Violence in Sports—Why the Increase?
“SPORT means health” is an old adage. In ancient times Greek doctors claimed that moderate sporting activity could bring good health.
Today, however, many sporting events are anything but healthy for either participants or spectators. Violence in sports has reached such proportions that an authoritative agency, the European Parliament, has approved a lengthy resolution “on vandalism and violence in sport.” Alarmed by the ferocity of clashes before and after sporting events, both between the players and between the fans of opposing teams, the members of the European Parliament examined the phenomenon in its various features, its causes, and possible measures to stem it. What did they find, and what forms has violence in sports taken?
‘A Widespread Phenomenon’
Soccer, the world’s favorite sport, comes in for most of the criticism, but almost all other kinds of sport are involved in the problem. In 1988 violence flared during the European international soccer championships held in Germany. After a game involving their national team, British fans started a raging battle that ended up with wounded policemen, damaged property, and 300 persons arrested. After a victory of the Italian team during the same championships, three people died in a frenzy of enthusiasm.
In Britain infamous hooligans sow panic wherever they go, helping “to destroy the image of English football at home and abroad,” as The Guardian said. And several times during one sports season, the Monday editions of Italian sports newspapers spoke of “black” Sundays—sporting events that erupt into a fracas of death, injuries, and mayhem. Sports facilities have become, as one daily newspaper put it, “guerrilla stadiums.” But such conditions are not confined to Britain and Italy. The Netherlands, Germany, the Soviet Union, Spain, and many other countries are having to tackle the same problem.
The “War of the Fans”
Certain fans, their aggressiveness whipped up by the mass media, give vent to their baser instincts at sporting events. In soccer the Italian ultrà or the British hooligans gather together behind banners bearing titles such as “Red Army” or “Tiger Command.” The soccer fan, as one hooligan said, “wants to fight, to conquer the territory of the opposition.” In the stands of the stadiums, the conditions are very much like those in the ancient Roman arenas, where the spectators incited the gladiators to slaughter their adversaries. And the chorus of incitement of the fans is punctuated by obscenities and racist slogans.
Fans often carry dangerous weapons. Searches made by the police before the start of some matches have brought to light full-scale arsenals—knives, flare pistols, billiard balls. Clouds of steel-tipped darts have rained down on the stands of British stadiums!
The resolution of the European Parliament exhorted governments to take strong measures to stem the violence in sports. The British government, for example, has taken such steps under the direction of its prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. Mrs. Thatcher has insisted on the adoption of more stringent laws, such as compulsory identity cards for access to stadiums. If their holders are found guilty of acts of violence, the cards will be withdrawn. Additionally, in Britain there are plans to build or restructure sports facilities to equip them with closed-circuit television cameras for surveillance of the fans, to erect barriers to separate opposing supporters, and to eliminate any inflammable material whatsoever. Policemen have infiltrated gangs of hooligans, the most violent fans, in order to identify their ringleaders and arrest them.
Measures are being taken in other countries too. The Italian sports authorities, in collaboration with the Ministry of the Interior, have decided to use barbed wire in the stadiums as well as protective netting, helicopters, swarms of policemen, and closed-circuit television cameras. The militarization of stadiums has even been considered. During preparations for the Olympic Games held in Seoul, Korea, in 1988, the authorities had policemen trained to combat terrorist attacks.
Then there are acts of violence aimed at referees. During a recent soccer season in Italy, 690 referees were victims. A referee at a boxing match at the Seoul Olympics was savagely attacked by trainers and even by policemen who did not agree with the decision.
Apart from the danger to people’s lives, there is also considerable economic cost to sports violence. It is not just the doling out of hundreds of thousands of dollars for losses caused by thefts, ransacking, and vandalism but also the costs of prevention. On a normal day on the British soccer calendar, about $700,000 is spent on just police protection.
Why such animalistic aggressiveness?
Violence—“Intrinsic” in the Way Sports Are Played Today
Today, violent aggressiveness has become linked to sports. Interestingly, the same commission that prepared the resolution adopted by the European Parliament pointed out that “violence is not an essential part of sport, but it is intrinsic in the conditions in which sport is played and in the fact that the rules of the game, if such they can be called, cannot adequately prevent it.” Why is this?
Well, apart from the violent acts of the fans, it is the way in which sport is played that has changed. In society itself, there is “growing violence,” as the European Parliament acknowledged. Also, the sporting world no longer emphasizes only the physical activity. For example, in Athens in 1896, at the first Olympic Games held in modern times, a group of British athletes were disqualified because they had trained before the start of the game. The very act of training before a sporting event was considered contrary to the amateur spirit that was championed at that time. Such an episode today would make most people smile.
After the first world war and especially following the second world war, people living in the so-called developed countries have had increasingly more free time. Recreation has quickly become a lucrative activity for the business world. Financial interests have taken their place alongside national and social interests. Today’s sporting events are “a scenario in which financial, political, and social factors dominate.” In other words, sport has become a “phenomenon of the masses.” Winning often means millions of dollars for the victors! Television has also contributed to the popularity of sports and may have added to sports viciousness. Often the TV camera lingers on violent play rather than on those episodes that are judged mild, repeating it again and again by means of instant replays. Thus TV may inadvertently magnify the effects of sports violence in the minds of future fans and players. Amateur sport hardly exists, and in its place there is “professional amateurism,” as one periodical called it, speaking of the tens of thousands of dollars earned by athletes in Seoul during the 1988 Olympics.
Nationalism makes athletes, trainers, managers, and spectators attach an exaggerated sense of importance to victory. Following certain international sporting events, triumphal honors are pinned on the winning side, just as when victorious commanders returned home in ancient times. This has been seen in recent years in Italy, Argentina, and the Netherlands, where the athletes literally fight to the last breath, unscrupulously. And the fans ape them, going to excess in their show of loyalty to their team or their nation, stirring up raging battles before, during, and after the sporting event.
Before the start of the 1988 European international soccer championships, the German weekly magazine Der Spiegel said that there was fear that this event would become an “ideal breeding-ground for a highly explosive mixture of aggressiveness, nationalism, and neo-Fascism.”
Another Form of Violence
But this is not all there is to violence in sports. At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the “doping scandal” broke out. Doping, or the use of illegal drugs that heighten the energy levels of athletes and allow them to reach performance superior to their normal physical abilities, does violence both to the sporting spirit and to the health of the athletes.
How widespread is this phenomenon?
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Often the TV camera lingers on violent play, repeating it again and again by means of instant replays
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Nationalism attaches an exaggerated sense of importance to victory