Unless you have been living on Mars, you are no doubt aware we now live in a “post-truth” world in which people can happily assert that which is untrue to advance an agenda simply by appealing to human emotion.
If that doesn’t trouble you, perhaps the fact that shape-shifting US president-elect Donald J. Trump is an arch-exponent of the art will.
But is this anything new? The facts certainly suggest not. A case in point is the relationship between organised sport and politics.
For as long as the two have existed, we have been told they should not mix. However, a quick glance at history swiftly debunks this notion. And far from being separate and distinct forms of human endeavour, they are inextricably linked and one could probably not exist without the other.
The connection between politics – in its broadest sense – and sport is at the heart of new academic research in Hong Kong that seeks to understand the identity crisis of a city through the prism of its professional football league.
A pilot study by assistant professor Lawrence Ho Ka-ki of the Department of Social Sciences at the Hong Kong Institute of Education and guest lecturer, Andy Chiu, is tackling the thorny issues of race, identity and ethnicity in the highly-politicised melting pot that is modern-day Hong Kong.
The opening phase of their work, entitled: Indigenous versus All-Stars: The Politics of Hong Kong Representation in International Soccer Tournaments, maps the attitudes of hundreds of Hong Kong football fans towards local, “naturalised” mainland Chinese and foreign-born players who are able to play for the city’s “national” team provided they give up their nationalities for Hong Kong citizenship.
In fact, it was a curious controversy over a poster published by the Chinese Football Association ahead of a FIFA World Cup qualifying match between Hong Kong and China in 2015 that spawned the research, Chiu said.
The Chinese FA warned fans not to underestimate Hong Kong because the city’s team had “black skin, yellow skin and white skin people”, and that “playing a team with such diverse backgrounds, you’d better be prepared”.
The Hong Kong Football Association responded in kind with their own poster, which read: “Don’t let other people look down on you. Our soccer team has black skin, yellow skin, and white skin. The goal is the same to fight for Hong Kong. You are Hongkongers so you must support us!”
“Hong Kong is a place where even before things became as heavily politicised as they are today, the notion of identity was extremely complex,” Chiu said. “Often sport allows us a window into what people really think about the ideas of race, identity and ethnicity – that’s why we chose Hong Kong’s ‘national’ football team.”
Hong Kong’s ‘national’ football team currently includes 11 non-locally-born players from Europe, Africa and South America. As part of their study, Ho and Chiu interviewed two black African players from the squad, who became naturalised Hong Kong citizens.
“It was interesting. When they were on the pitch, the fans embraced them fully. But off the pitch a much different and mutli-layered picture emerged,” Chiu said.
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In the later stages of the study, the pair hope to explore how mainland Chinese players on the Hong Kong national team fit into the highly complex picture.
In 1997, the year China regained sovereignty over Hong Kong, Juan Antonio Samaranch, a late former president of the International Olympic Committee – an organisation with big politics at its core – said: “There can be no doubt that sporting contests, and the Olympic Games in particular, are a reflection of the real world, a microcosm of international relations.
“In the 1970s the ‘ping-pong diplomacy’ that followed the encounters arranged between American and Chinese players enabled the situation to be unfrozen, and paved the way to a dialogue between two countries that did not maintain diplomatic relations.”
Like FIFA, the IOC recognises Hong Kong and Macau – both Special Administrative Regions of China – as constituent, separate members that can compete as such in international tournaments.
“When the Crown Colony of Hong Kong was handed back to Chinese sovereignty, the IOC was able to negotiate an agreement whereby Hong Kong’s National Olympic Committee was able to preserve its independence and its status within the Olympic movement,” Samaranch said in 1997.
A full account of the pilot study will be published in the International Journal of the History of Sport in 2017