Communication Currents

The Political Symbolism of Sports: George W. Bush and the Iraqi National Soccer Team

June 1, 2007
Sports Communication

The popular wisdom that politics and sports are separate worlds is often used as a strategy to mask the subtle, and even overt, presence of politics in American sports culture. Thus, it is important for spectators and others to be critically aware of the consequences of the symbolic relationship between politics and sports. Many recent examples warrant attention: the over-emphasis on patriotic rituals at sporting events, a protest against the U.S. flag by college basketball player Toni Smith, the exploitation of former NFL player Pat Tillman's death. Another event that attracted worldwide attention was President George W. Bush's attempt to capitalize on the success of the Iraqi national soccer team at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.

It was a significant story that the Iraqi national soccer team even qualified for the 2004 Games; when they reached the semi-final round it became one of the most significant stories of the two-week event. Indeed, it appeared that the team's success was an eloquent metaphor for the newfound freedoms emerging in Iraq after the U.S. military led an invasion that toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein. Yet when President Bush attempted to appropriate this metaphor, he revealed a rhetorical strategy that sought to claim ownership of the accomplishments of the Iraqi players. More problematically, this rhetorical strategy demonstrated a vision of democracy reduced to shallow symbols that obscured the multiple democratic constraints imposed by the Bush administration.

International sporting events are significant symbolic performances for global politics. The Olympic Games, specifically, have long been stages for political expression. Even casual sports fans are aware of the nationalism and racism promoted by the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the 1968 Black Power protest of John Carlos and Tommie Smith, or the Black September terrorist actions that marred the 1972 Munich Games.

In 2004, George W. Bush invoked the success of the Iraqi national soccer team in three ways. First, he declared that Iraq's ability to participate in the Athens Olympics was made possible by the U.S. invasion. Shortly after the Iraqis defeated Portugal in an opening round upset, President Bush appeared at a campaign rally in Oregon, and offered, "The image of the Iraqi soccer team playing in this Olympics, it's fantastic isn't it? It wouldn't have been free if the United States had not acted.”

Second, Bush hinted that he would fly to Athens if Iraq reached the gold medal match. Although the team made it only to the bronze medal match, the mere prospect of the president's appearance prompted criticism. One Iraqi fan said, for instance, “if Bush comes to our final game, [people] will use bad language on him.”

Third, and most dramatically, the Bush campaign created a commercial for the 2004 presidential election, in which the president was credited with spreading freedom to Afghanistan and Iraq. This TV commercial captured the attention and incited the anger of many, including Iraqi soccer players and citizens. The ad declared, “Freedom is spreading through the world like a sunrise. And this Olympics there will be two more free nations. And two fewer terrorist regimes.” Against the images of Olympic athletes appeared graphics of the Afghani and Iraqi flags. In this way, the commercial positioned President Bush as responsible not only for the success of these Olympic athletes but also for the growth of democracy around the world. In the words of the Bush campaign, the ad was not “about politics. It's about the fact that our nation has been successful in helping spread freedom all around the world.”

Such a fact was challenged by many who charged the president with inappropriately politicizing the Olympic Games. Officials from the United States Olympic Committee and the International Olympic Committee denounced the ad. Meanwhile, members of the Iraqi national soccer team angrily distanced themselves from the Bush campaign's claims. One player stated, "You cannot speak about a team that represents freedom. We do not have freedom in Iraq, we have an occupying force." Another asked of Bush, "How will he meet his God, having slaughtered so many men and women? He has committed so many crimes." One more added, "I have a message for George Bush: Calm down a little bit. We want to live. Stop killing civilians. Help rebuild Iraq instead of destroying it.”

As the above comments make clear, Bush's effort to capitalize on the Iraqi team's success symbolizes the contradictions of a president who claims to value democracy as he pursues policies that undermine it. Indeed, even as the president declares that “freedom is on the march,” the ongoing war in Iraq spotlights the failure of the U.S. to promote any genuine conception of democratic practice. Stated simply, democratic freedom cannot be reduced to the institution of free elections. Rather, democracy can only exist when collective self-rule is enabled. In a limited and partial way, individual Iraqi athletes offered a lesson in democratic practice, not because they could be appropriated as symbols of freedom as defined by the president, but because through their words they revealed the necessity of a dynamic and engaged public.

The Bush administration's use of the Iraqi national soccer team as a metaphor for democracy mirrors the articulation of democratic citizenship in the United States during the war on terror. Americans too often are citizens in name only, expected to comply dutifully with the president's policies, even as legislation such as the Patriot Act have eroded fundamental civil liberties that should be guaranteed. In this way, the attempt to use Iraq's soccer success for political gain was less about celebrating democracy in Iraq than it was about suppressing democracy in the United States. Thus, the resistance of Iraqi athletes provides an important symbol for each of us who aim to cultivate productive democratic politics. Indeed, the Iraqi national soccer team reminds us that collective self-rule requires active participation, open deliberation, and ongoing struggle.

About the author (s)

Michael L. Butterworth

Bowling Green State University