Sunday, 16 March 2014

The Politics of Sport - Be Our Guest

By Shane Thomas

It's seldom that I don't enjoy the Olympics and Paralympics (summer or winter). However, this year's Winter Games in Sochi came with an awful lot of baggage. While I thrilled at the exploits - not only of the British medal winners, but also the men's and women's Canadian hockey teams, and the historic achievements of Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, Roman Petushkov and Carina Vogt - this joy was offset by a maelstrom of problems.

There was Russia's recent anti-gay legislation, as well as $30 billion of the Games $50 billion budget going unaccounted for. Also, up to sixty workers died during the frantic building of facilities, and a much overlooked abhorrence is Sochi being a location where the genocide of the Circassian people took place[1].

For clarity's sake, this isn't a jeremiad impugning the "evil Russkies". This isn't about Russia = bad, The West = good. What I'm especially interested in is that Russia have risked a great deal of global opprobrium, and an awful lot of money to put on some sport. After all, it's only sport. So why go to all this trouble? In fact, why does any country go to the trouble?

To find the alpha for this paradigm, we need to go back to 1984. To the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Before then, the Olympics were seen as an expensive millstone that meant little in the grander scheme of things. Sport was seen as an irritating triviality. When looking at how Montreal took 30 years to pay off the debts accrued by their hosting of the 1976 Games, or the horrors of Munich '72, why would anyone want to go near the event?

But L.A '84 changed everything. The first Olympics to be fully underwritten by private money, it was epoch-making. Using corporate branding and exclusive sponsorship, it was a collision of elite sport and capitalism.

One could argue that it was the birth of the sports-industrial complex, where sport became a de-facto television serial[2]. Athletes stopped becoming full human beings, and metastasised into reductive heroes and villains, national emblems who represented the best and worst of the world's nations. Alan Wells just ran very fast, but Carl Lewis was a superhero.

The 1984 Summer Games were seen as a resounding success, and the pattern was locked in place. Lucrative endorsements became indivisible from top-level sport. High-end athletes became celebrities, and administrators started constructing sport to be a televisual event.

Advertisers went after the casual viewer. It was no longer about who could run faster, throw further, or jump higher. It was about units, getting you into the stadium - or in front of your television - which sometimes functions as an exercise in jingoism.

One only needs to look at the Superbowl. While I'm a fan of the NFL, it seems that the occasion is actually an advertising showcase, and a pop concert, which just happens to include a spot of American football.

While wanting to put on a great show for the world, and showing the best of one's country is a laudable ambition, it should never come at the expense of a nation's people, or good governance.

And if you do insist on spending fortunes, then don't remove the collateral damage from the national (and global) discourse[3]. The idea of trying to show how perfect your country is, while covering up multitudes of ugliness, is like a real-world equivalent of the 1977 BBC drama, Abigail's Party.

If your home has a leaky roof, and a rat infestation, you wouldn't think it the ideal venue to host a party[4]. But more often that not, the response to this problem is to force the most oppressed to live with the figurative rats, with first-class treatment reserved for a privileged few[5].

I say this all as someone who loves sport, and hates how it is becoming a microcosm of the inequities we see throughout the rest of the world[6]. I love seeing great sport, but hate seeing it used as a nationalistic tool[7], and/or as a distraction to obfuscate a country's societal transgressions.

Hosting a major sporting event may leave a country counting the cost, but for world leaders, their meretricious patina is worth every penny.

[1] - Circassians are the indigenous denizens of Sochi. "Sochi" is a Circassian word.

[2] - The rights to air the Olympics became something of an arms race for television networks.

[3] - To be clear, this isn't just a Russian problem. Anyone remember this from the putative "best Games ever"?

[4] - This is a problem that also blights the hosting of the World Cup.

[5] - Journalist, Mark Perryman said, there were plenty of black and brown faces at London 2012. They were on the track performing for the white folks, and serving them in the stalls.

[6] - The Nation's, Dave Zirin has described this paradigm as neo-liberal Trojan horses.

[7] - Martin Samuel recently lamented this, stating, "Don't worry about your schools and your hospitals - look how good we are at sliding. That means we're important, right?"

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