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Sport has historically offered a profound avenue to rally and serve as the arena for reconciliation

Nationalism, Cricket and the Religio-Politics of Sport

On social networking sites, such as Facebook, debates about the usefulness of the boycott were pervasive. Some members of the diaspora argued that supporting the Sri Lankan cricket team against India in the finals could foster a sense of unity in the country following a highly divisive ethnic conflict.

by Amarnath Amarasingam

In 1968, Avery Brundage, President of the International Olympic Committee, declared that sports, "like music and the other fine arts, transcends politics." The statement came out of a sentiment of hope rather than fact, and was, of course, incredibly naive. If Claude von Clausewitz is correct that war is merely "politics by other means," then the same can be said about sports.

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(President Mahinda Rajapaksa hosted a reception to Sri Lankan cricketers at Temple Trees on April 4 (pic: president.gov.lk/)

In 1968, the Mexican government killed several students protesting the Olympics in Mexico City. In 1972, Arab terrorists kidnapped and killed Israeli athletes in Munich. Dozens of countries boycotted the 1976 Olympics in Montreal because New Zealand insisted on maintaining "sports relations" with apartheid South Africa. Countries like Honduras and El Salvador have gone to war over soccer, and when East German athletes wanted to compete in the United States, they were denied visas for two decades. The list goes on and on, but points to one thing: sport has never transcended politics and never will.

The deep interplay between politics and sport was again prevalent throughout the 2011 Cricket World Cup. As Sri Lanka inched its way into the finals, the Tamil diaspora around the world was divided about whether to support the team. During the final months of the protracted civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which saw its bloody conclusion in May 2009, many Tamil civilian lives were lost (due to the actions of both the government and the rebels). The Tamil diaspora now attempts to lead the charge against the Sri Lankan government for real and perceived injustices committed during the final months of the war.

On the streets of London, England, members of the Tamil Youth Organization (TYO) handed out pamphlets and raised awareness of the boycott. As one protester told Tamil Guardian, "Sport is not just a pastime. We cannot protest about war crimes against civilians one minute and cheer for sports teams from that state next. Is it right to welcome sports teams representing Libya to international sports fora today?" On social networking sites, such as Facebook, debates about the usefulness of the boycott were pervasive. Some members of the diaspora argued that supporting the Sri Lankan cricket team against India in the finals could foster a sense of unity in the country following a highly divisive ethnic conflict.

As many scholars have argued, international sporting events like cricket serve not only as a form of national recreation, but also national re-creation. As Rob Nixon has noted, sporting events are "exhibitionist events imbued with the authority to recreate or simulate the nation, offering a vigorous display of a proxy body politic." It is a high-energy display of synchronicity and discipline, one dedicated to sacrificing the self for the collective. It is, in other words, one of the most important rituals of a state's civil religion. Sport may be a pastime, but it has transcendental importance. As Nixon writes, "Indeed, sporting idiom is shot through with a religious register: fanatical fans adore their sporting idols or gods, and the crowd mood builds toward a state of rapture, ecstasy, or frenzy."

International sporting events have always been a tool used by states to solidify their image abroad. The Soviet Union, for example, used sport to strengthen the image of communism among its neighboring countries. As Soviet writers Yuri Kotov and Ivan Yudovich stated in 1978, "The increasing number of successes achieved by Soviet sportsmen in sport has particular significance today. Each new victory is a victory for the Soviet form of society and the socialist sports system; it provides irrefutable proof of the superiority of socialist culture over the decaying culture of capitalist states." The self-image of the state as well as processes of national myth-making becomes deeply embedded in sporting competitions. Boycotts as well as the excluding of countries from competition become ways in which the international community or ethnic minorities deny or problematize the national myth of a particular state. It is a way of communicating to the country that its image of itself is not legitimate.

In the 1970s and 1980s, for example, South Africa's system of apartheid (whereby the black majority were denied political rights as well as social and economic opportunities) caused the regime to become an international pariah. South Africa was banned from a host of sporting competitions such as golf, cricket, tennis and rugby. The profound cold shoulder received by the international community cut so deep that in a 1977 survey, white South Africans ranked the lack of international sport as one of the most damaging consequences of apartheid. According to Rob Nixon, "White South Africans were vulnerable to a boycott not because sport transcends politics, but because sport's quasi-theological rites are wholly integral to the politics of nationalism."

In countries like Sri Lanka, where minority populations have long nursed socio-political, religious, and linguistic grievances with the state, boycotts should come as no surprise. While the contexts of apartheid South Africa is wholly different from Sri Lanka, similarities exist in that marginalized populations insist that they cannot participate in the national myth. They do not believe in their state's sporting idols, and feel left out of what Emile Durkheim termed the "collective effervescence". This is unfortunate, as sport has historically offered a profound avenue through which to rally populations around a unified civil religion and could serve as the arena for reconciliation.

Amarnath Amarasingam is a doctoral candidate at Wilfrid Laurier University, and is currently completing his dissertation entitled, Pain, Pride, and Politics: Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism in Canada. He can be reached at: amarnath0330@gmail.com On Twitter: http://twitter.com/amaramarasingam ~ This Article first appeared in The Huffington Post ~

10 Comments

As in all areas sports should be free of political or religous patronage and overtones. All races and religons should have equal access and opportunity to excel in sports of their choice.
The absence of minority representation other than Murali on the cricket field is a sympton of the disease afflicting our society. Lack of opportunity for minorities is not restricted to sports. Walk into any govt office or ministry or in the higher echelons of public service and you will see just a handfull of minority members.

Posted by: SriLankan | April 6, 2011 12:57 AM

GREAT ARTICLE!

SriLankan, our national cricket team during recent times has seen a wonderful mix of individuals. Murali is Tamil, Farveez Maharoof, Jehan Mubarak are muslim, even TM Dilshan was at the start of his career. Angelo Matthews, Russel Arnold, are Burgher.

There are many, many Christians and Catholics, i.e- Ajantha Mendis. There are many, many Tamils, Muslims, and Burghers performing at the highest level of the domestic premier league as well as captaining and vice captaining popular schools in Colombo, with bright cricketing futures. All this in a team of a country that is is 70% Singhalese Buddhist.

You seem to think that "minority representation" means "representation of Tamils", which is incorrect. What excactly are you harping at? You have no case here.

Posted by: CricFan | April 6, 2011 10:31 AM

Unfortunately, the way Cricket is misused and politicized not by fans of any ethnicity, rather than dirty Sinhala politicians themsleves.

Posted by: M. Aru | April 6, 2011 12:00 PM

There is no part of organiational life in any country that is wihout poitcs because politics is abot interpersonal relations and not just issues of governance.

I applaud Crickfan's comments and stress that I am sick of highly prejudiced comments by Tamils who do not do their home work. Arnold and Matthews are Tamil in lineage terms. Likewise Suraj Randiv is Moor-Sinhal mix, Dilshan is Malay Sinhale mix, Mubarak is Moor-Sinhala mix, Atapattu in recent past was Sinhala Burgher mix and Ravi Pushpakumara was Tamil Sinhala mix.

Catholics include D Prasad, ajantha Mendis, Dilhara fernando, Angelo Matthews Chaminda Vaas, and perhaps Arnold (tho one source insited he was Methodist).

And for the record I am Kaberi-Sinhala-Burgher mix and am subjectively Thuppahi [that is a mongrel and pariah]...and quite happy about my mix and in my mix.

CRIKFAN is wrong on one point; for the last 20 years i do not think we have had even ten tamils playing cricket for Premier league clubs. so the proporationate representation --once one adds Jayapraskdaan-s single ODI game in the mid-1990s is extraordinary but that is only becasue Murali, Arnold and Mattews are extraordinary

Posted by: Michael Roberts | April 6, 2011 01:38 PM

Mr. Roberts,

When you wrote an article during the war in the Vanni, and argued that the number of Tamil civilians was more like 130,000 than the 300,000 that many NGOs and the TNA claimed, did you do your homework? Given that you didn't, given that the number of IDPs in Menik Farm alone was double your number, what right or credibility do you have to speak about other people not "doing their homework?"

Posted by: Expatriate | April 6, 2011 08:34 PM

A waste of poor tax payers money spent by the MR. All the king men and all the king horses could not win the world cup.

It is better we spent money to improve Ella, our national game.

even the God's are angry of the human rights violation in Sri Lanka

Posted by: Ajith Mendis UK | April 6, 2011 09:01 PM

We have this list of 113 cricketers who represented Sri Lanka from the 1980’s. Of these going on ethnicity alone 04 Tamils, 04 Muslims, 02 Burghers, 01 of Indian descent. The others are all of predominantly Sinhala ethnicity. To question what happened to the careers of this handful would be to open another can of worms. Of course we are all of mixed origin and even I can claim some percentage of blood flowing in my arteries to be of Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Burgher, Indian origin. So if this reflects the true picture and everything is tickety boo, so be it. If not shouldn’t we be doing something to uplift cricket amongst the minorities?

Ashantha De Mel , Somachandra de Silva , Ajit de Silva , Roy Dias , Mahesh Goonatilleke , Lalith Kaluperuma , Ranjan Madugalle, Duleep Mendis, Arjuna Ranatunga, Bandula Warnapura, Sidath Wettimuny ,Ravi Ratnayeke, Anura Ranasinghe, Rohan Jayasekera, Roger Wijesuriya, Guy de Alwis, Susil Fernando, Yohan Goonasekera, Rumesh Ratnayake, Mithra Wettimuny, Amal Silva, Roshan Guneratne, Jayantha Amerasinghe, Sanath Kaluperuma, Aravinda de Silva, Saliya Ahangama, Asoka de Silva, Sanjeewa Weerasinghe, Asanka Gurusinha, Jayananda Warnaweera, Don Anurasiri, Kosala Kuruppuarachchi, Roshan Mahanama, Brendon Kuruppu, Champaka Ramanayake, Ranjith Madurasinghe, Athula Samarasekara, Dammika Ranatunga, Gamina Wickremasinghe, Hashan Tillakaratne, Marvan Atapattu, Charith Senanayake, Chandika Hathurusingha, Sanath Jayasuriya, Kapila Wijegunawardene, Pramodya Wickramasinghe, Romesh Kaluwitharana, Dulip Liyanage, Ashley de Silva, Ruwan Kalpage, Pubudu Dassanayake, Piyal Wijetunge, Kumar Dharmasena, Dulip Samaraweera, Ravindra Pushpakumara, Sanjeeva Ranatunga, Chaminda Vaas, Chamara Dunusinghe, Jayantha Silva, Nuwan Zoysa, Sajeewa de Silva, Mahela Jayawardene, Lanka de Silva, Malinga Bandara, Niroshan Bandaratilleke, Suresh Perera, Ruchira Perera, Eric Upashantha, Avishka Gunawardene, Upul Chandana, Rangana Herath, Indika de Saram, Tillakaratne Dilshan, Indika Gallage, Dilhara Fernando, Prasanna Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara, Dinuka Hettiarachchi, Thilan Samaraweera, Charitha Buddhika, Sujeewa de Silva, Chamila Gamage, , Hasantha Fernando, Kaushal Lokuarachchi, Prabath Nissanka, Thilan Thushara, Dinusha Fernando, Lasith Malinga, Nuwan Kulasekara, Shantha Kalavitigoda, Gayan Wijekoon, Upul Tharanga, Chamara Kapugedera, Chamara Silva, Malinda Warnapura, Chanaka Welegedara, Ishara Amerasinghe, Ajantha Mendis, Dammika Prasad, Tharanga Paranavitana, Angelo Mathews, Suraj Randiv

Sridharan Jeganathan, Vinothen John, Muttiah Muralitharan, Russel Arnold
Roshan Jurangpathy , Jehan Mubarak, Naveed Nawaz, Farveez Maharoof
Graeme Labrooy, Michael Vandort

Lets see how many of those bright aspiring young cricketers make it in the future.

Posted by: SriLankan | April 7, 2011 12:30 AM

I do really car well is tamils are represented or not in this cricket team. end of the day it only used for showing off to the world everything is cool in sri lanka. reallity far worse.

Tamils have been crushed by the government. Even many thousands of people are suffering. While the Rajapaksa trying to fool the international community.

The tamils do not support the sri lankan team is same reaso they do not support falg or government. All represent oppression Tamils. remind us
constantly 1983 and 2009. Will any tamil in his righ might with knowlage of the massacres be able to support this team ?

Posted by: xsrilankan | April 7, 2011 06:50 AM

Thanks to (Prof.) Michael Roberts for the explanation about the racial mix of our cricketers. I learned a thing or two about our fellows who have Sinhala names but their lineage could be anything but.

Therein lies the crux of the matter. I believe the upcountry, blue blooded, radala kandyans are nothing but Sinhalese. In the same light, our brothers and sisters up North could be more purer than these so called Sinhalese who think they are superior to any other human beings that dwell on Lanka Matha.

I am a Sinhalese, Buddhist and like Michael Roberts having a rather dubious lineage of Parangi-Kochchi-Sinhala that I would say make me look at my fellow human beings as humans and nothing else.

Cricfan interpreted the Surname of Mathews and Arnold to jump into the conclusion that they are Burgher but that is not. I would say they are Parawara or Chetties or from the Bharatha community of which Late Jeyaraj Fernandopulle was a prominent member of that community.

Posted by: Max Headroom | April 7, 2011 08:20 PM

I seem to have left out Kaushik Amaelean who I think is of Indian, Sindhi origin.

Posted by: SriLankan | April 8, 2011 09:30 PM

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