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The state of play

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Canada’s Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau actively promoted ice hockey as the country’s national sport in the 1970s and 1980s. His emphasis was more than a simple acknowledgement of a popular form of entertainment as the staunch federalist leader sought to forge a political identity uniting the relatively young nation. 

Various states have historically instrumentalised sports disciplines to build a sense of collective identity that supports the idea of the nation. From rugby in Wales to archery in Mongolia to Rodeo in Chile, sports activities are steeped in symbolism that narrates the fundamental characteristics that a country sees in itself. 

Sports may be harmless forms of competition, but the level of intensity they evoke works to bind communities together in a manner that few other human systems can. The objective of all sporting events is to determine a winner: an athlete or team that bests all others in the contest. This rudimentary appraisal of personal worth invests the victors in prestige and the rest in misery, and both emotions spread fairly easily to others with a degree of attachment. 

Nation-building is essentially the exercise of establishing these connections, positioning sports into a strategic activity for architects of national identity. And, unlike other phenomena such as war or external threats, sports are wholesome endeavours. Nevertheless, George Orwell famously opined that international sport mimics warfare. 

Indeed, part of the identity-construction process involves differentiation from other countries and national athletes are seen as the embodiment of an entire population. Even international tournaments that are not country-based such as golf, moto GP, or equestrian are loaded with national overtones as South Korea’s Inbee Park, Italy’s Valentino Rossi, or New Zealand’s Sir Mark Todd witness, celebrated as heroes in their respective countries. 

The blurring of cultural borders makes that the need for distinction more explicit and urgent in the age of transnational values and lifestyles. As a result, countries will look for more opportunities to affirm the unique features that galvanize their populations and set them apart from others. In this scenario, international sports events may be one of the last living reminders of a pre-globalised world composed of a patchwork of nation-states.

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