The Military and Competitive Sports

I missed my last post, but thankfully I'm on top of this week's edition. 

Kyleanne Hunter and Oliver Kaplan have a piece at Political Violence @ a Glance discussing some of the military roots of the biathlon. I've never known much about the sport's history, but it certainly makes sense that its origins are so closely tied to the kinds of security needs that Hunter and Kaplan cite. This was particularly interesting to me as both my wife and I grew up close to Lake Placid, New York. Lake Placid hosted the winter Olympics twice—once in 1932 and again in 1980—and continues to be a destination for tourists and athletes alike. Additionally, the 10th Mountain Division is headquartered about three hours from there at Fort Drum, and they have an armory located in Saranac Lake, New York where I grew up. Two members of the US biathlon team are also from Saranac Lake: Annelies Cook and Tim Burke

I went to high school with both Annelies and Tim, and it's great to see them doing so well. Hunter and Kaplan's discussion of the biathlon's history also makes me appreciate the sport and where I grew up a little bit more, and it's neat to think about the sport in terms of how it intersects with my own personal historical/research interests. The idea that specific military assignments can evolve into cooperative/competitive sporting events is really interesting, and I'm sure there's been much more written about it than I'm aware of (which is little). Naturally this makes me wonder what other sports have evolved out of military activities. Archery comes to mind, but I suspect that has competitive origins that are less exclusively military. There are a number of other shooting-related events during the summer games (see here), but again, many of these events are not necessarily exclusively military in origin either. Some of the historical information the link provides, and the descriptions of some of the events, suggest more of a hunting-related background. And many of these events appear to have been phased out, or have only been held once or twice.

It also makes me wonder as to what kind of selection effects might be at work in terms of how these activities evolve into competitive sports. Presumably you need activities that are a mixture of some highly specialized skill, but also something that's not overly secretive. After all, you don't want other states knowing that you have individuals highly trained in a particular task if that will compromise their work in some way. You also need an activity where multiple countries have need of the same type of training or force. As Hunter and Kaplan discuss, multiple countries were deploying similar sorts of forces to patrol remote, mountainous border regions, thereby facilitating the development of some sort of competitive event based on these shared activities. So not every state needs to have a given force, but at least a few do in order for it to be competitive. 

So what are some contemporary examples of the sorts of military activities that could evolve into internationally competitive sports? And how has technological innovation changed the landscape, so to speak, in terms of the pool of potential activities that could evolve in this way? My mind immediately went to some underwater sports, thinking of some combination of navigating an underwater obstacle course, and then performing some task requiring a demonstration of dexterity. This list of underwater sports suggests there are some sports that at least partly resemble these activities. Underwater navigation and underwater target shooting, specifically. This article also indicates that no underwater sports have been a part of the Olympic games. This appears to be due to the International Olympic Committee selecting which games it will grant approval to. Still, these seem like activities that require a high degree of specialization, but are also pursued by enough countries to facilitate competition. 

Another future possibility would be sort sort of aerial drone competition. Competitors might be judged on their ability to take off, perform certain maneuvers, perhaps "paint" a moving target for a given period of time, and then land. Though there are more advanced military variants, less sophisticated and less expensive drone variants are already being experimented with for a variety of purposes (see Amazon's recent talk of drone-based delivery). Though this would certainly emphasize physical performance less than other athletic activities, I'm not sure it's all that different from other activities like shooting, much of which emphasizes hand-eye coordination. This is also technology that more countries are likely to pursue for security/military purposes as time goes on.

If anyone can think of other military activities that might translate into internationally competitive sports, please share in the comments. 

Michael Flynn

About Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2013. His research focuses on the political and economic determinants of foreign economic and security policy, security issues, and state repression.

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