Oct. 29, 2021Print | PDF
By Tim Elcombe, associate professor, Kinesiology and Physical Education
As the first coronavirus wave swept the globe in the spring of 2020, some of the most powerful people in the world – including American President Trump and British Prime Minister Johnson – called for the return of high-profile sports leagues shuttered by the pandemic. Japan’s President Abe, along with leaders of the International Olympic Committee, promised the Olympic Games would proceed in Tokyo as scheduled in July 2020 as a symbol of human resolve. Although Olympic organizers eventually succumbed and postponed the Games until 2021, by summer 2020, transregional sports competitions such as the English Premier League, Formula 1 racing, the NBA and the NHL returned to play, albeit in controlled environments without spectators and strict testing protocols.
Why was it so important for “mega sports” to return to “normal” before businesses and schools reopened? For athletes to access COVID-19 tests not yet available to frontline health-care workers? For sporting personnel and executives to travel relatively freely while others remained grounded? Why was sport, in effect, treated like a pseudo-essential service during a pandemic?
I first worked through these questions in a Balsillie Papers article entitled “The Significant Insignificance of International Sport in a Global Crisis” in which I argued that sport, for better or worse, has long played a political role in crises.
But there was more to say, so in a recently published article in Global Society, I explored more deeply six political (or non-sporting) uses of sport in global crises that move from “harder” (more tangible) to “softer” (narrative, symbolic) forms. These six uses are:
From this analysis, I developed a rudimentary scale I called the REI-BCI continuum. While some champion the use of sports in crises as a tool for Resource development and redistribution, civic Engagement, and Identity development (REI), others more negatively see it as Bread, Circus, and Image manipulation (BCI) – in other words, irresponsible, distracting, and superficial. The REI-BCI continuum captures a crucial aspect of my broader scholarly work: that sports are, irreducibly, riddled with tensions across many different dimensions.
Problems in sports range from how to employ technologies to assist on-field officials in making difficult decisions to the use of sports as a battleground for human rights. As such, sports are not “organically good” as often portrayed, but a fully human, complex and significant practice that constantly struggles to deal with “wicked problems” in many forms. Two papers that I have in development expand on these concepts: the multiple normative dimensions of sport and varying types of problems in sport.
Beyond this, two other projects I’m working on continue to explore the interconnections between sports, ethics and politics. In one project, I’m developing a concept called “Disruptive Sport Diplomacy” by attempting to take a deep dive into collective acts of political disruption through sport, including boycott threats for major 2022 events like the Beijing Winter Olympics and the FIFA Men’s World Cup hosted by Qatar.
The second, in collaboration with Robert McLeman from Laurier’s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies and a talented group of Balsillie School of International Affairs graduate students, is exploring connections between sports governance and climate action.
Ultimately, my professional goal through my scholarly work is to highlight the complexity of sport, to help those who shape sports to embrace the tensions and ambiguity at work in this powerful human practice, and to use ideas related to sustainability, resiliency and responsibility to frame decision-making processes and policy development.