Populism and the Leisure Spectacle

A BSA Leisure & Recreation Study Group Workshop

1 June 2018
University of Bath, UK - PROGRAMME

About the Event

For thirty years the examination and contextualisation of sporting mega-events, such as the Olympic Games, has brought into focus relationships between an event and wider structures, forces, and processes. Social, political, economic, and technological dimensions are common societal forces recognized in critical discussions of mega-events. In the political realm, events are frequently contextualised through the political order of a given host country. For example: The 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympic Games was anchored to the capitalist democracy of the United States and shaped by the formative phase of a neo-liberal regime; Beijing’s 2008 Summer Games was an expression of the socialist, communist, or authoritarian political orientation within an emerging corporatist economy making inroads into the global market; and Rio 2016 brought forward a relatively new democracy in a Brazil then associated with the global political and economic ambitions of the Global South.

In the case of Rio, the political populism associated with former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (or Lula) drove forward the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Rio Olympics as platforms for political and economic ambitions. The scale of these national ambitions was huge. Commitment to two of the biggest sporting mega-events in close succession also drove Putin’s plans for the Russian Federation’s sporting profile, with the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 followed by the men’s FIFA World Cup in 2018. What creates and sustains such ambitions, in a climate of cynicism fueled by revelations of corruption at the highest level in the governance of world football and international athletics, and of the involvement of the Russian state in dope-manipulation before and at Sochi? The BSA June 2018 workshop at Bath sets out to explore some relatively neglected themes in this conundrum, in particular the question of the nature and influence of forms of populism in such cases. 

Political populism, whilst regularly an undercurrent in research into sporting mega-events, has rarely been a specific focus. New forms of political movements and populist rhetoric—for the most part, the forms of political message that speak to ordinary and everyday people, as opposed to the bourgeoisie or elites—have emerged across North American, South American, and European continents in the 2000s through today. These forms highlight the ways in which sporting mega-events can and have featured in populist discourses. Although not always, these events and discourses tend to be embodied by one key political figure, as was the case with Lula in Brazil; or in another case in the South Americas, Peronism in Argentina. Fascist regimes, too, have mobilised forms of propaganda in populist strategies utilizing cultural forms such as sport: Mussolini’s successful Italian football teams at the World Cups of 1934 and 1938, as well as Hitler and Goebbels’s Berlin Olympics of 1936, can only be fully understood if the populist base of the events is recognized.  Undeniably, populism in the past has in many national cases played a considerable role in the shaping of political agendas wherein desires to host such events contribute to both those agendas and a consolidation and continuation of populist discourse.

More neglected still, in our understanding of populism and leisure cultures, are large-scale music festivals such as Glastonbury, and worldwide tours by rock mega-stars from Bruce Springsteen to Beyoncé. Bono’s U2 3600 Tour was the highest-grossing popular music spectacle in history, in which he adopted a pseudo-spiritual and politics-transcending tenor in offering fans the prospect of ‘membership’ of a global community.   

Common questions might include the following. Where and how does populist discourse feature in such events? What key political figures drive political ambitions through populist discourse in relation to sporting mega-events? How do popular cultural celebrities challenge or contest political orthodoxies? Within the leadership of a sporting mega-event, what key figures contribute to the populist discourses of a host country? How have formal political leaders and figures related to the popular music spectacle? Overall, then, how might the spectacles of sporting and musical mega-events be better understood by drawing upon theories of populism and their application to a comparative range of national and supra-national case studies?

Papers from all disciplines and interdisciplinary fields, in the form of focused single case studies and theoretical reviews or critiques, will be presented at the workshop. The workshop is also conceived as a rehearsal for work that may contribute to an edited volume planned to appear in 2019, edited by the event organizers.