In Depth

52 ideas that changed the world - 23. International sport

From the Olympic Games to the World Cup, sport brings the world closer together

In this series, The Week looks at the ideas and innovations that permanently changed the way we see the world. This week, the spotlight is on international sport:

International sport in 60 seconds

International sport takes place when two or more countries compete against each other in any sport, with the most well-known examples including the Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup.

The competition between the two nations may take place in one of the two countries, for example a football match involving the England team at Wembley Stadium, London, or on neutral territory, such as the Rugby World Cup final between England and South Africa that took place in Japan.

In the case of international sporting events, one nation will often act as “host”, meaning that all of the other competing countries travel to the host’s country. In 2020, Tokyo will host the Olympic Games, with 206 nations expected to send more than 11,000 athletes to compete across 339 events, according to NBC.

International sporting events can also be controversial, when the host host nation is out of favour for political reasons or the event could cause a political clash.

Dr Alun Hardman, a senior lecturer at Cardiff Metropolitan University, writes in The Independent that the Indian cricket team’s 2004 tour of neighbouring Pakistan is an example of this. The tour followed almost 15 years of armed conflict between the two countries over the sovereignty of Kashmir, with Hardman writing that “thousands of Indians travelled to Pakistan to watch the matches”.

How did it develop?

During the ancient Olympic Games, city states within Ancient Greece would travel to Olympia to compete, setting the precursor for what would later develop into international competition.

As in the case of India’s 2004 cricket tour of Pakistan, during the ancient Olympic Games all internal struggles between Ancient Greece’s various city states would be put on hold, according to The Ancient Olympic Games by British Museum archaeologist Judith Swaddling.

This set a precedent for international sport as a form of diplomacy, something seen often in modern times. An example of this was a 2008 football match between Armenia and Turkey, in which the presidents of both countries sat and watched the game together, despite distrust between the neighbouring nations.

The first official international game in any sport took place in 1844, and was a cricket match played between the US and Canada (then known as the British Empire’s Canadian Province). The match took place between 24 and 26 September at St George’s Cricket Club, which was at what is now West 30th Street and Broadway in Manhattan, New York.

Canada were victorious in the match, winning by 22 runs. On the first day, there was somewhere between 5,000 and 20,000 spectators and an estimated $100,000 to $120,000 worth of bets were placed on the match, according to ESPN.

The match was organised after a team from the St George’s Club turned up in Toronto four years earlier, expecting to play against Toronto Cricket Club. However, on their arrival, they discovered that the George A. Phillpotts who had invited them was not the Toronto club’s secretary, but was in fact an imposter.

The 1844 match was organised after the hoax was discovered. In 1845, a return match was arranged and the match is still played every year as the K.A. Auty Cup Trophy, ESPN adds.

International cricket spread, with the now famous Ashes series between England and Australia first taking place in 1882. An 1872 meeting between Scotland and England was the first official international football match to be played. This was followed by the first modern Olympic Games, which took place in 1896 in Athens.

As international travel became easier, sport became increasingly globalised. In 1904 in Paris, the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) was founded to formalise football’s international reach. This led to the inaugural FIFA World Cup, which took place in Uruguay in 1930.

Other early international sporting bodies include the International Swimming Federation (1908), the International Tennis Federation (1913), the International Basketball Federation (1950) and the International Netball Federation (1960). 

The spread of television and radio further enhanced the growth of international sport, with the first televised FIFA World Cup taking place in 1956 and first Summer Olympics on television in 1960.

Some sports were late adopters of formalised international competitions, with the West Indies winning the first Cricket World Cup in 1975 and New Zealand winning the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987.

How did it change the world?

Nelson Mandela advocated for sport as an opportunity to bring people together, saying in 2000 that “sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does”.

According to a report in the Journal of Sport Management, the spread of international sport has increased the diversity of competitors in national professional leagues around the world as well as the number of countries participating in sports events.

It has also served to increase social contact between differing groups of people from around the world, while helping to raise the image or identity of many countries. 

According to US consultancy A.T. Kearney, the global sports industry in 2014 “generates as much as $700bn yearly, or 1% of global GDP”.

Hosting international sporting events like the Olympics or the World Cup can have a major impact on the economy of the host nation. In 2018, Russia hosted the football World Cup at a cost of $11.8bn. However, CNBC reports that Russian state officials claim the event added $26bn to $31bn to the national economy.


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