Sport and Politics Make Strange Bedfellows: a Short Rugby History

Sport and Politics Make Strange Bedfellows: a Short Rugby History

Last Word on Rugby, by Scott Hornell.

With the Prime Ministers of Japan and New Zealand present, diplomacy was in full action while cradling the game of rugby union. Many will see benefits and shortfalls in the dichotomy of this relationship. Sport and Politics make strange bedfellows, but over time the relationship has brought benefit to each–so the announcement of a Rugby Union test coinciding with a government trade mission is odd, if not unprecedented.

Announced midweek Japan and New Zealand will play a rugby test on November 3, 2018. That fixture has been brought about by many factors; to aid in the development of Japan as a host of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, to test facilities less than a year out from the tournament, and to promote a trans-pacific trade deal.

It was timed for crucial trade talks that involved the once vaunted ‘Trans-Pacific Partnership’ (TPP). Since Donald Trump had removed the US component, some were thinking it was a ‘lame duck’ piece of paper. But holding strong ties, this NZ/Japan exchange of Politics and Sport was part of a wider trade-envoy of business and economic stakeholders that includes New Zealand Rugby (NZR).

Sport and Politics Make Strange Bedfellows: a Short Rugby History

If society can be measured in singularities, there are fundamentals that have existed since time-immemorial. The idea of fellowship, democracy, communication, social bonds and family. Japan and New Zealand are similar peoples, who hold similar values.. And the nations identify with one another in the sports field.

The identity of sport; in this case rugby, and the strong international All Blacks brand has a marketing and financial benefit for both. An All Blacks game in Japan is more than likely going to generate high-dollars in both broadcast rights, marketing and sponsorship spend–see this AIG Rugby promotional video.

And money has always sided with politics, when it comes to the opportunity that sport can bring an political party. From the President of the United States throwing out the first-pitch, to Adolf Hitler endorsing the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games; such a photo opportunity can be used as a strong public relations tool.

1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Mens Long Jump, Medal Ceremony(Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

But who gains? The team or sport? Possibly if you can think pragmatically, then the sport can gain awareness. Although Jesse Owens (see picture left) might well be remembered for his counter-role to the Nazi propaganda (which was a great thing for humanity).

In that instance, these strange bedfellows have existed in a wide range of spots, markets, regions and theaters.

The Darker Side of Politics and Sport

One of the darkest periods in the history of rugby, was during the apartheid era*. With the Afrikaan nation holding a firm ideology of racial inequality, the world protested. Personal, political and sporting boycotts and political isolation were tools used in an attempt to influence change. Exorcised from International relations, that also included sport–specifically rugby.

The South African Springboks were boycotted by multiple nations who once toured the strong rugby power, and the general public protested strongly any attempt at touring the racist regime, so rugby unions who chose to travel there felt the rebuke of fellow governments and their citizens.

In 1977, the Gleneagles Agreement gave support for the international campaign against Apartheid, to discourage contact and competition between sports people and sporting organisations. And many times, it was tested. By tours from France, the British and Irish Lions and invitations to visit by countries like New Zealand.

Those contradictions eventually led to political upheaval as the 1981 Springboks tour of New Zealand showed. Heavily affected by external and internal protest, violence and acrimony on the sports field. The darker side of politics and sport still leaves it’s mark on the game, and is now only through time beginning to heal those deep wounds.

Rugby Union Gets the Political Treatment in 2017

Among a trade delegation was NZR chief executive Steve Tew. Joined by Prime Minister Bill English, who along with trade envoys, business leaders and sports advocates were present for the press conference on Wednesday. The venue gave several opportunities: trade, engaging with Asia as a business hub and hopes to revive the stalled TPP process; and Relationship building.

And sport is a post that society ties much of our relationships too. Think the Bledisloe Cup [NZ v Australia], the Ryder Cup [Europe v US Golf] or other venues pegged on sport. So many are supported by politics and business. Steve Tew was quoted via a media release, “Playing in Japan is always a highlight.

“Their fans love the game and are great supporters of the All Blacks and New Zealand rugby.”

“Our partners adidas and AIG are also very active in using our players in the region in various campaigns and promotions, so I expect there will be keen interest in the match”.

Rugby fans before the International Rugby Test Match between Japan and the New Zealand All Blacks at Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Stadium on November 2, 2013 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

As much as the politically themed press conference had leaders of both nations on board, including the President of the Japan Rugby Football Union and the Brave Blossums head coach (and former All Black) Jamie Joseph. It was both a political vehice, as much as a rugby advert.

High Value in Political Support

“Having the New Zealand Prime Minister with us for the announcement of this Test is an honour and reflects positively on the close relationship between both nations whether it’s in rugby, sport, trade or business”. This can also benefit in exposure for the country, from tours like the upcoming British and Irish Lions tours (which is expected to reap high tourist spending).

Bill English knows this, so the shared platform is considerate of Foreign Affairs and sporting-tourism dollars. That tight-knit relationship extends to the event itself. Today we see dignitaries often at major sporting events. Think Rugby World Cup final, to Monte Carlo Grand Prix, Royal Ascot or even the SuperBowl. In these illustrious events, many a conversation and very much diplomacy has been discussed.

So the enticement of sport can bring both friendly and not-so-affectionate peoples and governments closer together.

Sport Can Bring Friend and Foe Together

So, can politics mend borders? Often yes. Although, hostilities can also separate long standing partners. Examples include India and Pakistan. Cricket matches were thought to be able to assist in peace brokering–including the 2004 test and one day series.

Cricket fans hold a sign which says ‘Peace Love Friendship’ after the first Pakistan v India one day international match played at the National Stadium March 13, 2004 in Karachi, Pakistan (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***

But with terrorist threats and il toward, it has now seen a boycott of Pakistan as a test host nation. Matches are now played in a neutral venue, such as the United Arab Emirates.

On another political agenda, baseball has always been a stronghold of the United States and North American nations. When after the Cuban political upheavals, separation of the neighbouring countries meant sporting relations were eliminated.

What Baseball offered to the individual from Cuba though, was an opportunity. Many players escaped the communist regime through their sporting dreams. They made fame, fortune and freedom through their on-field skills.

Later, as relations seemed to improve, the sport of Baseball was a vehicle to engender peace. Many Cuba v USA games have also been political opportunities–and while not until the Obama administration has the Cuban government been fully engaged–Politics and Sport have been used in ways similar to this, to broker peace.

Even in the time of King Henry the XIII, sports have been used to hold favour with both friend and enemy. In 1520, Henry and King Francis I of France met near Calais at the ‘Field of Cloth of Gold’ in an attempt to strengthen the bond between the two nations. Jousting and sports were played, but with a heavy political curtain encircling the meeting.

Politics and Sport–Strange Bedfellows Over Time

One of the more popular recent melding points, was the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Not only for the re-engagement with the former South African apartheid nation (*see earlier in the article), but also for Nelson Mandela.

He used the cup awarding ceremony as a poignant opportunity to show the nation the joining together of the ‘rainbow nation’.

And today, with Japan and New Zealand announcing a rugby test match via their Prime Ministers, this direct correlation is self evident. The popularity of sport can allow an otherwise disengaged public to hear two messages; how sport builds relationships, and that political will can be supported through a sport.

A game where more than the teams on the field, can claim victories for both the people and more.


“Main photo credit”