© Ryder Cup/Twitter
Dating back to ancient times, sports have long played an important symbolic role in political affairs. In the West, for example, Olympia and the Roman Coliseum remain as prominent archaeological testaments to the contests and competitions that became central to public life.
In modern times, the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games served as a propaganda stage for a rising Nazi Germany. In the 1970s, “Ping Pong diplomacy” was a key intermediary in the United States’ rapprochement with, and ultimately recognition of, the People’s Republic of China. The 1972 attack on the Israel team in Munich served as a pugnacious reminder of simmering geopolitical tensions in the Middle East. Several Olympics, including Pyeongchang earlier this year, have offered channels for reconciliation efforts on the Korean peninsula. Most recently, Boris Johnson maintained that an England win over France at this year’s World Cup in Russia would have helped promote Brexit, not to mention his own opportunistic leadership claims.
Aside from these ostentatious moments in sporting history, what nearly all major events have in common are prominent displays of national collective identity on the world stage. Individual athletes and teams representing distinct nations serve as reminders of allegiance towards a common collective and can be powerful in stoking patriotic sentiment or lifting ‘national moods’, especially when they are victorious. For better or worse, sports can emerge as potent political instruments, often prompting conspicuous appearances by world leaders on the sidelines.
However, one political entity that is notably absent from the world’s sporting stages is the European Union. Indeed, global sporting federations are firmly locked-in to the prevailing international system of distinct and separate nation-states. Even though representation can sometimes be a point of controversy, especially for countries whose sovereignty is disputed due to secessionist or irredentist claims, established institutional frameworks rendering international sporting competitions exclusive to recognized nations are unlikely to change any time soon. In fact, the EU’s claim that it, collectively, led the medals table after the Rio Olympic Games in 2016 was largely met with ridicule and outrage.
Nevertheless, there is one major international sporting event occurring in Paris this weekend where Europe (albeit not the European Union) does field a team representing the azure flag bearing the twelve golden stars. That is the Ryder Cup – golf’s premier international competition.
Better known within the circles of golf enthusiasts, the Ryder Cup pits Team USA against a team representing Europe in a variety of individual and team match-ups, where the side with the most points lays claim to the trophy for their side of the Atlantic for two years. While the tournament’s origins lie in a bi-annual competition between the USA and the United Kingdom, by 1979 a European side emerged for pragmatic reasons – pooling strength in order to be competitive in the face of a much larger, stronger, and dominant adversary.
While the tournament draws significant viewership in the United States, interest in Europe, especially outside the United Kingdom, remains rather muted. This is a shame, not only because the competition has witnessed strings of European victories – even dominance – over the past two decades but also because Team Europe in this competition represents exactly what appears to be lacking in the broader European political context: Collective strength through unity!
Dr. Christopher Marc Lilyblad, aside from his academic and political interests, is also an avid sports enthusiast. His regular column will be back next month, right here on RTL Today!