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Sporting bonds

From the history of its development to how it helps us live together in harmony – a look back at the role sport can play in building an identity and a collective memory. Symbolic places, daily practice, major events: how do they enable bonds to be formed?

In cities, practising and popularising sport remain closely linked to the existence of dedicated facilities and equipment. Places that were designated for sporting activities first appeared in 19th century England as the rules for football and rugby were gradually being formulated and implemented. Numerous facilities, often rudimentary, emerged in France in the late 19th century with the appearance of the first urban sports associations which aimed to provide a place where players could practice. A first boom occurred in the 1900s with the development of stadiums and pitches, even though some were quite basic. As Julien Sorez, historian at the University of Paris Nanterre, explains: “Municipalities were decisive actors in the development of sport, particularly during the inter-war period, and they built pitches, stadiums, swimming pools and gymnasiums.

Sports facilities, similar to those built by schools and town halls several decades earlier, embodied municipal power and were places that fostered a pride in belonging. In this sense, the local collective memories they created contributed to forging bonds between residents, many of whom had come from the French countryside or from other parts of Europe. One of the most prominent examples in France is the Bollaert Stadium in Lens, which embodies and perpetuates the memory of the coal miners who lived there in bygone days.” Thus, when a stadium is relocated to the outskirts of the city, which occurred in England in the 1980s and 1990s, people tend to fight to preserve this urban heritage which carries a strong emotional charge, both individual and collective, for some of the local community.

Beyond facilities, how does sport contribute to building bonds? “In reality, that depends on the context and the players involved,” explains Julien Sorez. “For example, as the United States industrialised and more people took part in sports, it really helped urban communities coalesce, when many residents were recent arrivals to the city. In the French suburbs, the municipal stadium was a gathering point for local communities in the early 20th century with the influx of many new residents. Community-based social bonds were created through training, matches and events relating to the social life of the sports association, including banquets and general meetings.”

If we look at major sporting events “we see that the social fabric, the State’s capacity to redistribute resources and the organisation of the country hosting the event, all play a decisive role in the potential benefits the event can provide to local residents,” says Julien Sorez. Thus, hosting a major event per se is not enough to create bonds; a real strategy must be implemented to consider what happens after the event, so that the equipment, infrastructure and facilities can benefit all members of society. As Julien Sorez recalls: “When Rio carried out a thorough clean-up of the city centre to host the Olympic Games and the Football World Cup, the people who lived in the favelas lost their resources, which were closely tied to the underground economy of the city centre. Success stories include the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, which was a real model for urban renewal, as a large part of the city was redesigned to leave a lasting and positive legacy for all residents. The Olympic district was totally redeveloped for the occasion and is now fully integrated into the city. The Catalan capital has also become a much more attractive tourist destination as a result of the Olympic Games.”

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