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date: 24 July 2024

Sport and Politics in Africafree

Sport and Politics in Africafree

  • Michelle SikesMichelle SikesDepartment of Kinesiology and the African Studies Program, The Pennsylvania State University


African politics have always had a significant effect on sport, despite cherished mantras that sport and politics are mutually exclusive. Conversely, sport has played a meaningful role in the politics of African nations, from nation-building to widening foreign policy options, to making national alliances of countries that may not have otherwise supported each other, particularly with respect to the anti-apartheid struggle. Twentieth-century African politics have been a laboratory for the testing and ultimate debunking of the long-standing notion that African sport (or any human activity) exists in a vacuum, apart from the political realities of the culture within which it exists.


  • Groups and Identities
  • History and Politics
  • World Politics


The Olympic Charter, defended by its architect Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, held politics to be antithetical to sport. During the Cold War era, powerful leaders like former International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Avery Brundage (1952 to 1972) and Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) president Sir Stanley Rous (1961 to 1974) also insisted that sport and politics should not be mixed (Darby, 2002; Guttmann, 1983; MacAloon, 1981). However, Coubertin’s philosophy obscures the inevitably entangled dialectic between the two. As academic, anti-apartheid activist, and Commonwealth Games champion Bruce Kidd (in Thomas, 2005, p. 1506) comments: “Everything connected with an international sports event is provided by a decision-making process that I would call political. They involve the allocation of resources towards sport and away from something else and that is a political process.”

Consider, for example, the 2010 World Cup in South Africa (Alegi & Bolsmann, 2013). Billed as the continent’s Games, a month of outstanding football (soccer) competition took place amidst optimistic narratives about “Africa Rising.” Airports, hotels, and public transportation were built and updated to accommodate legions of fans in South Africa while televised views of newly built stadiums offset by Cape Town’s impressive ocean views dazzled the world. The first goal of the tournament scored by the South African national team, Bafana Bafana, over Mexico was a moment of jubilation. Afterwards, many wondered whether the benefits outweighed the cost. Had the swell of national pride, and the symbolic importance of such an event resonating across the continent, justified the outlay of scarce resources on stadiums, left as vacant icons after the World Cup?

An immense flash of pride accompanied the 2010 World Cup. Nelson Mandela enjoyed huge popularity when South Africa hosted a previous World Cup in 1995. In that instance, the sport was rugby, the game that for many served as a symbol of Afrikaans South Africans. Winning the 1995 World Cup with newly elected president Mandela in attendance, wearing a Springbok jersey and personally congratulating the team afterwards, gave the rainbow nation, and the world, a moment of hope for racial reconciliation. With the advent of independence in the 1950s and 1960s, African leaders faced new challenges of maintaining unity and international diplomacy—what David Goldsworthy (1982, p. x) calls the “arts of getting, keeping, and using power.” Sport abetted emergent African nationalisms and strengthened alliances between nations. Demonstrating that sport could unite people despite religious, racial, ethnic, gender, and linguistic differences, the first All-African Games in Brazzaville in 1965 brought together some 2400 athletes from twenty-four African countries as well as France (Ukah, 1990). Yet as much as it can unify, sport in Africa, as elsewhere, can divide. Epitomizing this was the institutionalized racism of colonial rule across the continent and the apartheid laws in South Africa that scrupulously divided sport along racial lines.

The reverberations of sport are felt in the world of politics. For example, during qualification for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, star player Didier Drogba, captain of the Ivory Coast national team, used his celebrity to mobilize popular support for resolving the armed conflict in his country (N’guessan, 2005). For a country in the midst of political crisis, Drogba became a symbol of hope for national cohesion (Künzler & Poli, 2012; Njororai, 2014). In South Africa in 1992, approval for continued negotiations toward a new constitution rested, in part, on sport. White South Africans voted on whether to continue with negotiations as South Africa competed in the Cricket World Cup for the first time in more than twenty years. Some have claimed that winning approval for negotiations “had more to do with support for the cricket team than the abstract notions of power-sharing” (in Merrett, 2003).

Sport can create exploitable events that may not otherwise be available for policy-makers and leaders. For instance, Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade sought to capitalize on his national football team’s popularity as a way of boosting his own (Murphy, 2014). In their first appearance in a World Cup Finals tournament in 2002, Senegal defeated France, the former colonial power and reigning world football champion. With the aim of solidifying his own position, Wade welcomed the team home with great fanfare, and he regularly invited the team’s star forward, El Hadji Diouf, to the presidential palace (Ralph, 2006). The slogan that rose in popularity alongside Senegal’s tournament success, “Le Sénégal qui gagne” [The Senegal that wins], evoked euphoria and national pride that Wade used to his advantage, tactically inserting the phrase into his political speeches. Wade’s constant reminders of his support and association with the national football’s success “made him into a national hero of sorts” but drew criticism from his opposition, who denounced his opportunistic tendencies (Ralph, 2006, p. 308). However, the team’s fortunes declined in subsequent years and Diouf became a subject of controversy that culminated in a five-year ban from all “football-related” activities by the Senegal Football Federation, demonstrating the challenges that can face politicians who use sport to their own advantage.

On the other hand, African policy-makers and politicians often hold considerable power to shape the contours of sport. In Ethiopia, for instance, sports infrastructure became increasingly formalized from the 1940s as Emperor Haile Selassie promoted sport and stadium-building to create venues for Ethiopian youth to demonstrate the strength of the empire (Bromber, 2016). African leaders may also dictate whether athletes participate in international sports events. Mobutu Sese Seko, upon seizing power of the Congo in 1965, sought to forge unity through football and to protect what he saw as the higher interests of the country by repatriating the best Congolese players and restricting them from European clubs (Dietschy, 2006). At independence in 1963, the Kenyan government declared that its athletes would not compete against those from Rhodesia and South Africa. During the months preceding the 1968 Olympic Games, as the IOC entertained the possibility of readmitting South Africa, Kenya’s Olympic and Commonwealth Games Association was made to await guidance from the Kenyan government as to how it should react to the invitation to participate in the Mexico City Olympic Games. Kenya’s athletes at that time included Kipchoge “Kip” Keino, the favorite to win Olympic gold in the 5000 meters, Commonwealth Games champion Naftali Temu, and Wilson Kiprugut, the 1964 Olympic bronze medalist in the 800 meters. Prospective Olympic medalists had also emerged from Ethiopia, Senegal, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast. Their participation depended on the same political calculus. In 1968, African leaders only permitted their teams to take part in the Olympic Games when South Africa’s absence was assured (Booth, 1998; Lapchick, 1975). In 1976, 1980, and 1984, a critical mass of African athletes was made to forfeit Olympic participation when political leaders carried out threats to boycott.

This article will begin by making the case for the significance of politics and sport in the African context before reviewing the main ways that this relationship has been conceptualized. This is to identify key trends before considering the way scholars have responded to these trends. Focus falls on colonial sport and the politics of resistance, the role of sport in nation-building and pan-Africanism, and the sport boycott arising from apartheid in South Africa. The final section presents a discussion of how to research these themes.

Sport remains part of wider currents of African politics. The continent’s diversity ensures that the relationship between sport and politics in Africa will remain kaleidoscopic and subject to change. Beyond doubt, however, is that sport and politics are intertwined. As Trinidadian writer C. L. R. James (1963) implied when he famously queried, “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” sport cannot be detached from its political context. Those who know only African sport know very little at all.

Colonial Sport and the Politics of Resistance

Between 1885 and the high point of decolonization in 1960, seventy-five years of European colonialism in Africa were shared with the expansion of modern sport. From track and field to rugby to boxing, many of today’s most popular sports originated and were codified in Britain in the 19th century (Holt, 1989). At that time, imperialism gathered pace, aided by colonial governments, the church, and the army, all of which promoted Western sport in Africa (Baker & Mangan, 1987).

Sport and empire were regarded as mutually reinforcing systems with a higher moral purpose. To encourage peoples to jump, run, and throw according to Western movement cultures was to justify the righteousness of colonial rule (Guttmann, 1994; Mangan, 1986). This morality pervading Western sport came from a range of sources: changing attitudes toward physical and mental health, the desire to actively promote religion, the influence of the social and evolutionary theories of Spencer and Darwin, and the push of the imperial endeavor, which was itself linked with the rise of the British public school (Hobsbawm, 1987; Mangan, 1981). From this combination of sport, religion, masculinity, and moral education emerged “muscular Christianity,” a doctrine in which the values of sport were connected with the “civilizing” missions of Christianity and colonial education in empire (MacAloon, 2008).

Aspects of European sport would have resonated among indigenous peoples. Well before colonial expansion cast Western sport across the continent, foot races, stick fighting, and dancing were embedded in the social fabric of many communities (Bale & Sang, 1996; Carton & Morrell, 2012; Ranger, 1975). Indigenous games and physical contests conferred status, identity, and power on those who took part. People often wrestled for the pride of the village or the region (Carotenuto, 2013; Deets, 2015; Paul, 1987). In Kenya, a vibrant games and recreation culture was flourishing among Kikuyu children well before the arrival of British colonists (Cunningham, 2016). Winning races, matches, and laurels in Western sport would eventually become a way to preserve continuity with older ideals of attaining masculinity and maturity as warriors (Akyeampong, 2002; Ranger, 1987).

Sport in colonial Africa therefore emerged as the product of imported imperial practices and indigenous responses to them. Depending on the situation, sport and leisure became a site of convergence or of conflict between colonizer and colonized (Akyeampong & Ambler, 2002; Alegi, 2010; Fair, 2001; Martin, 1995). Through sport, players and fans found ways to express talent, social class, and rivalries that reinforced community identities. Upward mobility was possible for men who stood out as footballers, boxers, and runners. Enthusiasm swelled for football, in particular, with players and fans embracing the European game with passionate intensity (Alegi, 2010; Deville-Danthu, 1997).

Undertones of political conflict also existed in colonial sport. Sport had been institutionalized under policies that re-created the social exclusion of athletic pastimes in Europe, with race as well as class stratifying male athletes. Among runners in Kenya, for example, competitions were divided along racial lines until a landmark decision in 1954 allowed open competition among male runners, black and white alike. In Zanzibar, conflicts between local players and white referees presented a challenge to the administration’s premise that European control was unassailable (Fair, 1997). Zanzibaris also founded African Sports, a football team, in part to strengthen a sense of African identity and political unity. Its formation was seen as representative of the potential strength of African communities united behind a shared goal. In neighboring Tanganyika (Tanzania), sports clubs in Dar es Salaam provided a front for discussion of liberation strategies (Ndee, 2005). As African leaders in Brazzaville began to resist European dominance in politics and business, so did they contest colonial authority in football (Martin, 1995). In Madagascar, rugby thrived and became a vehicle through which to confront French colonial power. Initially reserved for the military and for those who could afford membership in exclusive sport clubs, the game spread in the aftermath of World War I, ultimately becoming the foremost “Malagasy sport,” with elite sport clubs transformed into spaces of physical and moral training for national emancipation (Combeau-Mari, 2011a).

Nation-Building, Pan-Africanism, and Sport in Africa

African leaders adapted their peoples’ most popular pastime, football, for overtly political purposes during the nationalist era. This can be seen most clearly in the role that the game played in Algeria’s bid for liberation from France (Amara & Henry, 2004). In 1958, the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), as part of its campaign for independence, formed a football team of revolutionaries that toured, and won, in North Africa, eastern Europe, the Middle East, and China, to raise awareness of Algeria’s resistance to French control (Darby, 2002). The Algerian newspapers portrayed the team as a symbol of the people and applauded it for boosting national pride and strengthening Algeria’s call for freedom. When the nation became independent, many of the players were given prominent positions in government.

African sport was woven into the tapestry of nationalism and independence in other ways. First president of Ghana Kwame Nkrumah regarded football as a tool of nation-building and pan-African unity, drawing on the game as a rallying point for a shared African identity in the late colonial and immediate postcolonial period (Darby, 2013). He was far from the only postcolonial African leader to employ football in aid of promoting national identity in the aftermath of independence. Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Ivory Coast, Sekou Touré of Guinea, Joseph Mobutu of Zaire, and Paul Biya of Cameroon, among others, also sought to use the sport as a bonding agent in the process of nation-building (Chipande, 2016). African national teams and Olympic qualifiers reified the frontiers that constituted the artificial geography of (post)colonialism by representing the collective of communities living within these boundaries. National excellence in sport buttressed imagined communities of Nigerians, Kenyans, Ghanaians, and nation-builders throughout the continent (Anderson, 1983). Pre-dating the era of African independence of the 1950s and 1960s, rugby took on wider political meanings for South Africa’s white Afrikaans community in the aftermath of the second South African War (or Anglo-Boer War, 1899–1902). As Afrikaner nationalism began to flourish, rugby became an index of masculinity and an important extension of Afrikaner identity (Grundlingh, 1995; Nauright, 1997). After apartheid, South African leaders attempted to capitalize on this potential, explicitly framing the 2010 FIFA World Cup as an effort in nation-building (Catsam, 2010; Cornelissen, 2004, 2007). Sport historian Mark Dyreson (2008) explains, “More than any other modern institution with the exception of war, sport provides the necessary conditions for the patriotic bonds that bind citizen to citizen.” Athletic success can inspire and provide a source of domestic pride, diminishing other divisions in society.

The alignment of politics and sport has been symbolized by impressively large, government-owned sport stadiums in capital cities across the continent. In Kenya, a budget of nearly £500,000 was made available for the country’s first independence day celebrations. New constructions included Uhuru Stadium, a venue built in Nairobi that could seat 40,000 people (Goldsworthy, 1982). Two different cities, Accra and Lusaka, also named their new stadiums “Independence Stadium” (Alegi, 2010). The 5 July Stadium in Algiers and the 28 September Stadium in Conakry, Guinea, memorialized each of their respective nation’s date of independence. Venues have been dedicated to politicians who led their nations to independence, such as Félix Houphouët-Boigny Stadium in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. In Ethiopia, Emperor Haile Selassie laid the foundation stone for the stadium in Addis Ababa that would take his name and remain the capital’s most important sports venue even to today (Bromber, 2016). These stadiums, Peter Alegi (2010, p. 56) points out, convey an image of state power and become “almost sacred ground” for the consolidation of national identities.” On the other hand, fancy new stadiums, such as the one built on Green Point Common in Cape Town, tend to be unavailable to local teams and clubs (Alegi, 2007). Trumpeting the construction of lavish venues can paper over persistently limited infrastructure at the grassroots level.

Pan-Africanist ideals have been promoted by a wide range of sporting events and organizations on the continent, from the Foreman–Ali boxing match, “The Rumble in the Jungle,” held in Kinshasa in 1974 to the formation of Confédération Africaine de Football (CAF) in 1957 (Darby, 2002). Although one of CAF’s founding members, along with Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan, was the apartheid-era, wholly white, South African Football Association, South Africa did not participate in the first African continental football competition in 1957, and it was expelled from CAF in 1960 (Bolsmann, 2010). South Africa first took part in the tournament in 1996, two years after apartheid ended. Its exclusion was seen as a victory for pan-African solidarity and the anti-apartheid sport struggle. As Paul Darby notes, “CAF immediately embodied tremendous hope, one of African brotherhood stretching to the limits of the continent.” CAF’s formation allowed African nations to question European control over international football, to pursue the expulsion of South Africa from FIFA, and to mobilize to increase the number of African participants in the World Cup Finals (Alegi, 2010).

Regional sports gatherings and associations that have grown into continental events and federations further consolidate bonds between nations. The Jeux de l’Amitié (also known as the Friendship Games or the Community Games) were large-scale sport gatherings initially reserved for French-speaking countries that gave rise to the All-Africa Games from 1965 (Ukah, 1990). Madagascar’s independence was declared three days before the 1960 Community Games [Jeux de la Communauté] opened in its capital city of Antananarivo. This festival was the first to be held in Africa with the intention of bringing French-speaking peoples together, based on the model of the Olympic Games. Eight hundred male athletes representing 19 teams, including France, competed in eight disciplines (Combeau-Mari, 2011b). Against the backdrop of decolonization, these continental competitions were intended to foster feelings of fraternity and unity. The African Cup of Nations football tournament also augmented efforts to build friendly relations. The tournament began with only a few teams in the late 1950s and over time expanded into a biennial event featuring over fifty nations.

African sport has played a role in international affairs in other ways. From the onset of independence, teams, federations, and individual athletes were complicit with a deeply political mission: the anti-apartheid struggle. Independent nations, seeking freedom from colonial and minority rule for all the continent’s peoples, made a concerted effort to expel apartheid South Africa and other racist regimes from international sport. Leading this campaign was the Supreme Council for Sport in Africa, a semi-autonomous subsidiary of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), established in December 1966 (Espy, 1981). One of the SCSA’s founding resolutions was to expel states governed by colonial and White minority regimes from international athletics (Booth, 1998). Collectively boycotting major sports events was the weapon of choice. For example, African nations’ threatened withdrawal from the 1972 Munich Olympics over Rhodesia’s inclusion succeeded in removing Rhodesia from the games (Little, 2011; Novak, 2006, 2013). For states that lacked other forms of leverage, withholding athletic prowess and forgoing Olympic glory was a tool to fight for social justice on the continent. Sport thus became an instrument of foreign policy and an opportunity for African states to play a serious role in international politics around a cause that unified them (Cornelissen, 2011).

This issue was also inflected by the hostilities of the Cold War. The Soviet Union supported African demands to deny South Africa international sport while the United States and other western nations favored South Africa’s bid to retain sporting ties (Guttmann, 2002; Riordan, 1991). The wider battle for African support played out in the realm of sport in other ways, from sending coaches and experts to share knowledge about athletics to providing material aid for building African sport programs (Hanzan, 1987). With these overtures in sport, Western and Soviet leaders sought to advertise the virtues of their political system and facilitate relations with African nations in other spheres.

African nations, in turn, projected their image to the world through sport. Involvement in the Olympic movement, the Commonwealth Games, and the World Cup contributed to the Western world’s interpretation of independent Africa. Crawford Young (2012, p. 115) has argued that the continent’s transition to independence was a product of “an intense quest for external presentability.” Taking part in Western games was a way to garner that international validation. African National Olympic Committees and Commonwealth Games Committees conveyed respectability, enhanced by African athletic successes, particularly on soccer fields and running tracks.

As much as sport played a role in garnering international recognition and sustaining pan-African identity, the growth and popularity of African sport made it a platform for political expression at home, some of which produced group coherence. Other aspects engendered conflict and division. With independence came efforts by many ethnic groups to shape their existences without being bound to colonially defined territorial boundaries. Sport constituted an important part of expressing this desire for ethnic self-determination. Teams in Kenya’s Premier League, for example, continue to serve as politically charged symbols within the country’s fraught ethnic geography. The league’s most heated rivalries can be traced to the hardening of ethnicity during the country’s colonial past (Lonsdale, 1994). Matches that pitch ethnic rivals draw large crowds, such as when the AFC Leopards play Gor Mahia, teams that are rooted in, respectively, Luhya and Luo ethnic identities (Njororai, 2009). Through the play and performance of sports teams, communities inscribe their culture (Waliaula & Okong’o, 2014). The strong association between ethnic communities and football clubs is not unique to Kenya. In Ghana, for example, football has long been similarly politicized, with the heated rivalry between the two best professional clubs, Accra Hearts of Oak and the Kumasi Asante Kotoko, reflecting cleavages of ethnicity, geography, and party affiliation (Fridy & Brobbey, 2009).

Individual athletes’ decisions can also splinter or enhance national unity, depending on the situation. Liberian international football star George Weah buoyed fellow citizens in the midst of civil war when he became the first person from the continent to be named FIFA’s World Player of the Year (Armstrong, 2007). In 2001, Liberia’s minister of youth and sports Francois Massaquoi told Sports Illustrated that: “George Weah and football are the only things we have to hold on to. Football is the glue that holds this country together.” After retiring from the game in 2002, Weah used the wealth and popularity that he had gained to enter politics. He was elected president of Liberia in 2017. South African professional football player, defender Mark Fish, has also been the subject of academic focus. Bolsmann and Parker (2006) argue that his celebrity status and football career provide a useful means through which to consider the changing politics and sense of nationhood within South African society.

African Sport, International Boycotts, and Apartheid South Africa

Apartheid South Africa provided the continent, and the world, with one of the longest-standing political conflicts in sport. White-dominated racial segregation had long shaped sport in South Africa (Archer & Bouillon, 1982). Initially, it was an unwritten norm that South African sport was divided by race, with only white athletes representing the country at the international level. As the rest of the continent emerged from colonial rule in the 1950s and 1960s, a spate of apartheid laws came into place and South Africa’s racially discriminatory policies hardened. Access to beaches, golf courses, tennis courts, and running tracks, long rationed according to race, was controlled tightly after the consolidation of apartheid. Black athletes were barred from joining white clubs and white teams and black teams could not compete against one another. The best facilities were reserved for the white population and deliberate inequalities in sports resources predominated. By 1977, the country’s 4.4 million white population was receiving 180 times more support from government sport subsidies than its 18.6 million black population (Lapchick, 1979).

Organized opposition to apartheid in sport was forthcoming from the 1950s. The South African Sports Association (SASA), established in 1958, and the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (SAN-ROC), founded in 1963, pressured international sport federations to exclude South Africa’s all-white teams (Booth, 1998). These groups presented non-racial sport as an alternative to sport controlled by all-white sport governing bodies grounded in apartheid policy. The functioning of these opposition groups was constrained, however, by ruthless government interference. Dennis Brutus, a leading figure in the non-racial sport movement, was put under house arrest, detained in Robben Island, and ultimately exiled (Smit, 2011). Undeterred, after arriving in London, Brutus revived SAN-ROC and continued campaigning. Protest within South Africa also resumed in the early 1970s with the establishment of the South African Council on Sport (SACOS; Booth, 1997). Under the banner of “no normal sport in an abnormal society,” it championed the cause of non-racial sport within South Africa throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

The Olympics were a pressure point during the anti-apartheid struggle. From the late 1950s, the IOC was repeatedly reminded that racial discrimination in South Africa violated the Olympic Charter’s principles. In 1963, South Africa refused to select an Olympic team composed of black and white athletes to compete as one at the Games. In 1964, South Africa’s Olympic Committee declined to denounce apartheid policy in sport publicly, leading finally to that nation’s suspension from the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. In an effort to regain entry to the 1968 Games, the South African government offered concessions that a majority of Olympic member nations approved. South Africa would send black and white athletes on the same team to the Olympic Games. All those who qualified would wear the same uniforms and compete as one under the South African flag, a deviation from apartheid. Within the borders of the country, however, sport would remain separate by race. Committees of black and white sport administrators would select South Africa’s Olympic team on the basis of racially separate trials.

African nations across the continent condemned this arrangement. Ready to stand for action on a range of fronts in the name of justice and equality, thirty-one African states threatened to abstain from participating in the Olympics of 1968 if South Africa took part. Two sets of ideals powerfully combined to buttress their protest: 1) the Olympic creed, that all athletes compete as equals; and 2) pan-Africanism, which rested in part on a shared purpose in freeing all of Africa from colonial or white minority rule. Under boycott threats, South Africa was excluded from the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. It was expelled from the Olympic movement in 1970.

White South Africa’s most popular sporting pastimes, rugby and cricket, were run independently of the international sports organizations in which African nations held power, such as the Olympics movement and the Commonwealth Games. As long as South Africa’s preferred sporting partners continued to compete against it in its favorite sports, the impact of the boycott was limited. Organizations therefore worked specifically to deter Australia, England, the United States, and New Zealand from competing against South Africa in cricket and rugby (MacLean, 2000). For example, South African exile Peter Hain led the Stop the Seventy Tour (STST) campaign in response to the Marylebone Cricket Club’s invitation to South Africa to tour in 1970 (Hain, 1971; Murray, 2002). Protests succeeded in cutting short the 1969–70 South African rugby tour of Britain, and the STST campaign threatened to similarly disrupt the cricket matches planned for 1970. African, Asian, and Caribbean nations also threatened to boycott the 1970 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games in retaliation (Skillen & McDowell, 2017). The South African cricket team’s invitation was withdrawn.

Rugby proved more elusive, despite direct action demonstrations that took place during South Africa’s tours abroad, including disruption of play and pitch invasions. In Australia, New Zealand, and Britain, trade union members threatened to suspend services if their national team competed against the apartheid state (Lapchick, 1979). Twenty-six African nations withdrew from the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games in protest against a New Zealand rugby tour of South Africa. Those missing the Games included world record holders Tanzanian Filbert Bayi (1500 meters) and John Akii-Bua of Uganda (400 meter hurdles). The walkout catalyzed reactions from the international federations in charge of athletics, football, and swimming, which expelled South Africa from their organizations. Citing New Zealand’s continued support for South African sport, Nigeria alone boycotted the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, Canada (Macintosh, Greenhorn, & Black, 1992). The final large-scale walkout by African nations over “the South Africa question” took place at the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, Scotland. Thirty-three nations boycotted in response to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s refusal to apply economic sanctions against South Africa (McDowell & Skillen, 2017).

By the 1980s, isolated from almost all international sports contact, South Africa sought unofficial means to maintain its sporting ties. With considerable financial resources at their disposal, white sport governing bodies in South Africa organized “rebel” tours (Gemmell, 2004; Murray & Merrett, 2004; Vahed & Desai, 2016). Foreign teams or individuals willing to buck the isolation campaign were paid handsomely to compete within the country. The international community met these tours with great hostility. National cricket governing boards imposed bans on “rebel” players, which ranged from three years for English and Australian players, to twenty-five years for Sri Lankan cricketers, to life bans for players from the West Indies.

South Africa returned to international sport after the legislative foundations of apartheid were repealed in the early 1990s. South Africa was invited to the 1992 Barcelona Games and was rewarded with two silver medals, one of which was won by Elana Meyer in the 10,000 meters (Merrett, 2003). After the race, Meyer rounded the track hand in hand with the winner, Derartu Tulu, the first Ethiopian woman to win a gold medal. Their victory lap was heralded as a symbol of hope for post-apartheid South Africa. Josiah Thugwane won gold in the marathon for South Africa at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, leading to his acclaim as a “hero and rainbow warrior” (in Merrett, 2003, p. 45). Yet for post-apartheid South Africa, the games also made clear the potential for discord in sport. Political divisiveness prevailed in the wake of Cape Town’s failed bid for the 2004 Olympic Games. The conflict over the Springbok emblem was such that its use went unresolved until well after the adoption of a new national flag and national anthem. Rugby has emerged as the only sport in South Africa not to replace the Springbok after 1994 (Bolsmann, 2017).

African politics have always had a significant effect on sport, despite cherished mantras of powerful sport officials that sport and politics are mutually exclusive. Sport has played a meaningful role in the politics of African nations, from nation-building to widening foreign policy options, to making allies of countries that may not have otherwise supported each other. Sport, too, has played a significant role in South African politics, and can legitimately lay claim to being a major arena for confronting apartheid laws in South Africa. Twentieth-century African history has been a laboratory for the testing and ultimate debunking of the long-standing notion that sport (or any human activity) exists in a vacuum, separate from the external political realities of the culture within which it seeks to exist.


In summary, sport and politics are not mutually exclusive; they are in fact inseparable. The notion that sport can have no bearing on politics is belied by 20th-century African politics generally, and South African 20th-century politics particularly. Sport became part of the politics of liberation from colonial rule and of postcolonial African leaders’ attempts to forge new identities while solidifying their power. In some contexts, sport came to buttress nation-building projects while elsewhere it proved divisive. Confronting South African apartheid owed as much to sport as to any other human activity. From Olympic boycotts to hosting potentially ephemeral mega-event competitions, African sport remains a part of wider political currents. Sport in Africa is a field of study important unto itself and valuable as a lens through which to understand the terrain of African politics more broadly.

Discussion of the Literature

Sport has been neglected in the study of African states and of African leaders’ competing demands, priorities, and allegiances. Bea Vidacs (2006, p. 336) surmised that the topic of African sport had been given little serious attention because it appeared “trivial, light, without consequence and not on a par with the grave problems the continent faces from poverty and corruption.” Yet across the continent, people find in sport a source of hope and inspiration, as has been highlighted in research on running in Kenya, football in Liberia and Cameroon, and basketball in Senegal (Armstrong, 2004; Jarvie & Sikes, 2012; Ralph, 2007; Vidacs, 2010). To Olympic gold medalist Meseret Defar (in MacDougall, 2010, p. 51), “Ethiopia is not just about famine and drought – I want the world to see strong women clutching the Ethiopian flag in stadiums all over the world.”

Studying African sport should be of intrinsic interest to political scientists, if only because of its scale and significant presence in people’s lives and the political capital that can be consequently derived. Writing for a popular audience, Steve Bloomfield (2010, p. 15) observed, “Everywhere I’ve travelled – from the beaches of Freetown to the streets of Mogadishu – people have been playing football.” This echoes Karin Barber’s (1987, p. 1) seminal essay on “Popular Arts in Africa,” that sport—like popular arts—merits serious scholarly attention because: “They loudly proclaim their own importance in the lives of large numbers of African people. They are everywhere. They flourish without encouragement or recognition from official cultural bodies and sometimes in defiance of them.” Furthermore, as with the arts, sport illuminates important aspects of the societies in which it takes root and expresses “all kinds of meanings” (Barber, 1987, p. 75). Analysis of the political dimensions of African sport thus becomes an investigation into the workings of societies as a whole.

Recent years have seen rapid growth of literature on sport and politics in Africa. Panels on this theme have been organized at the international conferences of august bodies like the African Studies Association and the European Conference of African Studies. Conferences focused specifically on “Sports Africa” have been held since 2004, with the most recent iterations taking place in 2018 in Lusaka, Zambia and in 2017 in Bloemfontein, South Africa. Recent and forthcoming special issues that deal specifically with political, social, and historical dimensions of African sport have been published by the International Journal of the History of Sport (2013, 2016, 2019), Critical African Studies (2014), Sport in Society (2014), and ACTA Academica (2018).

Scholars of South Africa have been at the vanguard of such investigations. Much has been written about race, politics, and the struggle against apartheid in international sport (Bose, 1994; Brickhill; 1976; Jarvie, 1985; Keech & Houlihan, 1999; Kidd, 1988; Nixon, 1992). Of those who focused on the international boycott and South Africa’s isolation across a gamut of sports, Douglas Booth’s (1998) The Race Game: Sport and Politics in South Africa, together with Archer and Bouillon’s earlier (1982) The South African Game: Sport and Racism, provide essential accounts of the genesis, contribution, and impact of the anti-apartheid boycott. First-hand accounts of activists’ efforts to change the system detail how this pressure emerged first from SASA in the late 1950s and then from SAN-ROC, in opposition to the IOC’s preferred affiliate (Brutus, 1959; de Broglio, 1970; Hain, 1971; Ramsamy, 2004). South Africa’s most popular sports of rugby, football, and cricket continue to attract scholarly attention, and the boycott of South Africa in sport has influenced the historical and political record of each pastime (Alegi, 2004; Alegi & Bolsmann, 2010; Black & Nauright, 1998; Bolsmann, 2013; Desai, Padayachee, Reddy, & Goolam, 2002; Gemmell, 2004; Grundlingh, Odendaal, & Spies, 1995; Murray & Merrett, 2004; Nauright, 1997; Odendaal, 2003).

Football in Africa has proven an effective lens on the continent’s politics and the politics of sport more broadly (Alegi, 2010; Armstrong & Giulianotti, 2004; Darby, 2002). Phyllis Martin (1991) and Laura Fair (1997) have also demonstrated as much in work on colonial Brazzaville and Zanzibar respectively. Peter Alegi’s (2004) masterful work on football in South Africa furnished the first academic monograph devoted to the growth of the game in a single African country. The popularity of football has also placed it at the center of sport development projects, increasingly a focus of academic research (Levermore & Beacom; 2009; Manzo, 2011; Pillay, Tomlinson, & Bass, 2009; Willis, 2000). Mismanagement and corruption in the sport have been exposed and described, particularly with regard to FIFA and football politics in Africa (Sugden & Tomlinson, 2003). The first World Cup on African soil drew substantial academic attention, with several edited collections and special journal issues published that focus on the politics, history, and cultural significance of the event and the game for (South) African societies (Alegi & Bolsmann, 2010, 2013; Cornelissen, 2007; Cottle, 2011; Pillay et al., 2009).

Many African men and women dream of playing football for clubs in Europe. Political scientists, along with sport geographers, historians, and sociologists, have analyzed the migration of African football players and runners to clubs, universities, and teams located within and beyond the continent (Chepyator-Thomson & Ariyo, 2016; Domingo, 2007; Cleveland, 2017; Lanfranchi & Taylor, 2001; Njororai, 2010). Underpinning this burgeoning body of scholarship are the globalization of sport and the commercialization of international football and athletics over the past thirty years (Cornelissen & Solberg, 2007). The flow of African sports talent to western Europe has been conceptualized as an exploitative extension of former colonial powers (Bale, 2004; Darby, 2007; Darby, 2007a, 2007b; Poli 2006). The recruitment of promising African athletes to European clubs can limit African nations’ capacity to project power into the world’s sporting arena. On the other hand, the agency involved with African football players’ decision to migrate has also been emphasized (Esson, 2015). Others have analyzed the ways in which male and female African football players may benefit from the opportunities available in professional sport as well as be adversely affected by precarious work conditions (Agergaard & Ungruhe, 2016).

East African runners’ success has attracted scholarly focus, not only from physiologists and other scientists, seeking to explain how runners from this part of the world run so well, but also from historians and social scientists interested in the social, political, and cultural dynamics of running in this region. The success of runners from Kenya and Ethiopia brought together scientists, historians, and social scientists to produce East African Running: Towards a Cross-Disciplinary Perspective (Pitsiladis, Bale, Sharp, & Noakes, 2007). Bale and Sang (1996) provide an overview of Kenyan men’s running success, detailing their entry into Western sport through the influence of British colonial administrators and missionaries and analyzing their successes and movements until the mid-1990s.

The politics of sport and (postcolonial) identities remain an important area of research (Bale & Cronin, 2003). Although work has been forthcoming on African sport and national identity (Darby, 2013), research continues on how ethnic tensions manifested in sport are reproduced, challenged, and constrained (Fridy & Brobbey, 2009). Historical studies of gender and women’s sport have been most forthcoming for the South Africa context, though largely as articles and chapters of edited collections (Hargreaves, 2000; Jones, 2003; Naidoo & Muholi, 2010; Pelak, 2010; Saavedra, 2003). The migration of African female football players within the context of women, soccer and transnational migration has also garnered attention (Agergaard & Tiesler, 2014). However, outside of a small yet growing corpus on women’s sport in Africa, the topic is rarely addressed in the literature on politics of African sport and remains an important area for future research (Sikes & Bale, 2014).

Primary Sources

From print to broadcast to social media, the range of primary sources for studying sport and politics in Africa is broad. Researchers should become familiar with the government department responsible for sport in the country of focus—for example, Sport and Recreation South Africa (SRSA). Reports produced by government agencies related to sport as well as the minutes of National Sport Councils and National Olympic Committees may be then supplemented by studying different forms of mass media. Live news broadcasts, for instance, often feature current issues and debates related to sport and politics, along with reporting on the latest set of victories and losses, and may be available through YouTube channels. Studying the messages and themes of such programming can prove a rich dataset. Similarly, substantive issues related to African sport are often discussed over the radio. Online forums, websites devoted to sport in Africa, as well as following African athletes on social media can be a valuable entrée into current political issues. Researchers can look to films and documentaries on the politics of African sport, such as Episode 4: “Fair Play” of the excellent seven-part documentary series Have You Heard from Johannesburg. Other films, such as Town of Runners (2012), focused on young runners in the Ethiopian town of Bekoji, and Zanzibar Soccer Queens (2007), which details the lives of Muslim women competing together for a football team in Zanzibar, can be useful gateways for understanding the role of ethnicity, class, religion, and the different experiences of men and women in sport and society. Further discussion of African sport and politics may emerge through interviews, speeches, memoirs, autobiographies, and photographs of athletes, administrators, politicians, coaches, and fans.

Researching the major international sport events held in Africa, such as the 2010 World Cup, as well as continental events, like the African Cup of Nations (football), the African Championships (athletics), and the African Games, presents another way to study the politics of sport on the continent. Politicians across the continent often take interest in their country’s national and international federations. For example, the continental multisport event known as the African Games is organized by the African Union, along with the Association of National Olympic Committees of Africa, and the Association of African Sports Confederations. Other sources of information on the politics of sport may derive from researching international sport governing bodies, particularly those in which African athletes have excelled, such as athletics, overseen by the International Association of Athletics Federations, and football, which falls under the direction of FIFA. The website of the International Platform on Sport and Development, is a hub for research in the field of sport and development. The IOC’s Olympic Studies Centre holds the IOC archives, official publications of the IOC, and other publications related to the Olympic movement, to which African athletes and politicians have contributed significantly. Relatedly, the LA 84 Foundation Digital Library Collection can be searched for a range of information on the Olympics.

Interviewing athletes, sport officials, fans, journalists, and politicians may also allow researchers to range into wider discussions of nationalisms and local ethnic identities, the politics of gender and race, and the role that sport plays in major political events. Many African athletes who have competed professionally outside of Africa, such as Didier Drogba or George Weah, attempt to influence change within their country. Studying these individuals, or reaching out to charitable foundations begun by professional athletes from the continent, may prove a point of entry into researching African sport and politics.

African newspapers constitute an important and accessible primary source for studying the politics of sport. Ubiquitous in papers published across the continent, the sport section can be a source of political history if traced over time and of contemporary politics if considered as a snapshot. Newspapers and magazines published elsewhere may report on sporting affairs of interest to sport-minded Africanists, such as Sports Illustrated, which is searchable and contains a full run of the magazine’s publications from August 1954. Historic news publications, which can be consulted by visiting the British Library, the US Library of Congress, and many universities in Africa as well as outside of the continent, can be combined with current publications and online database of articles, such as The interrelationship of sport and politics in Africa furthermore gives rise to searching for sport within discussion of politics, law, and education. Historical African newspapers can be accessed digitally through the World Newspaper Archive, which contains African newspapers from 1800 to 1922, as well as the Cooperative Africana Microform Project, which contains more than 1400 newspapers from 1800 to the present. Newspapers should be also be considered a key source for writing about the nexus of African sport and politics—although as with the other kinds of information described here, they should always be used critically. It is by drawing on a combination of different sources to triangulate evidence and build a nuanced understanding that researchers can develop the most penetrating and reliable understanding of the role of sport in Africa.