The Transformation of Sport: Politics, Money, and Scum

I write this article entirely from an outsider’s perspective; from what I watch as a spectator, read in the papers and comment threads, and talk about with friends. I have no idea what actually goes on inside the complicated world of modern sport, but this is how murky they seem from the outside.

With the Olympic Games due to begin in less than two weeks, it is no wonder that they are hogging the headlines. However, more than athletic prowess, the talk is about sponsorships, politics and human rights. Indeed, even the Ancient Olympics are believed to have had political leanings. So it should come as no surprise that while athletes continue to compete against one another and keep statisticians busy, corporate sponsors and governments continue to orchestrate events to suit their own ambitions.

The London Olympics, just like any worldwide sporting event, have been marked by controversy for a long while now. With austerity measures being introduced everywhere thanks to the financial crisis, public opinion naturally rages against what an ordinary man on the street would see as unnecessary expenditure. Stories about once-used Olympic venues, now desolate and crumbling, surface time and again in the press; the enormous strain that such massive events lay on a country’s public transport and residential systems, disrupting normal life in the process, cannot be denied.

The anger is probably not directed at the sporting events themselves, but the organisations and the people who run them. Who is to say that sporting committees do not function in a manner akin to other major organisations, practising the organised deception that has turned into an unwritten law and can almost be taken for granted? Ostensibly, the purpose is to promote sports- but what of the rampant merchandising, the large posters exhorting people to buy what they do not need, so that sporting empires can be created to retain power and favour with politicians? Tickets for the London Olympics can be bought only with Visa cards, and even within the Olympic Park, they will be the only ones valid for purchases. Food and drink will predictably be supplied by McDonald’s and Coca Cola. Spectators are of course prohibited from bringing their own food in- for how else does one force people to spend exorbitant amounts on unhealthy food against their will? The story of the involvement of Dow Chemicals floats in and out of the picture, depending on its suitability as a diversionary tactic of the Indian government.

Sponsorship is of undeniable importance to sport, but after a point it grows rabid, particularly when in conjunction with politics. In many sports, the pernicious combination of corporate interests and politics overshadows sports and respect for human rights. Bahrain’s tenuous relationship with Formula One is a case in point. As Bernie Ecclestone continued to foster his carefully-built empire, people protesting against brutalities were ignored in order to prevent monetary loss. I have enjoyed F1 unapologetically for over a decade, despite all the criticism it receives for being a rich boys’ sport, and the various ugly scandals its administrators have found themselves embroiled in: I like a good race with plenty of skillful driving and overtaking, I enjoy reading about the technology and the rules of the sport. I would argue violently with anyone who said it wasn’t a sport because of its enormous reliance on technology. However, even as an avowed devotee of F1, I was sad to see the Bahrain Grand Prix go on without so much as a murmur of protest from the teams. (This article by Mihir Bose gives an interesting perspective into the Bahrain GP and several other sporting events’ associations with human rights abuses.) The humongous sums of money that flow into sport from various sponsors take teams and sponsors to the pinnacle of glory, but also enslave them to their corporate bosses, so much so that they seem to lose the right to free speech. No longer can a sportsperson speak up freely for fear of violating a contract and finding himself dropped, not for lack of performance, but because he hasn’t been politically correct.

F1 is certainly not the only culprit. There have been reports on the occupation of favelas in Brazil in a bid to spruce the country up for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. The circulation of money and allegations of racial discrimination are rife in the EPL. Politics cannot always be ignored in sport, of course: the apartheid-era ban of South Africa was aimed at doing away with racial discrimination in the country. Aspersions were cast on Ukraine’s moral right to co-host the Euro 2012 following political turmoil and allegations of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko being ill-treated by authorities. However, more often than not, the association of politics with sport is inevitably accompanied by power struggles and dalliances fostered by the lure of money.

The Indian subcontinent by itself provides enough examples to fill a book. Cricket tournaments between India and Pakistan have more or less been dictated by the political relations between the two countries; as of today, they are bridging the gap again with the announcement of a bilateral series to take place in India in December. Terror attacks on visiting teams have demoted Pakistan’s position as a host of cricket tournaments; they were also the reason why it couldn’t take its rightful place as a co-host in the 2011 World Cup held in the subcontinent. Indian cricket is, of course, inextricably linked to politics and business, the IPL being a shining example of the state of affairs. The owner of the Royal Challengers Bangalore, Vijay Mallya, runs the Force India F1 team with support from Sahara- now, with Kingfisher Airlines in deep trouble, what happens to his racing ambitions remains to be seen. (See Joe Saward’s blog for a short summing-up of the Mallya story, breweries, airlines, F1 team and all.) The 2010 Commonwealth Games and the resultant mud-slinging, followed by Suresh Kalmadi’s timely dementia, formed only a part of the several ills plaguing various sporting bodies across India. The tennis selection fiasco for the Olympics well and truly disgraced everyone involved. It doesn’t help at all that most sporting bodies have such heavy political involvement. Instead of improving facilities, all it serves to do is to make up the numbers in the sporting contingents that travel to various events around the world. It wouldn’t be surprising at all if officials outnumbered athletes in these groups.

The existence of omnipresent media channels surely doesn’t make life easier for sportspersons and teams. Scrutiny rests not just on performance, but also on the way they fulfill what are seen as their obligations towards various parties. When you read the sports pages, you want to focus on the prodigious talent of a sportsperson or the exquisite beauty of a game. While you can choose to ignore the scum surrounding the pure, exciting thrill of sport, it is sadly something that cannot be easily done away with. The intrusion is so glaringly obvious that much as you try to, you cannot shut your eyes to the unsightly reality that the politics-money-sport nexus is.


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