Winning and Losing: A World Series


July 04, 2012 18:43 EDT

The world of sports mirrors the human spirit in all its glory: passion, resilience and of course, showbiz.

Händel’s “Zadok the priest” excites the senses majestically. The heroes make their appearance and the exulted crowd weeps a mix of anxiety and joy. Glory and failure dance together in a single epic moment. No, it is not “Spartacus”; it is the football Champions League final. The dimension of such an event mirrors how important a role sports play in our cultural experience. It is indeed a key factor to all aspects of our globalised civilisation.

Many claim that sports constitute a sort of theatrical enactment of life itself. The moral and physical virtues required to be successful set up a model of behaviour in the narrative of our lives. In a sense, it is not that far from the ancient Greek belief that the ultimate goal in life is to have one’s name surviving the oblivion of time. Much like an olympic athlete, defeating obstacles, challenging yourself and your own limitations proves to be a feat of excellence. We sport fans cleanse our own frustrations and joys by being inspired by such noble goals.

The Industry

Yet today, and despite the emotional aspect through which the majority of us experience the world of sports, the nobility of such bravery and self-determination is not just evoked by what athletes represent in themselves, but due to the almost pornographic sums of money involved. It is a rather peculiar sign of our era. Athletes are icons, icons sell products, and products make money. It is no surprise then that every major sports event is flooded with a carefully arranged and orchestrated set of advertising and sponsorships. Dreams are sold and glory seems attainable. The result of this is phenomenal. For example, the Spanish football club Real Madrid bought the superstar Cristiano Ronaldo from Manchester United for the nice sum of €94 million. The investment will return to Real Madrid’s safes in merchandising revenue. Nike invests about €6 million per year in the player and Ronaldo himself earns approximately €55,000 per day, which is €12 million Euros per year. But if you think this is too much, well, F1 pilot Fernando Alonso earns an average of US $40 million per year, NBA’s Kobe Bryant $53 million, and Tiger Woods earns a modest $75 million.

At the other end of the scale are the thousands of children in India who work for a few cents stitching footballs  the kind that you buy your son in a sports shop so he can join in with his idols. This child labour – "The Dark Side of Football" as the India Committee of the Netherlands calls it – is part and parcel of the industry.

The Media

These truly astronomic numbers, accompanied by the shimmering light of stardom, have made athletes rock stars. Their personalities, emotions or private lives, construct a “wanna-have” world which is to sports journalism like oxygen is to breathing. The amount of time that is dedicated to sports in the media reflects its importance. Beyond the competition itself, a kind of hyper reality side-show dwells between the humiliations of the defeated  and the ephemeral spotlight of the winner.

Of course, this has a huge impact on youth, namely, their aspirations. It is connected with the place they come from. For a long time sports mirrored social classes and differences in the social tissue: golf, lacrosse, swimming, tennis are sports of the privileged. Football is a sport of the poor. It is their chance to become “someone”. To a certain extent, things are different today, but these categories are still very much present.

The real panem et circenses

The astronomic numbers involved in the sports industry, which of course raise moral issues, go hand in hand with the role of sports in politics. It is a tool of hegemony; there is an incredible ideological power of the sports “product” as an export of cultural and economic identity. The Olympic Games manifests the political and economic importance of sports more than any other event. From the Peloponnese at around 776 BC to London this year, the Olympics have been the stage of political, ideological and economic assertion. Just think of Hitler’s agenda for the 1936 Berlin Olympic games, the Palestinian group Black September taking Israeli sportsmen hostage during the 1972 Munich Olympic games, the two boycotts of the 1980 Moscow and 1984 Los Angeles games during the cold war era by the US and the USSR respectively, and more recently the Beijing games, China’s major economic and cultural statement. Brazil, one of the emerging world powers, will host the 2014 Football World Cup and the Olympic Games in 2016. Public policies regarding the implementation of sports are tied in not only with cultural and health agendas but also with economic and political growth. In 2002 the UK mapped out its sport policy for the next 20 years. Although debate raged about whether to have the Olympics, 10 years have passed and London will be hosting this year.

A View to Integration

More than anything, sport opens a window to contrasting cultural identities and to cultural integration. There is a universal language which helps people get together and set aside their cultural differences.

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