FIFA, IUPAC, and Internationalism


There are many connections between sports and science.  Research and controversy in a wide range of fields – performance-enhancing drugs, precisely-engineered diets and training regimens, advances in surgery and rehabilitation, sports psychology, applications of statistical analysis to every corner of the business of sports, and even the specter of gene doping – are creating new opportunities for scientists (and new questions for those who study them).  For those engaged in developing scientific, technological, and medical solutions, sports are an intellectually rich and financially lucrative source of problems.

Two news items this past week got me thinking about a less remarked-upon connection between science and sports. It's an analogy between the two fields rather than an application of science to sports.  The first was a report on FIFA’s response to calls for the 2018 World Cup to be relocated from Russia in response to the current conflict in the Ukraine.  The second addressed how the World Health Organization’s funding structure and institutional mandate has constrained its response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Perhaps more than any other areas of human culture, science and sports are taken to be intrinsically international endeavors. International organizations hold a prominent place in both fields, and these groups describe sports and science in international terms. “FIFA’s primary objective,” states the organization’s website, “is ‘to improve the game of football constantly and promote it globally in the light of its unifying, educational, cultural and humanitarian values, particularly through youth and development programmes’.”  The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (to pick the international scientific organization that I’m most familiar with) similarly asserts that “IUPAC advances the worldwide role of chemistry for the benefit of Mankind” and that “IUPAC effectively contributes to the worldwide understanding and application of the chemical sciences, to the betterment of the human condition.” These organizations don’t just take on an international role in their respective fields, but describe football and chemistry as international sorts of things: football’s “unifying humanitarian values,” chemistry’s “worldwide role.”

The internationalism of a science or a sport can mean many things. It can be descriptive – all over the world, people play football and do chemistry. It can be humanitarian – everybody should be able to play football or benefit from chemical products. It can be a matter of coordination and standardization – football and chemistry ought to work the same way everywhere. It can be universal – football and chemistry break down national differences and unite the world. It can be geopolitical – football players and chemists are citizens of nations, who sometimes collaborate and compete on national teams against other national teams. More cynically, it can be rhetorical – an invitation to consider one or more of the above features rather than elements of science or sport subject to criticism. (Exhibit A: the controversial new FIFA-funded movie about FIFA, whose trailer you should definitely watch.  Tip of the hat to blogmate David for mentioning this.) What it can’t be is apolitical.

The early days of both IUPAC and FIFA testify to this. Both organizations had their origins in the first few years of the twentieth century. FIFA was founded in 1905, and the International Association of Chemical Societies, the precursor to IUPAC, in 1911. In its first years of existence, FIFA was more of a confederacy than an active body in its own right; the older and better-organized Football Association, the governing body of the sport in England, organized the first two Olympic football tournaments in 1908 and 1912. IACS was more robust, securing funding from the Belgian industrialist Ernst Solvay and setting up international committees establish standards on units, data, and nomenclature. In 1913, William Ramsay, a British representative on the IACS council, described its international mission in universalist terms: “The assembling of chemists from various nations, with free interchange of ideas, cannot fail to stimulate all working at the science of chemistry, and cannot fail to promote cordial international relations. ‘La Science est sans patrie!’”

Less than a year later, numerous prominent German chemists, including its founding president Wilhelm Ostwald, signed the notorious Manifesto of the 93, in which a collection of German intellectuals laid blame for the nascent Great War upon Germany’s enemies. As Fritz Haber, another signatory deeply involved in munitions and poison gas production (as were leading chemists in all major belligerents) famously put it, “During peace time a scientist belongs to the world, but during war time he belongs to his country.” With the prospect of war hovering just below the horizon during the decades following the Great War, this pretty much ruled out the sort of universalism that Ramsay had optimistically espoused.

This December in Belgium, British officials are planning a re-enactment of a brief football match
between British and German soldiers on the Flanders battlefields during a truce on Christmas, 1914.
Sure enough, when football and chemistry ventured back into an international arena after the end of hostilities in 1919, they did so at first as explicitly interallied organizations. Bound by the statutes of the International Research Council and the inclinations of many its own French and Belgian officers, IUPAC prohibited chemical societies from former Central Powers from membership.  FIFA took a different route, with similar results. Its French president chose to allow Germany and Austria to retain membership; as a result, the British withdrew in protest.*

The conditions that kept Britain out of FIFA and Germany out of IUPAC were a challenge to the legitimacy of each organization.  It was difficult to see how these organizations could adequately represent their respective fields – the “descriptive” version of internationalism – without the participation of the era’s foremost nations in football and chemistry. As Dan Kevles, among others, has argued with regard to interwar scientific associations, such exclusions impeded the capacity of these bodies to carry out international coordination. But as the present-day missions statements of IUPAC and FIFA suggest, the internationalism of a field is not necessarily limited to the work of its international associations.  Indeed, representatives of FIFA and IUPAC informally collaborated with British FA officials and German chemical lexicographers to build and maintain standards within these fields, even during a period of official schism on the level of international organizations.

In both science and sports, internationalism does various sorts of work.  To deny that there is such a thing as apolitical internationalism in either field is not to dismiss internationalism as an illusion, and the perceived shortcomings of international organizations are not necessarily failures of international cooperation. Indeed, as in the cases of FIFA and IUPAC during the interwar period, the existence of an international organization as a magnet for attention and critique can open up possibilities for less formal collaboration among people in different places and situations. Whatever else the intrinsic internationalism of science and sport might be, it is certainly that.

* The British rejoined FIFA in 1924, but withdrew again in 1928 in protest of FIFA's relaxation of the criteria for amateur status.  Germany joined IUPAC in 1930. The organization was renamed the International Union of Chemistry that year; there were rumors that the Germans requested the change of name to allow them the face-saving claim that they had never been excluded from this union.


Great post, Evan! I wonder how you would see the interaction between sporting and scientific internationalism beyond just analogy? You mention doping, for one. One of the main characters in my dissertation is Harald Bohr (younger brother of Niels), who was an olympic medalist with the Danish football team and an important backer of the 1950 International Mathematical Union, though I haven't seen a way to link these.
You show really well how the different meanings of internationalism don't need to be resolved to do work for those who claim them. This ambiguity, I think, is a key part of what makes international institutions function. Imagine FIFA or IUPAC (or the IMU) trying to pin down just what kind of internationalism they sought (as an ideal, or as a standard for their legitimacy), and then having to match that standard to their day-to-day operations.

Thanks, Michael! The World Anti-Doping Agency is one organization that falls smack in the middle of international science and sport (and is considered rather more professional and effective than nation-level agencies, I think). And I'd love to read something about international science and math competitions, like the International Math Olympiad - you have done some research on this, as I recall? The first International Chemistry Olympiad was held in Prague in June 1968, in the waning days of the Prague Spring - there must be a story there!

The math olympiads are about a decade older than the chemistry ones, and are definitely part of the internationalism story for mathematics. Still have to figure out just how, but one thing you'll note about Fields Medalists in the 21st century who came from outside the main 20th-century recruitment channels is how many of them got their start with the IMO. That includes this year's first female medalist (Mirzakhani) and the geopolitically significant recent medalists from Vietnam (Ngo, 2010) and Brazil (Avila, 2014).

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

back to top