Sport and the Nation: a Two-Way Relationship

Written November 15, 2017 for The History and Geography of Cycles and Cycling

To understand the impact and spectacle of sports on a nation, one only has to picture the singing of the anthem at the beginning of a hockey game, or the emotional moment on the podium at the Olympics, where tears from the victors are common (Jutel 2002). When watching an event such as the World Junior Hockey Championships, this author cannot help but feel the thrill of every goal, and the defeat of every loss, as though it is the embodiment of the Canada itself stickhandling down the ice. Given this strong connection, it is natural to ponder the relationship between sport and nations. Does sport build a nation? In fact, in some instances, the opposite may be true. In this reflection, using cycling as an example, I’ll explore how cycling has shaped nations, and indeed how in some cases nations have shaped cycling.

Cycling Shaping the Nation

The sport of cycling was truly one to behold, especially during the first half of the twentieth century. Unlike sports played in stationary fields, cycling was literally a mobile sport, provide unique access for countless spectators to watch from their own communities (Cardoza 2010). The unifying power of the sport at the national level is evident in events like the Italian Giro. Not only was there a proximal connection to the sport, there was also an emotional one. The incredible toil and sweat of the athletes drew admiration from the working class, while the middle class was drawn by the technologies and techniques involved (Cardoza 2010). This classless element created unity within the nation. Similarly, the Tour de France is highly touted as a national icon that has contributed to exposing the world to “French-ness” (Ferbrache 2013). At the same time, the Tour has shaped the French nation by being a frequent target for protests, with disadvantaged groups using the event to have their issues recognized on the national stage (Ferbrache 2013).

Though not explicitly through sport, cycling has clearly played a strong role in shaping the Dutch nation. By promoting cycling as an expression of independence during difficult times, the ANWB effectively facilitated a strong emotional connection between Dutch citizens and cycling, which was felt at the national level (Ebert 2004). Ironically, in the latter half of the twentieth century, Dutch government actively sought to discourage cycling, thus attempting the reverse effect (Oldenziel and de le Bruheze 2011). This, however, was largely ineffective, and cycling continued to be a central part of the Dutch national habitus (Kuipers 2012).

Nations Shaping Cycling

Given the clear potential for cycling to shape a nation, it is no surprise that at times, the appeal of cycling has been exploited to achieve political and national agendas. It has been suggested that sport is one of many “soft authoritarian” tools used by authoritarian regimes (Koch 2013). Sport is a powerful tool for these governments because it “translates into spectating, rather than participating in, government, because it is comfortable and easy” (Koch 2013). Consequently, despite possessing a personal disdain for cycling, Mussolini and the fascist regime in Italy used cycling events, namely the Giro, to build support for the regime. The Giro was strictly made to be a demonstration of the superior athleticism of Italians (Skyes 2013). International cycling events were similarly exploited, where for example professional Italian cyclist Bartali was first forced to compete against his will, and then after an injury, ordered to forfeit the race and return home, also against his desire, rather than suffer a defeat while representing Italy on the international stage (Skyes 2013).

The manipulation of cycling for political gain is not limited to authoritarian regimes. The City of Copenhagen, for example, actively uses the image of cycling for political gain, promoting itself as a “City of Cyclists” both to its citizens and to the rest of the world (Gossling 2013). Though in this case the exploitation is for a much different purpose, it still is an active attempt by the government to use cycling to advance its personal agenda.

When comparing the influencers of different rates of cycling in Canada and the US (Pucher and Buehler 2006) found that Canada’s cycling rate is triple that of the US, despite the fact that Canada’s national commitment to encouraging cycling has been non-existent, while the US federal government has made funds for cycling projects readily available. This suggests that attempts by nations to shape cycling are not always effective, especially when bureaucratic barriers exist at other government levels (in this case, the state-level).

Cycling Transcending the Nation

Finally, sport is not always loyal to a nation, as was the case with the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympic Games. The unexpected collaboration between two German cyclists and one Kazakhstan demonstrated that bonds between professional riders who share the same cycling club can be stronger than national ties. Rather than being bound by loyalty to their countries, as is expected of Olympic athletes, these cyclists demonstrated that the bonds of money, responsibility, formalized roles, team ethic, and honor are of greater importance (Jutel 2002).

What is it about cycling and sports in general that creates such a strong connection with a nation? Perhaps it is the accessibility of sport, which allows everyday citizens to spectate and even imagine themselves as the contestants (Cardoza 2010). On the other hand, the opportunity for objective support for a nation through sporting events creates susceptibility for sport to be exploited for national interests and agendas (Koch 2013). While there appears to be no imminent threat to this powerful relationship, in an age of increasing interdependence between nations (Kuipers 2012), it is very possible that instances of sport transcending nations will continue, perhaps to the point where perhaps one day, sport and nation will be decoupled completely.


Cardoza, Anthony. 2010. “‘Making Italians’? Cycling and national identity in Italy: 1900-1950.” Journal of Modern Italian Studies 354-377.

Ebert, Anne-Katrin. 2004. “Cycling towards the Nation: The Use of the Bicycle in Germany and the Netherlands, 1880-1940.” European Review of History 347-364.

Ferbrache, Fiona. 2013. “Le Tour de France: a cultural geography of a mega-event.” Geography 144-151.

Gossling, Stefan. 2013. “Urban transport transitions: Copenhagen, City of Cyclists.” Journal of Transport Geography 196-206.

Jutel, Annemarie. 2002. “Olympic Road Cycling and National Identity.” Journal of Sport & Social Issues 195-208.

Koch, Natalie. 2013. “Sport and soft authoritarian nation-building.” Political Geography 42-51.

Kuipers, Giselinde. 2012. “The rise and decline of national habitus: Dutch cycling culture and the shaping of national similarity.” European Journal of Social Theory 17-35.

Oldenziel, Ruth, and Adri Albert de le Bruheze. 2011. “Contested Spaces – Bicycle Lanes in Urban Europe.” Transfers 29-49.

Pucher, John, and Ralph Buehler. 2006. “Why Canadians cycle more than Americans: A comparative analysis of bicycling trends and policies.” Transport Policy 265-279.

Skyes, Herbie. 2013. Maglia Rosa: Triumph and tragety at the Giro d’Italia. Bloomsbury Publishing.



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