illustration: Two policemen chase two athletes off the podium with batons. Smiling spectators watch from the background.

A Stage for Protests

Mexico City 1968: with their Black Power salute, Afro-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos protested against racial discrimination at the Olympic medal ceremony. Sport will always have a political dimension and will always provide a stage for protests.

Friday, 29 January 2016 – the referee blows his whistle to start a match between AE Larissa and AO Acharnaikos in the second division of the Greek football league. But, to the amazement of fans and media alike, the players from the two clubs don’t actually touch the ball. Instead they sit down on the pitch in silence for two minutes in order to demonstrate against European refugee policy and draw attention to the plight of thousands of people fleeing from Turkey to Greece by boat in often highly dangerous circumstances.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016 – a German cup match kicks off between Stuttgart and Dortmund. There are no Dortmund fans cheering on their team and the away team section of the stadium is empty. It is 18 minutes before the BVB fans start to troop into the stadium, in what is a protest against ticket prices of up to 70 euros. To further underline their message, the Dortmund fans throw tennis balls onto the pitch at the start of the second half and complain that football is in danger of losing its character as the people’s sport.

Sportsrelated protest often attracts a significant amount of media coverage because of the popularity of the sport. However, interest in the subject can also tail off just as quickly.

These two examples from the world of European professional football serve to highlight how important sport has become as a platform for political protest. They also demonstrate the different ways in which such protests can be made, and the wide range of issues that underlie such protests. Sport – and especially professional football – is a global mass phenomenon that has become an essential element in many people’s everyday lives.

And, as such, sport isn’t just about individual physical fitness or some kind of collective trial of strength, but represents an important part of social communication due to its considerable potential for mobilising public opinion. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that sport is often seen as the ideal medium for reflecting the widest possible range of political, social, cultural and economic issues.

The result is that the stage provided by sport is regularly sought out and exploited by various actors with a particular point to make. And, indeed, the point they want to make might well relate to a problem with a particular sport itself, as was the case in the second of the football matches mentioned above. Or it could be – as with the first example – that the issue has nothing to do with a particular sports event per se, but the sport in question provides a useful external framework for highlighting that issue. In both cases, it is clear that this kind of sportsrelated protest often attracts a significant amount of media coverage because of the popularity of the sport. However, interest in the subject can also tail off just as quickly.

The issue of sports-related protest has, until now, attracted only limited interest from academics. Although there have been many instances of this kind of protest, so far no-one has carried out a systematic analysis that goes beyond an initial examination. A good example of the poor state of research in this area is the eight-volume 'International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest, 1500 to the Present', which includes no mention of sport at all in its 250-page index.

Sport is often seen as the ideal medium for reflecting the widest possible range of political, social, cultural and economic issues.

In light of this situation, I would like to look at some excellent examples, both past and present, of how sport has successfully been used as a vehicle for protest. In doing so, I would like to focus on the variety of forms of expression used and the different types of action taken, rather than on the actual issues themselves. By adopting this approach, it should be possible to create a bridge between sports-related and protest-related research, as the American historian and sociologist Charles Tilly has done in the international field and the sociologist Dieter Rucht has done in the German-speaking world through his empirical analysis.


Interactive Process

There is still no clearly accepted definition of the term 'protest' within the field of academic research, and there is also no generally accepted theoretical concept that underpins it. One approach is to distinguish between different forms of protest, including between legal and illegal forms. Another approach focuses on the various aspects of protests, differentiating between areas such as communication (internal versus external communication), cooperation (integration versus differentiation) and the way the protest is presented (performative versus media-based).

If we reduce these different forms and aspects to their basic concepts, then there would appear to be four core elements of protest. These include the conflict dimension (protest as a direct concern), the public and awareness-raising (protest as an essentially open phenomenon, accessible to all), collectivity (protest as a supra-individual concern) and, finally, direct action (construction of the protest in and through action).

Taking these core elements into account, Dieter Rucht defines a protest event as a ‘collective, public action by non-state actors who articulate some form of critique or dissent together with societal or political demands’. In this respect, protest is seen as an interac tive process between the protesters and the public – a system of action and reaction – as well as the term for an activity that advocates against something (an expression of dissent), while proposing an alternative.


Hertha BSC players kneel together on the pitch before kick-off.
14.10.2017: Hertha BSC players kneel together on the pitch before kick-off. They join the protest of US athletes against discrimination, Photo: Annegret Hilse / dpa via picture alliance

This kind of definition applies particularly well to sportsrelated protests, as the field of play as well as the grandstands in the stadium represent both the public and collectivity, and the often emotionally-charged atmosphere, conveyed by the media encourages both direct action and controversy.

To this extent, (elite) sport provides the ideal stage for protests.

If we accept this particular understanding of what a protest is, then it makes sense to examine more closely the incidence, nature and form of protests, the actors involved, the specific subject matter and mobilisation processes, and the temporal and geographical dimensions of these protests.

The methodology applied to this kind of study, known as protest event analysis, does not necessarily cover every single type and incidence of social protest, but it does encompass a relatively wide range of different forms of protest, including street demonstrations, blockades, sit-ins, strikes, petitions, boycotts and attacks.


Four Types of Protest

One of the strengths of protest event analysis is that it is able to draw conclusions based on the range of different activities involved in protests as well as categorising the different forms of protest involved. Rucht identified four different types of protest that are relevant to this discussion on the relationship between sport and protest: the appeal protest (e.g. open letters), the judicial protest (e.g. complaints before a court), the demonstrative protest (e.g. protest marches), the confrontational protest (e.g. sit-in blockades) and the violent protest (e.g. damage to property or injury to people). There have been many examples of sport being used for the benefit of interests not actually related to sport, but in the following cases I would like to look at examples of protest involving the world of sport itself.


On 29 November 2015, 51.6 percent of the people of Hamburg who took part voted against the city’s proposed application to host the summer Olympic Games in 2024. This result, based on a turnout of 50.2 percent, marked the end of a monthslong debate in the Hanseatic city about the pros and cons of hosting one of the world’s most important sports events.

While those in favour focused on the extensive municipal development and marketing programme that they believed would improve the city’s image, provide new sports facilities and attract more tourists, those against were concerned about unresolved funding questions and potential debts. The opponents also pointed to the potential disruption to the lives of local people caused by building works, the gentrification process and concerns about the demands of IOC officials, as well as the possible disadvantages to smaller clubs and mass sport in general.

The writing "Chalk disappears, mountains of debt remain! NOlympia" by opponents of the Olympics is seen on the ground at the exit of a subway station on Nov. 24, 2015.
In November 2015, 51.6 percent of Hamburg's participating citizens voted against the city's bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics, Photo: Christian Charisius / dpa via pictura alliance

Under the banner of ‘NOlympiaHamburg’, the opponents of the Olympic bid undertook a wide range of activities that can, in the broadest sense, be defined as appeal protests. These included gathering signatures and creating petitions. The media can play a key role in such circumstances, as it has the real ability to influence people’s opinions, especially when it comes to sport. What is interesting in the Hamburg example is that the classic media outlets, i.e. radio, TV and print media, tended to be generally in favour of the Olympic bid, while those opposed to the bid relied heavily on the internet and social media.

Of the six local political parties, only Die Linke (The Left) voted against the bid, while the majority of members of the other parties, supported by the municipal government and the German Olympic Sports Federation (DOSB), voted in favour and supported the Hamburg 2024 bid committee’s major Fire and Flames campaign involving advertising posters and a whole series of information events.

The protest movement in Hamburg was based on a broad but heterogeneous coalition of opponents to the bid, including academics, union members, environmentalists and city planners. They expressed their protest on the streets and particularly online, on Facebook, Twitter and on blogs and websites such as ‘NOlympia Hamburg – Etwas Besseres als Olympia’ and ‘’.

Their activities included quoting critical academic studies and posting online arguments against the poster campaign. The main goal was to try to counter the city administration’s aim of trying to influence the referendum, which had been called to give the bid some legitimacy following a change to the local constitution. The battle of ideas and the attempts to win over public opinion was also reflected in the activities of the public initiative known as ‘Stop Olympia’, which acted largely independently of the NOlympia Hamburg campaign and which managed to gather 13,000 signatures in the run-up to the referendum, with a view to calling for another referendum to be held if a further bid were to be considered. For its part, the Hamburg initiative ‘Argumente für ein NEIN zu Olympia’ [Arguments for saying NO to the Olympic Games] focused exclusively on the referendum itself.

When assessing the range of different activities available to the protestors, the use of social media would appear to be particularly significant. While it is true that local opposition to the bid had been clearly expressed at a symposium in the Millerntor Stadium and that a NOlympia banner was in evidence during HSV games, the internet was still used as the main platform for the protest. The online use of the word ‘NO’ next to the coloured Olympic rings became the most potent symbol of the protest movement.

Just how significant and effective this kind of appeal protest can be in connection with sport is evidenced by the fact that in the past there had been two similar protests in Bavaria. In contrast to the proposed bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games – which was abandoned following a negative vote by the people of Munich in October 2013 – supporters of a similar bid in Garmisch-Partenkirchen had the upper hand in the referendum that was held in spring 2011.


Judicial Protest

A very different type of sports-related protest involves going down the legal route and taking advantage of the judicial process.


The photo shows a sign reading "Cour de Justice de l'Union Europeene" in front of a building of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxembourg.
One type of sports-related protest involves going down the legal route and taking advantage of the judicial process, photo: Harald Tittel / dpa via picture alliance

This type of action is probably most closely linked in the public’s mind with the name of Jean Marc Bosman, who obtained a decision from the European Court of Justice in 1995. This did away with the existing requirement for a transfer fee to be paid before a professional footballer could move to another club, while at the same time removing restrictions on foreign players with EU citizenship.

A current example of a judicial protest is the case of the speed skater Claudia Pechstein, which has a number of legal dimensions. It all started with the results of a blood test taken by Claudia Pechstein. These led to her being indirectly accused of blood doping by the International Ice Skating Union (ISU) and suspended from the sport.

Pechstein appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne in protest against the decision. However, as the CAS ruled in favour of the ISU, Pechstein decided to take wider legal action and instigated proceedings in a number of national courts, in which she lodged complaints against being banned from taking part in the Olympic Games.

Further proceedings are currently pending in the Federal Court on a key matter of principle. Pechstein is not only protesting against her own ban, but is also seeking a landmark decision on the future role of sport courts of arbitration and the obligation for sportsmen and women to have disputes settled by such courts of arbitration up to and including the CAS. Such a decision could have a profound impact on the very autonomy of different sports and the self-organisation of the various associations involved. The costs of Claudia Pechstein’s legal proceedings have been met by donations from members of the public and by warranties from the Police Union and the FIFPRO Europe sports union. As a ‘sports union’, the latter has a particular interest in seeing athletes being placed in a much stronger legal position when dealing with their respective associations.

This kind of judicial protest is not that common in terms of the actual number of cases and generally lacks the necessary collective framework or direct action of other forms of protest. Often this kind of protest only arises indirectly due to the support of sports unions.


Emma Green’s painted Nails

In terms of quantity, the most significant form of protest in sport is the demonstrative protest. During the unofficial Olympic Games in Athens in 1906, Peter O’Connor, the Irish silver medallist in the long jump, climbed a flagpole and attached the Irish flag. He was protesting against the rule that said he had to compete under the British flag because, at that time, non-independent Ireland did not have its own Olympic committee.

The IAAF, the world’s athletics governing body, initially stated that she had the right to freedom of speech, but it withdrew this statement under pressure from the Russian government.

Afro-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who came first and third in the 200 metres at the 1968 Olympic Games, are now firmly established in the collective memory. They both turned up to the medal ceremony wearing black socks and no shoes. Once on the podium, both Smith and Carlos raised a black-gloved fist as a symbol of the Black Power movement. This symbo lic protest quickly gained in popularity and a number of different variations on it have subsequently been seen within the world of sport.

Another good example of the range of actions that are currently used in demonstrative sport protests is provided by top Swedish high jumper Emma Green. She competed in the qualifying rounds of the 2013 Athletics World Championships in Moscow with her nails painted in rainbow shades. 


Emma Green Tregaro of Sweden with her fingernails painted in rainbow colors during the qualification of the women's high jump competition at the 14th IAAF World Championships at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia, August 15, 2013.
The painted nails of Emma Green were to be understood as an expression against the discrimination of homosexuals in Russia, photo: dpa / Erik Martensson via picture alliance

This was a fairly low-key protest against Russia’s discrimination against homosexuals. She was trying to draw attention to current political developments and anti-gay laws in Russia, the country that was due to host the upcoming Winter Olympics.

The IAAF, the world’s athletics governing body, initially stated that she had the right to freedom of speech, but it withdrew this statement under pressure from the Russian government. The athlete was told she could not take part in the final with her fingernails painted in this provocative way. Green gave in and made her later jumps with her nails painted red. This protest – and the way it was settled – can be seen as typical of current types of action in sport, because it shows how athletes have to take a stance in the face of changing media structures and the public’s heightened awareness of human rights issues.

On the other hand the sports associations only allow protests to be articulated within a very narrow framework, so there is a fine line between the right to free speech and Article 50.3 of the IOC Charter, which states: ‘No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.’ When we think of the fact that mega sports events will in future be held in the economically booming, theoretically democratic yet at the same time complicated BRICS countries, we are faced with the prospect of these tensions being demonstrated in stadiums in the near future, and we will see athletes becoming involved in new and ever more creative forms of protest.

Sports associations only allow protests to be articulated within a very narrow framework.

In Germany, former professional footballer Markus Babbel took over from Armin Veh as head coach of VfB Stuttgart in November 2008 (despite not holding a coaching qualification). Under Veh, Stuttgart had won the German title and made good progress in the Champions League. But the 2009/2010 season started badly, with the club going seven games without a win. After VfB Stuttgart drew 1-1 with VfL Bochum on 5 December 2009, Stuttgart fans mounted a huge protest, which could be categorised as a confrontational protest. It included spontaneous demonstrations, blockades, occupations, verbal violence and minor damage, such as that caused by throwing a bag of paint.

Even before the game against Bochum kicked off, around 100 Stuttgart fans had expressed their dissatisfaction via a sit-in, preventing the team bus from accessing the stadium. Things escalated after the game ended in a draw, and a section of Stuttgart fans vented their anger on the players and particularly on their manager. Some 3,000 mainly young fans laid siege to the club’s offices, running riot and hurling abuse that even included death threats.

The next day the Vf B Stuttgart board gave in to the pressure and fired Markus Babbel, whose job they had guaranteed just one week earlier. The protests in Stuttgart attracted particular attention as a sign of an increasingly clear trend towards the use of sit-ins and threats to influence the club’s policies. This was all played out against the background of the suicide of German national goalkeeper Robert Enke the previous month, who killed himself as a result of depression.

The club and association boards, along with the fans, vowed that such protests would not happen again, but this was not to last. Subsequent years saw similar confrontational protests, though never on the scale experienced in other European countries, such as Italy. At the game between CFC Genoa and Siena in April 2012 around 70 Ultras stopped the game for 45 minutes by throwing fireworks and smoke bombs, as a protest against the 0:4 score. The Ultras then blocked access to the players’ tunnel. it was only possible to continue the game after most of the Genoa players complied with the Ultras’ demands that they take off their shirts. Once again, the club’s manager was fired the following day.


Football Violence in Egypt

The close and dangerous relationship between sport and politics was highlighted during the riots that broke out at a key game in the Egyptian football league between AlMasry from Port Said and their rivals AlAhly from Cairo on 1 February 2012. This was a particularly violent protest in the history of sport. Even before the match began, there had been pitch invasions and fighting. After the final whistle and an Al-Masry victory, their fans once again stormed the pitch, the opposition stand and attacked opposing players and fans. Al-Masry’s fans were extremely violent and even used weapons that they had brought with them to the stadium. 74 Al-Ahly fans were killed and some of the players were also injured.

The escalation of violence was explained by the fact that Al-Masry had specifically brought in thugs, while the police stood by and watched. This inaction was explained as retaliation on the part of the police against the Al-Ahly Ultras and young fans who had played a key role in earlier protests on Cairo’s Tahrir Square against the authoritarian Egyptian regime and President Hosni Mubarak.

[...] particularly in countries with authoritarian regimes, [...] [football] provides an outlet for fans who are critical of the regime to articulate their opposition in protests that are generally only indirectly related to sport.

These violent events in Egypt had a major and lasting impact. Al-Masry was banned from the Egyptian Football Association for two years, and the stadium in Port Said was closed for three years. The whole Egyptian league was shut down for a year and first division matches were subject to a crowd ban for many years.


In subsequent court proceedings, 21 mainly young defendants were sentenced to death. These death sentences led to more violent protests in Port Said. Another 32 people lost their lives, and there followed weeks of unrest.

The restrictions were relaxed at the end of 2014, but in February 2015 more football riots broke out in Egypt. The exact circumstances remain unclear, but at one of the few games that was open to the public, young fans of the Cairo team Zamalek – who had also played a key role in the Egyptian revolution – were killed at the entrance to the stadium.

Violent protests in sport may still be an exception, and indeed are becoming rare in Western countries, but they are happening more often in football.

Smoke rises from the Egyptian Football Federation after protesters set fire following a court ruling in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, March 9, 2013.
Smoke rises from the Egyptian Football Federation after protesters set fire following a court ruling in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, March 9, 2013, photo: AP Photo / Amr Nabil via picture alliance

Football tends to be very politically charged, particularly in countries with authoritarian regimes. It also provides an outlet for fans who are critical of the regime to articulate their opposition in protests that are generally only indirectly related to sport.

The brief examples outlined here demonstrate the increasing prevalence and complexity of protests relating to sport. In view of the attention that sport attracts, we cannot expect this trend to change. Quite the opposite in fact, as the range of actions and creativity of sporting protests seem to have no limits. The demonstrative form of protest is central. Demonstrative protests can generally be organised fairly cheaply and spontaneously, as when Emma Green and other athletes protested against Russian homophobia. Demonstrative protests have strong symbolic power, are highly visible and can be easily reported by the media. While these protests tend to be fairly understated because of the limits set by the players and athletes’ associations, other types of protest have no limits. It is common to turn away from the podium or refuse to shake hands – as exemplified by César Luis Menotti with regard to the military junta after Argentina’s victory in the 1978 World Cup – and this kind of protest will still happen in sports arenas in future, but new variations have developed and will continue to develop.

Demonstrative protests have strong symbolic power, are highly visible and can be easily reported by the media.

Whether they are protests that use sport as a medium or whether they are protests that relate directly to sport is of secondary importance. Sport will always have a political dimension and will always provide a stage for protests. In principle, this should be neither condemned nor welcomed. As long as protests do not turn into a knockabout comedy that compromises the integrity of sport and causes it permanent damage; as long as protests hold a mirror up to the world of sport or teach a lesson by highlighting negative developments, then sport and protest will continue to be mentioned in the same breath and continue to share a stage.

About the Author
Jürgen Mittag

Jürgen Mittag is Professor of Sports Policy at the German Sport University in Cologne and Head of the Institute of European Sport Development and Leisure Studies. Since 2011 he has held a Jean Monnet Chair (to promote teaching, research and the study of European integration in universities). He has also conducted research or held guest professorships in Florence (European University Institute), Brussels (TEPSA), Paris (Sciences Po), Istanbul (Bosphorus University) and Shanghai (SUS). His current areas of research include: European integration and political systems from a comparative perspective, key developments in work and leisure, tourism, social policy, political parties, trade unions, worker movements, associations, clubs and social movements, and democracy.

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