bryan Schonfeld and Sam Winter-Levy are PhD candidates in politics at Princeton University.