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The power of sport in peace-making and peace-keeping. South African Sport and Recreation Conference 30th November - 1st December 2012 Dr Jim Parry Professor of Philosophy FTVS, Charles University in Prague The power of sport in peace-making

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the power of sport in peace making and peace keeping

The power of sport in peace-making and peace-keeping

South African Sport and Recreation Conference

30th November - 1st December 2012

Dr Jim Parry

Professor of Philosophy

FTVS, Charles University in Prague


The power of sport in peace-making

and peace-keeping


  • sport is not about conflict, but competition;
  • not about violence, but controlled aggression;
  • neither is it amoral and value-free, but is itself a moral enterprise.

My suggestion: fair play is the logic of sport


So, I will be taking a contrary view to those who think …

  • that sport itself is a form of violent conflict, and so is antithetical to peace promotion
  • that sport has no (intrinsic) values.

I think that the above two statements contain three important mistakes.

m1 conflict and competition
M1. Conflict and Competition

The first mistake is the failure to distinguish between conflict and competition.

Kvalsund says: “Sport, in its traditional form, is not a conflict preventative instrument. On the contrary, the nature of sport is exactly the opposite: ‘a physical contest between people or teams with different goals’.”

(Kvalsund, ‘Sport and Peace Building’, 11)


On this account of sport, its very nature provides two massive problems for peacekeepers:

  • Its nature, according to Kvalsund, is ‘exactly the opposite’ to the task (of peacekeeping)
  • It therefore requires a high level of training (of coaches, workers, etc) and externally provided resources to mitigate its short-comings

Well, if so, why on earth would peace-keeping agencies choose sport as a vehicle for their aims?

Why choose sport, if it imitates war-games?


The answer, of course, is that those agencies understand that sporting competition is something quite different from conflict. But why is that?

Firstly, Kvalsunds’sdescription of sport is contentious.

Contestants do not have different goals (‘aims’).

We all have the same aims – or we could not compete.

Secondly, (Myth of Pelops) sport is not primitive mortal combat, but fair and peaceful competition – this is the starting-point of the Olympic Games.

So: sport is not war. Even boxing (violent?) permits only limited assaults – it is not street-fighting/mortal conflict.

competition co operation and equality
Competition, Co-operation and Equality

But there is a further feature of rule-governed competition, such as in sport: the constitutive rules of the sport prescribe modes of co-operation without which the activity cannot proceed.

And good competition arises out of the relative equality of participants. That is to say: sport is not to be characterised as a conflict to establish superiority.

The foundational values of competitive sport include co-operation and equality, which provide the context for competitive activity, and for the mutual quest for excellence.


The Occasion of Conflict

Oft-quoted examples of people fighting over sport

(such as hooligans outside the stadium, or armies on the battlefield) are irrelevant to the above points.

People fight over love and religion, too.

But the fact that love (or religion, or sport) can be the occasion for conflict tells us nothing about the intrinsic character of love (or religion, or sport).

m2 violence and aggression
M2. Violence and Aggression

The second mistake is the failure to distinguish between violence and aggression

“... aggression is defined as behaviour which aims to injure or harm the opponent. There is a distinction between hostile and instrumental aggression: the former primarily aims at injuring the opponent, whereas the latter type serves in achieving a sporting goal (e.g. winning points). Different studies have demonstrated that sports activity may very well lead to a channelling of aggression and that there is a negative correlation between the amount of training and the tendency to use violence.”

Schweryand Eggenberger-Argote, ‘Sport as a Cure’ (ICSSPE Bulletin, 40, Jan 2004).

errors identified
Errors identified:
  • Aggression is confusingly defined as aiming to injure or harm
  • Distinction between hostile and instrumental aggression seems to concede this point, suggesting that instrumental aggression does not seek harm.
  • But this is false, too, for I either may or may not aim to harm someone whilst achieving my sporting goal.
  • Finally, the notion of violence belatedly enters the picture from nowhere, without explanation or definition.
a better distinction
A better distinction

A simpler and clearer distinction between aggression and violence might go as follows:

Aggressioninvolves forceful assertion in achieving one’s ends, whilst

Violenceinvolves the intention to harm or injure.

  • So, in sport, we can be aggressive without being violent.
  • A player can be both forceful and vigorous (i.e. aggressive) without seeking to injure or harm anyone.
  • Violence, however, is centrally to do with intentional harm or injury to others, as well as attempts to harm, recklessness as to harm, and negligence.
  • All sports recognise this distinction in their rules
  • Sports just are exercises in controlled aggression!
violent acts and acts of violence
Violent Acts,and Acts of Violence

Not all acts of violence are violent acts, and

not all violent acts are acts of violence.

Almost any human act may be performed in a more or less violent manner - vigorously, forcefully, strongly, energetically, vehemently, furiously, etc. 

However, an act of violence is identified not by the manner of its execution, but by the human consequences flowing from it, such as harm, injury, distress, suffering, and so on.

Performing an action violently need not intend violence.

example football
Example: Football

At every instant in the game of football, possession of the ball is being contested. 

Assertion is necessary at all times, and aggression is permitted in pursuit of legitimate ends.  Games like soccer are essentially exercises in controlled aggression. 

However, violent and dangerous play is strictly against the rules, so the case against acts of violence is simply that they are illegitimate.

example rugby
Example: Rugby

Here is a game which looks violent, for part of the game seems to be to overcome others simply by violent force.

But, although rugby might be a violent sport, it is not a sport of violence.

People may get hurt (or harmed) in the course of the game due to the nature of physical combat, but the aim of the game (and the way to win it) is to score points, not to harm people. (Of course, hurting them is OK - debilitation!)

(cp. boxing, where you can win by harming your opponent?)

Intent to harm is penalised (and sometimes punished, too).

but isn t aggression bad too
But, isn’t aggression bad, too?

So have I conceded the point: Sport Encourages Aggression?

No. Aggression in sport presents opportunities for moral education and moral development. When playing sport we exercise our potential for aggression, and we may also be tempted by the attractions of violence in pursuit of our aims.

So, sport can function as a laboratory for value experiments, in which we are put in the position of having to act, time and time again, sometimes in haste, under pressure or provocation, either to prevent something or to achieve something, under a structure of rules.

How will we respond to the “character challenge”?

Will we resort to violence (or other forms of cheating) to win?

m3 intrinsic value
M3. Intrinsic Value

The third mistake is to think that, because sport can be used in the service of different values, it has no values of its own.

‘... it is my considered view that in and of itself sport is of no intrinsic value’. (Sugden, J. ‘Sport Intervention

in Divided Societies’, Play Fair! Academic Supplement 7, p.6)

Instead, he thinks, the values of sport are inserted into it by contextual social forces.


Consider these different claims:

(i) sport may be used instrumentally in the service of different values

(ii) sport may or may not be played morally

(iii) sport is without values of its own (without ‘intrinsic’ value).

But neither (i) nor (ii), even if true, entails (iii)

I think that there is something special about sport in virtue of which it is an excellent tool for peace.


These writers wish to say that it’s all in the method – it’s how we teach sport that’s important, not what we teach.

Now, of course method is extremely important, but it’s not everything. If method were all, and sport had no intrinsic value, why aren’t those methods being employed in ‘basket-weaving for peace’, instead of football?

Please note (importantly) that I’m not against basket-weaving, which could be very useful, but I think that sport is more so – and not simply because of its popularity (see below), but because of its ethical basis.


So, Why Use Sport?

I say sport is:

  • not about conflict, but competition;
  • not about violence, but controlled aggression;
  • neither is it amoral and value-free, but is itself a moral enterprise.

Only for those who think differently (those who make one of the ‘three mistakes’) does the question arise: why would sport be used?

If sport has bad values (violence and conflict) or if it has no values of its own, why is it that peace activists seek to use sport (and not something else) in the service of their aims?


One (bad) answer: sport is popular - people like it.

1. So let’s do what’s popular?

But people also like doing drugs and gambling

So popularity is not necessarily a good thing.

2. So we could use any other medium, so long as it’s popular?

e.g. art, film, dance, chess, hula-hooping, Pokemon-collecting?

3. So a larger claim gets made, e.g. Kvalsund:

‘Sport is indisputably the most popular leisure activity in the world…’

Is it? (needs empirical evidence and a concept of sport)

What about ‘The Arts’? (again: definition plus evidence required).

So popularity is useful, but it can’t be a justification. It doesn’t explainwhy sport is popular, and why it can be so effective in carrying peace-worthy meanings and potentials. We need a better account of sport, which will explain its nature, its potential social roles, and its popularity.


One (better) answer: fair play is the logic of sport

Consider first: The Moral Concept of Fair Play

Three related moral meanings are often distinguished, as follows:

(i) fair play is primarily a virtue of rule-adherence, which is a duty upon all contestants to abide by the rules of the competition

(ii) fair play may also include a commitment to contesting in ‘the spirit of sport’, such as may lead to supererogatory actions (i.e. good actions over and above those strictly required by the rules).

(iii) fair play may also sometimes refer to a general attitude towards sport (and even life itself) involving respect for others, modesty in victory, serenity in defeat and generosity aimed at creating warm and lasting human relations.


Consider now:

Fair Play as a Logical Requirement

The primary nature of fair play in sport is not as a moral requirement – as rule-adherence, acknowledgement of the spirit of sport, or trying to be a fair-minded person in general. Rather, its main significance is as a logically necessary feature of successful engagement.

This is because the rules function as a kind of pre-competition agreement which specifies both an athlete’s eligibility to compete and also his rights, duties and responsibilities under the agreed rules. What’s wrong with doping (for example) is the secretive attempt to evade or subvert such a ‘contract to contest’.


To freely choose to be accepted into a community of practice entails an obligation to duly respect the rules of the practice (or institution) as its lawful authority.

To subvert such a ‘contract to contest’ threatens the moral basis of sport, jeopardises the integrity of the sporting community and erodes public support and trust.

It is because it is impossible to get a game of football going, or keep a competition going, unless the participants have some grasp on these notions, that sport is an excellent vehicle for the introduction and maintenance of moral and political values. Freedom, responsibility, equality, justice, respect – all these are to be found in the rule-based practices of sport.


Conclusion – Sport’s Peace-keeping ‘potential’

Of course, sport is not a cure-all, and if sport programmes can be useful in peace-building, then they must be implemented as part of a wider set of peace-building strategies.

But I have tried to argue that the very nature of sport lends itself to the task of interpersonal understanding and respect, and that the nature of co-operative striving in rule-governed competition can lead towards civilised and peaceful resolutions. I have claimed that it is this peace-making capacity of sport that informs its peace-keeping potential.


Potentials, however, are not always realised. Of course it is possible to exploit and manipulate a social institution towards vested interests. Maybe the external interests of business and profiteering have changed the very nature of sport. Are their aims inimical to (ethical, educational) sport?

Take marriage, as another example of a social institution. The ceremony (which might vary considerably according to context) announces certain values, and draws certain promises. It thereby has the potential for principled partnerships. But of course no-one claims that marriage can’t be used for other purposes: to seal the friendship of kings, to secure access to a family’s wealth, to gain citizenship, to display a trophy wife, etc.

And of course no-one claims that, because people sometimes have these external interests, it follows that marriage has no intrinsic values.


Similarly, sport can be used to earn money, promote a nation, inflate egos, bully the weak, vaunt victory, disparage the loser, and so on. But this does not mean that sport has no (intrinsic) values.

To argue that sport has peace-making capacity and peace-keeping potential is to argue that it has a certain intrinsic form and intrinsic values, which lend themselves to those tasks. This is why sport is promoted (instrumentally) by peace-keepers, even if they don’t particularly like sport.

A shallow appreciation of sport would see its popularity. A deeper understanding of sport would try to explain why it is universally popular.

My answer is that the logic of sport IS the logic of peace and development.