Transcending Defeat through Play: Sport in Dictatorships and Concentration Camps

DOI : 10.56698/chcp.866


In defeat, many aspects of society get dismantled, including the cultural, religious, political and social organisation of the vanquished. Geographical borders may change, languages may disappear, and people may go into exile. While history is written by victors, losers must still create their own subtext. Between rupture and continuity, they have to reassemble their shattered selves, transform in some ways, and remain the same in others. They must continue to live through defeat. This essay will take defeat for a particular state that Erving Goffman would call the “mortification” (Goffman, 2009) of individual and collective selves. Dictatorships, prisons, concentration camps and internment camps are paradigmatic sites of such mortification.
Sport and play at sites of death and destruction intrigue observers. Total and totalising institutions such as prisons, concentration camps and dictatorships create a particular sense of defeat which, according to Erving Goffman, aims at the “mortification” of the self. The unique human activity of play, however, may have liberating consequences for subaltern subjects. Despite the basic incongruity that sports should be played at the site of death and suffering, sporting cultures have thrived in concentration camps and dictatorships, as, for example, in the context of World War II, Franco’s Spain and Ceaușescu’s Romania. Defeated subjects played sports in these contexts, which had diverse effects on their shattered subjectivities. Sport could mean survival in a physical and psychological sense on the one hand, and further dominance and surveillance on the other. Play theories explain why sports are uniquely positioned to help individuals and communities transcend a sense of defeat, placing play among other coping strategies such as reflexivity, memory, silence or denial.
Play has the ability to restore the assaulted boundaries of the self through its unique frame that stands consciously apart from real life. The play frame establishes new temporal and spatial categories, inserts new rules of behaviour, and transcends old identities by imposing new ones. It is at play that otherwise vanquished selves may rise and become victors. Sports and play are perhaps the only possible levelling mechanism in total institutions defined by hierarchies, as they allow equivalence to surface in their basic premise: the initial equality of chance (Caillois, 1961). The significance of sports therefore goes beyond mere entertainment. They provide ritualised social stability and a sense of control. They renew and transform subjectivities by allowing them to transcend their defeated identities, even if it is only for the period of play and nothing really changes in real life. Play in total or totalising contexts sheds new light on what being defeated means and how it is a reversible state. It also reveals a nuanced form of domination, as total institutions and dictatorships have used sport and play for their own purposes.

« Transcender la défaite par le jeu : le sport dans les dictatures et les camps de concentration »

Dans la défaite, de nombreux aspects de la société sont démantelés, notamment l’organisation culturelle, religieuse, politique et sociale des vaincus. Les frontières géographiques peuvent changer, les langues peuvent disparaître et les gens peuvent s’exiler. Si l’histoire est écrite par les vainqueurs, les perdants doivent néanmoins créer leur propre sous-texte. Entre rupture et continuité, ils doivent reconstituer leur moi brisé, se transformer à certains égards et, à d’autres, rester les mêmes. Ils doivent continuer à vivre à travers la défaite. Dans ce texte, la défaite est considérée comme un état particulier qu’Erving Goffman appellerait la « mortification » (Goffman, 2009) du moi individuel et collectif. Les dictatures, les prisons, les camps de concentration et les camps d’internement sont des sites paradigmatiques de cette mortification.
Le sport et le jeu dans des lieux de mort et de destruction intriguent les observateurs. Les institutions totales et totalisantes telles que les prisons, les camps de concentration et les dictatures créent un sentiment particulier de défaite qui, selon Erving Goffman, vise à la « mortification » du soi. L’activité humaine unique qu’est le jeu peut toutefois avoir des conséquences libératrices pour les sujets subalternes. Malgré l’incongruité fondamentale que constitue la pratique d’un sport sur un lieu de mort et de souffrance, les cultures sportives ont prospéré dans les camps de concentration et les dictatures, comme, par exemple, dans le contexte de la Seconde Guerre mondiale, de l’Espagne de Franco et de la Roumanie de Ceaușescu. Les sujets vaincus pratiquaient des sports dans ces contextes, ce qui avait des effets divers sur leurs subjectivités brisées. Le sport pouvait être non seulement synonyme de survie physique et psychologique, mais aussi de domination et de surveillance. Les théories du jeu expliquent pourquoi les sports sont particulièrement bien indiqués pour aider les individus et les communautés à transcender un sentiment de défaite, en plaçant le jeu parmi d’autres stratégies d’adaptation telles que la réflexivité, la mémoire, le silence ou le déni.
Le jeu a la capacité de rétablir les frontières du soi qui ont été attaquées, grâce à son cadre unique qui se situe délibérément hors de la vie réelle. Le cadre du jeu établit de nouvelles catégories temporelles et spatiales, instaure de nouvelles règles de comportement et transcende les anciennes identités en en imposant de nouvelles. C’est dans ce cadre que des individus autrement vaincus peuvent se relever et devenir des vainqueurs. Le sport et le jeu sont peut-être le seul mécanisme de nivellement possible dans des institutions totales définies par des hiérarchies, car ils permettent à l’équivalence d’émerger du fait de leur principe de base : l’égalité initiale du hasard (Caillois, 1961). La signification des sports va donc au-delà du simple divertissement. Ils procurent une stabilité sociale ritualisée et un sentiment de contrôle. Ils renouvellent et transforment les subjectivités en leur permettant de transcender leurs identités défaites, même si ce n’est que le temps du jeu et que rien ne change vraiment dans la vie réelle. Le jeu dans des contextes totaux ou totalisants jette une lumière nouvelle sur ce que signifie être vaincu, montrant que c’est un état réversible. Il révèle également une forme nuancée de domination, car les institutions totalisantes et les dictatures ont utilisé le sport et le jeu pour parvenir à leurs propres fins.



défaite, sport, institutions totales, camp de concentration, dictature


defeat, sport, total institutions, concentration camp, dictatorship



When defeated, many aspects of society get dismantled, including the cultural, religious, political and social organisation of the vanquished. Geographical borders may change, languages may disappear, and people may go into exile. While history is written by victors, losers must still create their own subtext. Between rupture and continuity, they have to reassemble their shattered selves, transform in some ways and remain the same in others. They must continue to live through defeat.

This essay will take defeat for a particular state that Erving Goffman would call the “mortification” (Goffman, 2009) of individual and collective selves. Dictatorships, prisons, concentration camps and internment camps are paradigmatic sites of such mortification. In these “total institutions” (ibid.), people are forced to “yield much of their former symbolic universe and processes of everyday management to an impersonal and hostile authority” (Mullan, 1999, p. 3). When the defeated must submit to an overbearing Other, they reach for familiar, ritualised behaviours that may help reconstitute their self and symbolic world. One such behaviour is playing sports.

Goffman’s description of what happens to the self in total institutions accurately describes a state of defeat: it is a state in which “a series of abasements, degradations, humiliations, and profanations” (2009, p. 14) threaten to systematically annihilate the self. Drawing from Goffman, defeat may be defined as a direct and sustained assault on the self. As “alien and disidentifying roles” are imposed on subjects, the boundaries of the self are violated. Forced “contaminative exposure” (2009, p. 23) to others and the loss of control over one’s image leads to “anxieties of disfigurement” (2009, p. 21). These features attack, above all else, the boundaries individuals and communities set between themselves and the world, which constitute identity. While Goffman had prisons, monasteries, mental institutions and boarding schools in mind when he characterised total institutions, this essay will take dictatorships, too, for totalising contexts. Due to their fascist and hegemonising tendencies, they too channel collectives and individuals into a narrowly defined and highly controlled existence.

Play has the ability to restore the assaulted boundaries of the self through its unique frame that stands consciously apart from real life. The play frame establishes new temporal and spatial categories, inserts new rules of behaviour, and transcends old identities by imposing new ones. It is at play that otherwise vanquished selves may rise and become victors. Sports and play are perhaps the only possible levelling mechanism in total institutions defined by hierarchies, as they allow equivalence to surface in their basic premise: the initial equality of chance (Caillois, 1961). The significance of sports therefore goes beyond mere entertainment. They provide ritualised social stability and a sense of control. They renew and transform subjectivities by allowing them to transcend their defeated identities, even if it is only for the period of play and nothing really changes in real life. Play in total or totalising contexts sheds new light on what being defeated means and how it is a reversible state. It also reveals a nuanced form of domination as total institutions and dictatorships have used sport and play for their own purposes.

This essay will draw from the (still rather limited) literature on play and sports in total institutions as well as my own ethnographic work on sports in regions that have suffered dictatorships: the Basque Country in Spain and Szeklerland in Romania. Football in the Basque Country and ice hockey in Szeklerland became particular sites of transcending defeat during the Franco and Ceaușescu regimes, both of which launched aggressive assaults on the ethnic and linguistic selves of the people. An ethnographic approach to defeated selves in dictatorships reveals that they reached for sport for similar reasons as individuals reach for it in concentration camps and prisons: to reconstitute a sense of agency and to rise up again on the ruins of their shattered selves.

Play at the Site of Death

“Although the death rate was extremely high”, Gomet writes about the World War II concentration camp, Mauthausen, “survivors speak about ‘sports activities’” (Gomet, 2014, p. 1). Sports and play have been a coping mechanism to survive the sense of defeat that reigns in total or totalising institutions, even though their associations of joy and physical vitality seem incongruous with scenes of misery and annihilation. Play is a poetic function of life, and the world of hunger is prosaic.

This incongruity has been noted by researchers and survivors alike. Sport in circumstances of cruelty seems like an “extreme contradiction” (Lipoński, 2012, p. 5). While sport was prevalent in Nazi camps and Soviet gulags alike, forms of leisure under such unexpected circumstances have “irritated” observers (Feindt et al., 2018). It has been found “quite unbelievable” that boxing matches should thrive in environments as “horrendous” as concentration camps (Gomet, 2016, p. 1100). The incongruity of play in total institutions may have even hampered research (Bairner, 2016). While academics have thoroughly explored all facets of Nazi concentration camps, little has been written about sports and play as a vital part of camp life (Lipoński, 2012).

The presence of sport and other cultural activities such as theatre, poetry-writing contests, cinema or music feels irreverent at sites of death. We think of total institutions as places where life is reduced to physiological needs, and we think of play as a ludic activity that only happy, well-fed and free people would do. The association of sports with abundant life-worlds may come from its Western origins as a bourgeois pastime in the nineteenth century (MacAloon, 1981), and may be reinforced by sports’ twentieth-century place in global capitalism as a site of consumption. Leisure and play in concentration camps strikes us as absurd; as a Dachau camp survivor articulated:

“It was a strange thing, so many extremely important things were going on around the world…, the whole world was ablaze, while we, the sporting youth, finding ourselves in such tragic conditions, criticized the sportsmen, clubs and sport officials of pre-war Poland with so much zeal, verve and a kind of fury. We argued passionately over the level of football…, compared athletic results, etc.” (Alfred Labenz, cited in Lipoński, 2012, p. 8).

In dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, sports have been utilised for the dissemination of ideology, control, social militarisation, the transmission of values, and repression (Pujadas, 2014). The 1936 Hitler’s Games in Berlin helped raise the genre of propaganda to a new level through, in particular, Leni Riefenstahl’s film, Olympia. Mussolini’s Italy institutionalised football as “the fascist game” (Pujadas, 2014), the role of which was to help monitor public opinion, control the daily life of citizens, and further international diplomacy. The Greek Metaxas regime used the body-value linkages of sport to reconnect with ancient Hellenic virtues through the aesthetics of the body. In Salazar’s dictatorship in Portugal, the “3 Fs” of football, fado (a kind of music) and Fatima (a Catholic pilgrimage site) sought to provide national identification and spiritual direction for a political era. In Franco’s Spain, the Spanish national football team called La Furia Española was promoted as the embodiment of a virile, impetuous and forceful nation. Communist regimes sponsored elite sport and equated the success of athletes with the health of communist economies and societies. In these contexts, sport was often conceived as an “opium of the people”—as an escape valve of political tension cultivated by dictators to distract attention from more serious social and political repression, including executions, deportation and intimidation, through the thrills of play (Shaw, 1987). Regardless of ideology, political elites have deployed sport to pacify and “civilize” the masses, and to absorb intense emotional outbursts; the euphemisation of violence through sport gave states a hegemonic sense of control (Elias and Dunning, 1986; Bodin and Robène, 2014).

Sport and play have therefore thrived at sites of death, defeat and destruction. The sense of incongruity this generates should alert us to at least two possibilities: that total institutions and totalising regimes are more complex places than we may imagine, and that escape worlds like sport and play may have more social and psychological importance than we accord to ludic activities in general. Dictatorships might not be as “total” in their overbearingness and impositions as prisons and concentration camps; however, they certainly have totalising impulses inasmuch as they aim at the “mortification” of the cultural, ideological, ethnic or linguistic selves of the vanquished.

Play in Dictatorships: Franco’s Fascist Spain

The Spanish Civil War (1936–39) was both a national and global trauma. Ferrándiz argues that its “iconic status” (Richards, in Ferrándiz, 2013, p. 40) is attributable to such factors as presaging World War II; experimenting with weapons and military tactics against civilians; being the first war subjected to modern media coverage through newspapers, film and photography; and the presence of anti-fascist international mobilisation and of renowned artists who immortalised the event in their work. The Spanish Civil War was a paradigmatic rupture, an archetypal confrontation. Families, neighbourhoods, villages, towns and regions were divided between those who supported the Republic (1931–39) and those who supported Franco’s rebel troops and the Nationalists. The experience of defeat is particularly strong in a Civil War context where losers must continue to coexist with winners who are not distant Others but neighbours, co-workers or family.

The Basque Country in the north of Spain was at the losing end of the Civil War. Its small town, Gernika, inspired a most iconic depiction of defeat—Picasso’s Guernica, which he painted after the 1937 bombing of the Basque town by Hitler’s armed forces at the invitation of Franco. The Basque regional government, which had pushed for substantial local liberties during the Second Spanish Republic (1931–39), went into exile as Francoist officials and police overtook the leadership positions of everyday life. In the mist of general cultural and linguistic repression, there was one cultural arena in which the Basques could be victorious: football. Athletic Bilbao, the flagship Basque club that was established by the Basque nationalist elite, and that fields players of Basque descent only, lived its golden age in the 1940s and 1950s, when it won cup and league titles like no other team in the Spanish league.

The social psychological importance of sporting successes could not be overestimated after the Civil War. There was a deep sense of loss, pain and defeat. The government was in exile; the Basque Nationalist Party was banned; many were executed, imprisoned or forced out. Workplaces were purged, cultural and linguistic repression and economic hardships prevailed. The mortification of the ethnic self included a mandate to rename everything in Spanish instead of Basque. The Athletic Club, which preserved its English form in homage to those who brought the game to the peninsula, was forced into the much-hated name, Atlético Bilbao.

“After the war, there were the winners, and the losers”, a fan told me. “The majority of the football crowd were the defeated ones. The only place where we were winners was the football field” (Vaczi, 2015, p. 28). The Basque Country lost the war, but Athletic, the local roster of the Civil War’s losing side, beat Madrid often and convincingly. Victories against Real Madrid, which Franco endorsed as a “national team”, became a source of immense pleasure and pride for a people otherwise vanquished. “I remember one of those famous victories, 5–1, against Real Madrid”, an 80-year-old fan told me. “When we scored the fifth goal, I could not contain myself and, despite the dangers of being arrested, I shouted Gora Euskadi [Go Basque Country]!” (Vaczi, 2015, p. 28). Sport victories helped suture the traumatic rupture that the Civil War had caused, and Athletic Bilbao was a site on which identity could be discreetly reconstructed, not at the level of open symbolic representation, but at the level of fantasy.

Ceaușescu’s Communist Romania

For Szekler Hungarians in the belly of the Carpathian mountains in Romania, ice hockey has served as a site of ethnic and linguistic survival against political and social forces. Wedged between two states, Szeklerland belongs to Romania geographically and administratively, and to Hungary linguistically and culturally. Szekler Hungarians (or just Szeklers) constitute a majority in the three provinces they occupy; outside of those, they are an internal periphery at the mercy of turbulent European history and Hungarian-Romanian relationships. Detached from Hungary and attached to Romania (along with Transylvania) as a result of the 1920 Trianon Treaty, Szeklers struggled to survive in a context where the borders were redrawn four times between 1867 and World War II. The Szekler and Transylvanian Hungarian sense of defeat comes from shrinking as an ethnic and linguistic community, a process that was particularly exacerbated by the aggressive Romanianisation of the communist Ceaușescu regime (1965–89).

Transylvania is a historically important economic and cultural region with a great deal of ethnic diversity comprising of Romanian, Roma, Jewish, Hungarian and German-Saxon populations. Its “place myth” (Light, 2009, p. 240) in the global imagination is owing to its extreme cold climate, its remoteness, and to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Stoker describes the trip into the Carpathian mountains as progressively “leaving the West and entering the East” (Stoker, 1997, p. 9), as if one entered a landscape of superstition and savagery. The “people myth” of the most eastern corner of Transylvania is that of the indomitable Szeklers, a rugged mountain people struggling to keep their Hungarian language and identity.

The mystique of the Szeklers consists of an interiorised sense of remoteness, obduracy and existential struggle. Elsewhere across Transylvania, major cities that were 90 percent Hungarian a hundred years ago have dropped to 10–30 percent now. The assimilation campaign of the Ceaușescu regime, the forced settlements, reduced or banned schooling in minority languages, and Right-wing mythologies that exalted the Romanian nation-state have resulted in a substantial reduction of ethnic Hungarian populations. Szeklers, however, are still a majority in most of their provinces, and people will still proudly say that there are villages where “the only Romanian-speaking person is the policeman”.

Szeklers say they owe their survival to four factors: a resistance to ethnic intermarriages, the absence of bilingualism, a hostile temperament to outsiders, and the cold climate of the Carpathian mountains. A penchant for self-preservation through insularity was detectable in the answer of a Szekler man to my question of what kind of political autonomy he envisioned for Szeklerland: “I’d rather just see the River Olt step out of its bed, flood, and freeze over so that no one can come here, and we are left alone”.

That is precisely how Szekler ice hockey started a hundred years ago: the River Olt stepped out of its bed, froze, and young men used makeshift equipment to play. Hockey became a terrain through which the Szeklers inserted themselves, as subjects, into histories that were largely shaped by two states. The Ceaușescu regime made the Szeklers feel vanquished in every realm: physically, as the planned economy brought with it food shortages, rationing and hunger; socially, as informers spied on everyday life; and culturally, as Hungarian language and culture were oppressed.

It was only in the ice rink where the fantasy of victory could become reality. For the duration of the hockey games, the flagship Szekler team, Csíkszereda Sportklub, became a symbolic equivalent to the two Bucharest teams that represented the Ceaușescu regime: the military team, Steaua București, and the police team, Dinamo București. Victories against these teams were “a slap in the face for Ceaușescu”, Szeklers told me, even if referees leaned towards the Bucharest teams and victories were rare. After the fall of communism during the 1990s, ethnic tensions burst forth in a political climate that pitted the Romanians and Hungarians against each other. Games were a site of ethnic insults, brawls and blood on ice. Today, Szekler hockey is an important political strategy to assert ethnic agency through becoming the hockey training centre of Romania, dominating the Romanian national team, and working in the Romanian Hockey Federation.

Play in Concentration and Retention Camps

Sport had an ambiguous impact on the lives of prisoners. At its best, it afforded them better life conditions and a site of psychological pleasure; at its worst, it was yet another tool for their subjugation and exploitation. Besides bodies used for work and scientific experimentation, dehumanisation consisted of their use for entertainment. Sports in concentration camps could be “a story of human spirit demonstrated in difficult conditions, a show of defiance against oppression” (Lipoński, 2012, p. 6). However, it could also be one more terrain to foster the cheapness of human life and the easy disposability of bodies.

Sport was not uncommon in Nazi camps for higher-ranking prisoners of war (PoWs), particularly after the Hague and Geneva Conventions, which prescribed better treatment of prisoners. In three camps for officers, the prisoners organised the Camp Olympic Games in 1940 and 1944, the latter standing for the Helsinki Olympic Games which were cancelled due to the war (Lipoński, 2012). The Camp Olympics were poignantly reminiscent of the ancient Greek Olympics in their simplicity of events and body techniques: leapfrogging, stone throwing, archery, high jump over a barbed wire, and cycling on a bicycle placed on a podium. In some Nazi camps, they simulated real sports events quite closely, particularly when famed prize fighters were incarcerated. Guards recruited boxers when they arrived at the camp and set up rings. Fighters had genuine boxing gloves and sometimes seconds, and official rules were refereed (Gomet, 2016). Boxing was a favourite sport in Germany and an important part of Nazi propaganda; some officers were fighters themselves and used prisoners as sparring partners or had prisoners give them lessons.

Sport turned the bodies of athlete prisoners into a paradoxical site of both freedom and control. It could be leisure, a power game, torture, control, plight and privilege at the same time. On the one hand, athlete prisoners may have earned more favourable treatment and better conditions: more food, access to the hospital, clothes, and less demanding work could mean surviving the camp. Sport relieved the stress and tensions of captivity, maintained physical and psychological fitness, and provided an escape world that countered the realities of camp life.

On the other hand, bodies withered away under greater stress and demand. As in forced labour or scientific experiments, the disposability of bodies was blatant. “We fought for real, sharply, without faking”, a prisoner wrote. “The Germans would not allow a soft fight for show. I saw some fighters who would not fight seriously having dogs set at them…. A refusal was met with the gas chamber” (in Lipoński, 2012, p. 8). Sport allowed Nazis to assert their propaganda. Fights were sometimes organised to show the human face of camps before Red Cross inspections. They also served to reassert Aryan racial superiority as Nazi officers beat exhausted and malnourished Jews whose weakness was exposed for all to see (Gomet, 2016). The treatment of prisoners outside of play made it clear that their worth was reduced to the duration of the match; this contrast made the immutable inequalities of camp life even more apparent.

Baseball played a major role in the lives of Japanese Americans during their World War II internment across the American West. Camp teams clustered around former places of living, ethnicity or occupation, and rivalries soon emerged. Internment baseball became the main social activity in the tight, claustrophobic world of the camp. It had several positive functions: sport relieved the monotony of camp life, provided an outlet for anxiety, and reproduced lost social worlds and stability through its ritual recurrence (Mullan, 1999). It mediated the tensions between the defeated home world and the new demands of camp life. Sport had important political and social implications, too. The War Relocation Activity strongly encouraged the American game in camps as a way of enculturation and preparation for citizenship (Regalado, 2000). For Japanese Americans, encounters with outside teams through high school games allowed them to shed the social stigmatisation and “pariah image” (Mullan, 1999, p. 11) that was projected at them in American society at war.

Total institutions disrupt regular kinship structures and family roles, which was particularly true for Japanese women. The social control of the youth was no longer with their parents and families but the institution. Internment camp barracks were smaller, which reduced the volume of traditional household chores. Women had to work and became wage earners. Since there was little else to do by way of entertainment and nowhere to go, women’s softball games gained considerable visibility and fandom (Regalado, 2000). Internment newspapers regularly featured results and games. Women’s games became a site for finding suitable mates. Young men came to games to spot potential marriage partners, newspapers reported on players’ appearance, and women’s sport events were narrativised in romantic terms as well as athletic ones (Regalado, 2000).

Play in dictatorships and concentration camps shows that the mortified subject seeks to transcend defeat by finding refuge, however temporarily, in the enchanted, extra-ordinary frame of play.

Play: An Extra-Ordinary Realm

Since Huizinga’s seminal Homo Ludens, social scientists and philosophers have argued that play’s significance went beyond simple pleasures: it was a terrain of socialisation, the inculcation of values, and the building of communities. Play provides defeated individuals an escape from everyday reality. This is due to play’s unique ability to absorb players and impose new identities for the duration of play.

In Huizinga’s definition, play is “a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious’” (Huizinga, 1998 [1949], p. 13), while it absorbs the player intensely. The play frame has its “own boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules” and promotes secretive social groupings (ibid.). By entering the play frame, one agrees to its specific rules and boundaries. Bateson linked this to a metacommunicative act through which both players agree that “this is play”. He developed his play theory when he saw chimpanzees play in the zoo and observed that the animals were chasing and biting each other, while it was evident to both that these actions were not hostile but friendly. Through a metacommunicative agreement, the playing parties recognise that “these actions in which we now engage, do not denote what would be denoted by those actions which these actions denote” (Bateson, 1972, p. 69).

Divorced from reality, the play frame allows for extraordinary things to happen. In dictatorships, it enabled the easing of everyday restrictions and the carnivalesque suspension of hierarchies and real-world arrangements. For example, during the Franco dictatorship, when regional languages were banned, their public use was largely tolerated in football stadiums. Similarly, during Ceaușescu’s dictatorship, fans reported behaviours that were surprisingly tolerated for the duration of the game, such as cursing referees or expressing minority identities. “The only place we could sing in Hungarian was the hockey rink”, a Szekler fan remembered. For the duration of the whole game, fans sang Hungarian folk songs continuously. “It was rather thin ice we were walking with that singing”, another fan admitted. “Each time I went home after a game, I expected to be arrested. But then, somehow, we weren’t. They tolerated it”. Authoritarian regimes used the extra-ordinary quality of the play frame, something they deemed frivolous and unthreatening, as an escape valve for social frustration. They could turn play off any time and dismiss it as “only a game”, as an unserious realm of life.

The attraction of play for defeated subjects is that its distinctive framework enables the experience of liberation, even if no one really gets liberated in real life. The play frame may allow defeated subjects to experience freedoms that would be denied to them outside of it. British POW Captain Patrick R. Reid wrote this about the transformative power of play:

“I realised that this game was a manifestation of our suppressed desire for freedom. While the game was in action, we were free. The surrounding walls were no longer a prison but the confines of the game we played, and there were no constraining rules to curtail our freedom of action. I always felt much better after a game. Followed by a cold bath it put me on top of the world” (in Lipoński, 2012, p. 7).

Play theorists stress the “extra-ordinary” quality of the play frame that stands apart from real life due to its own rules and temporal boundaries. In everyday life, we might phase in and out of the play frame without much awareness. In total institutions, however, the boundaries between the play frame and the monstrosity of reality become clear. Camp survivor Tadeusz Borowski noted the difference between the meaning of the same place at play and outside of play: “This afternoon I attended a boxing game in the large Whraum from which the first convoys left for the gas chambers…. The boxing ring had been set up in the large waiting room. Vertical lighting, a referee, internationally famous boxers…” (in Gomet, 2016, p. 1100).

Later, Borowski observed what happened within the same time frame at play and outside of play:

“The ball went out of play and rolled up to the barbed wire fence. I ran to fetch it. Picking it up from the ground, I looked at the loading platform. A train had just arrived at the platform. People started getting off the wagons and walking towards the forest…. I returned with the ball and kicked it out onto the field. It passed from foot to foot and came back towards the goal in an arc. I cleared it for a corner. It rolled into high grass. And when I was picking it up from the ground, I came to a halt: the platform was empty…. I came back with the ball and passed it for the corner kick. Between the first and second corner kick, three thousand people were gassed behind my back” (in Lipoński, 2012, p. 9).

Play modifies, however temporarily, the usual relationship between ruler and ruled. In total institutions and dictatorships, the curtailment of the self includes the loss of executive competency, autonomy and self-determination. Play returns these freedoms as it situates both parties on a level playing field governed by the same rules and equality of chance. It demonstrates that there is nothing inevitable, unalterable or natural about the hierarchy between winner and vanquished—play sustains the fantasy that those roles are reversible. Among the many strategies defeated subjects may choose to pursue, the play frame enables them to escape hierarchies and transcend their identities as defeated subjects.

Escape and Transcendence through the Play of Tropes

“Losers cannot afford to forget,” Joan Resina writes (2000, p. 88). A challenge that defeated subjects face is how to respond to traumatic memory. How to process the trauma of a civil war where formerly coexisting neighbours become enemies, as they did in Spain under Franco? How to come to terms with the fact that family members might be informants gathering compromising information for the regime, as happened in communist states such as Romania? Responses to rupture have been diverse. The creation of counter-hegemonic memory through science, art, cinema, museums or cultural performances may create a community of suffering or provide closure and common consensus about the past. In Victor Turner’s seminal theory, social dramas enable reflexivity; communities reach a higher level of self-knowledge as they seek to reintegrate and suture their wounds (Turner, 1986).

Another way of dealing with defeat is precisely the opposite: avoiding reflexivity through denial and silence. In post-communist Hungary, for example, communist-era state security archives are largely inaccessible, which impedes reflection over the identity of informants and the damage they created in society. In Spain, the Civil War and the ensuing Franco regime created such schisms that the post-Franco society felt they were too much to face just then. The Transition’s “Pact of Forgetting” (“Pacto del Olvido”) was a social, political and legal agreement that the past would be “forgotten” in view of reconciliation and moving forward towards democracy. Whether the strategy of silence was a good one is debatable: controversies about the discovery or movement of Civil War corpses (Ferrándiz, 2013), and about the recent removal of Franco’s body from the Valley of the Fallen, are reminders of the lack of total consensus about the Franco era.

Sport may be a strategy that provides escape. J.B. Priestley’s novel The Good Companions has a powerful passage about play’s ability to offer refuge from the drudgery of existence:

“To say that these men paid their shillings to watch twenty-two hirelings kick a ball is merely to say that a violin is wood and catgut, that Hamlet is so much paper and ink. For a shilling the Bruddersford United AFC offered you Conflict and Art; it turned you into a critic happy in your judgement of fine points, ready in a second to estimate the worth of a well-judged pass, a run down the touchline, a lightning shot, a clearance by your back or goalkeeper; it turned you into a partisan, holding your breath when the ball came sailing into your own goalmouth, ecstatic when your forwards raced away towards the opposite goal, elated, down cast, bitter, triumphant by turns at the fortunes of your side, watching a ball shape Iliads and Odysseys for you; and, what is more, it turned you into a member of a new community, all brothers together for an hour and a half, for not only had you escaped from the clanking machinery of this lesser life, from work, wages, rent, doles, sick pay, insurance cards, nagging wives, ailing children, bad bosses, idle workmen, but you had escaped with most of your mates and your neighbours, with half the town, and there you were, cheering together, thumping one another on the shoulders, swopping judgements like lords of the earth, having pushed your way through a turnstile into another and altogether more splendid kind of life, hurtling with Conflict and yet passionate and beautiful in its Art” (Priestley, 1929, p. 26).

The power of play should not be underestimated only because it is restricted to the play frame and is not a generalised experience of reality. In his seminal theory about “flow”, Csíkszentmihályi (1975) argues that such moments of total absorption and disconnect from reality characterise happy people. Punctuated periods of “flow” translate into contentment outside of it.

Furthermore, Priestley’s excerpt points at the transformative power play has on the identities of those within its frame. Fans partake not just in a football game, but mythical experiences; they are not just everyday people with mundane troubles but have archetypal identities. Everything and everyone transforms. The game becomes drama, Art and Conflict, a journey of Iliad and Odyssey, and fans become critics, partisans, brothers in a better world.

The deployment of such tropes through sport is part of our quest for identity. “In the privacy of our experience”, Fernandez argues, “we are usually not sure who we really are. A metaphor thrust upon us often enough as a model can become compelling” (1986, p. 20). Sport is a play of tropes in a sense that it predicates “nonliteral, or inauthentic identities on players” (Fernandez, 1986, p. 290), and therein lies its transformative power. Fernandez argues that more is involved in play than rules and boundaries; the theory of play “involves a theory of transcendental humanization” (Fernandez, 1986, p. 290). As a play of tropes, sport allows the defeated to transcend the dehumanising processes of total institutions and dictatorships. In a ruptured world where shattered selves are no longer sure who they are, they may reach for play’s tropes and metaphors to predicate identities. At the level of fantasy, they hold on to predications that help them organise their inchoate worlds in need of coherence, and propel them to action.

One example of the predication of compelling identities is the Basque Athletic Bilbao’s self-identification as “once aldeanos” (“eleven peasants”), who beat powerful, state-favoured opponents during the Franco regime. The original mascot of the club is a lion, which has its own mythology drawing from the story of the Roman Saint Mammes, who was spared by the lions when he was cast before them. The roaring king of the animal world, however, did not properly respond to the identity crisis created by the Franco regime; the trope of the “eleven peasants” did. “We humiliated them with eleven peasants!” a club president said, rejoicing after beating Real Madrid in 1958 (cited in Vaczi, 2015, p. 29). The myth of the “eleven peasants” is the story of the simple, honest and unpretentious Basque rural man who beats sophisticated opponents through sheer will or tenacity. This was a fantasy narrative, for Bilbao was neither poor, rural nor unpretentious—it was a major industrial centre of Europe. But the “eleven peasants” expressed what Basques imaginatively were, as defeated subalterns, after the Civil War. Through play, they assumed the trope of an archetypal identity in the ranks of David who fought Goliath, or the indomitable Gauls who fought the Roman empire.


Sport simulates the basic antagonistic relationship between victors and the vanquished; at the same time, it also leaves the terrain open for the reversal of roles. Total institutions and dictatorships stage a difference between two categories of people in terms of social quality and moral character: guards and inmates, rulers and ruled. In ordinary times, these two categories cannot be traversed. The extra-ordinary play frame, however, can generate a “remarkable forgetfulness of social differences” (Goffman, 2009, p. 108). In it, roles are shown to be neither fixed nor universal: they are staged, constructed, and therefore vulnerable. This may be a powerfully liberating recognition in places where hierarchies are otherwise inalterable, and there is no social mobility between ruler and ruled.

In total institutions, Mullan argues, where people are pushed to the limit, “what becomes most visible are the core pieces of the self and the social symbols that sustain it” (Mullan, 1999, p. 6). If sports are pursued in concentration camps and dictatorships, we must treat them not as a frivolous pastime but indeed as “core pieces of the self”, as symbols that not only entertain but sustain the self in contexts that threaten it with annihilation. If sport is “the opium of the people”, or an escape into “another and altogether more splendid kind of life”, as Priestley says above, we must properly account for its power to make people’s lives less miserable.

At the same time, the very tolerance of play and sport by total institutions and dictatorships should prompt us to ask how they might be a function of domination, the very sign of the establishment’s power. Rulers have recognised sport’s ability to create positive emotions, absorb discontent, and make people forget about social and political realities. With his study of the prison panopticon, Foucault (1977) proposed that the real nature of power lay in its ability to make inmates regulate their own behaviour and internalise authority under the assumption that they are permanently seen. They become subject to their own self-regulation. Similar questions of surveillance and power should be asked about sport and play in total institutions and dictatorships. How may individual experiences of pleasure and liberation become subordinated to the functions of power to maintain its status quo? Sport may provide an inmate “with important evidence that he is still his own man, with some control of his environment”, Goffman argues (2009, p. 55); it may help the vanquished live through defeat. We must also, however, wonder how power might benefit from their agency at play.


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Electronic reference

Mariann Vaczi, « Transcending Defeat through Play: Sport in Dictatorships and Concentration Camps », Condition humaine / Conditions politiques [Online], 4 | 2022, Online since 25 juillet 2022, connection on 26 mai 2024. URL :


Mariann Vaczi

Mariann Vaczi is an Assistant Professor of Basque Studies and Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. As a cultural anthropologist, she focuses on sport, and cultural performance genres. Her main works are Soccer, Culture and Society in Spain: An Ethnography of Basque Fandom (Routledge, 2015) and Sport and Secessionism (co-editor, Routledge, 2021).

Mariann Vaczi est maître de conférences en études basques et en anthropologie à l’Université du Nevada à Reno. En tant qu’anthropologue culturelle, elle s’intéresse en particulier au sport et aux performances culturelles. Ses principaux ouvrages sont Soccer, Culture and Society in Spain : An Ethnography of Basque Fandom (Routledge, 2015) et Sport and Secessionism (codirigé avec Alan Bairner, Routledge, 2021).