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Do Global Sports Matter?
David Hsu, 28 Aug 06

IMG_2795.jpgSince going to my first World Cup this summer, I've been deeply conflicted about the meaning of sports, as sports this summer seem to have taken on all of the best and worst parts of an increasingly fast-moving, technological, competitive, and globalized society. What I'd like to examine today is, do sports have any role to play in building a global society?

As during previous World Cups, for the better part of June, I spent most of my waking hours thinking and reading about football. Much of the journalism written about the World Cup every four years always seems to belabor the point that the football teams somehow represent the 'characters' of the countries themselves. It certainly is a good opportunity to comment on the countries themselves, since much of the world seems to be so focused on the teams. For example, every game for the national team seemed to be an occasion for huge numbers of Germans to stop what they were doing, to cheer, to gather in public spaces and streets, and to wave the German flag: there was something surprising and great about being underneath the Cologne Döm with 30,000 German fans, singing an incredibly dorky football anthem: "Zum finale in Berlin!". The event itself seems to reveal some unexpected truths: just as many German journalists as foreign journalists seemed surprised by the level of interest in the national team, and the ubiquity of the German flag, and took it as a sign that Germany had moved on from a explicit fear of nationalism to a more benign national pride.

However, this time, the experience of going was actually quite different. Reading about the World Cup in previous years hadn't captured for me the experience of mixing that occurs between fans, and instead, what I found was that football, as a global sport, really does seem to transcend national boundaries. On any given day, in any given German city, you could see fans from around the world rooting for their own teams, for other countries' teams, and mingling pleasantly. In a first-round match between Togo and France, there was something incredibly bland and yet momentous about being in a stadium with 15,000 French fans singing "La Marseillaise" in Germany; but I got an even bigger thrill by watching the far-fewer Togolese fans, and most of the Germans in the stadium, good-naturedly root for Togo as the underdog in the match.

Before I get carried away with sports as a metaphor for global citizenship, however, it is also worth noticing, that since my trip earlier this summer, it has also been a rather disgraceful summer for sports. Even for those who like to read about sports, like myself, it has been difficult to keep track of the various scandals this summer.

Here's a brief summary of 2006's summer of sporting scandals. Some of the crucial later matches in the World Cup were marred by diving and brutish play. In the final match, the French hero Zinedine Zidane was sent off for 'head-butting' (really, assaulting) an Italian player, and the day after Italy's triumph, many of the leading Italian teams were indicted in a corruption scandal. As for other sports, they haven't been much better. The winner of the Tour de France, and leading track & field sprinters, have tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. If you're a fan of an American sport like (American) football, summer has seen a steady stream of athletes arrested for toting guns; and if you're a fan of an Commonwealth sport like cricket, then in the last week you have been subjected to the controversy over an Australian umpire's suspension of a game between England and Pakistan, with accusations of cheating, racism, and the umpire offering to resign in exchange for a payoff.)

Some observers have begun to tie these widespread scandals together as affecting all of sport. James Lawton, sportswriter for The Independent of London (not free), wrote earlier this week, "one by one the games we play are falling into disrepute... one by one they are inviting the big question: how long can sport, in its present form and morality, survive?". Across the globe, another sports columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, John Crumpacker, wrote a column titled "Who in the world can be a fan of this?".

The interesting thing is that many of these criticisms of sport do reflect many of our other concerns about the contradictions and conflicts inherent in an increasingly technological, globalized, competitive, and fast-moving society. Many of the ethical criticisms of sport could be applied to other topics that are more typically WorldChanging, such as global competition, values, and environmentalism.

Since I'm the conflicted one -- (I'm not sure if you care about sports as passionately as I do) -- I'll just present to you what I think are the positives and negatives of global sports:

(PLUS): People really, really care about sports, which may be the most perplexing fact for non-sports fans. If we simply look at facts and figures, then the global appeal of sports is hard to deny. The 2006 World Cup was watched by 5.9 billion people total, with about 93 million people watching each match on average, and 284 million people watching the final match (Reuters). The 2004 Olympics was watched by 3.9 billion people (unduplicated) in 220 countries, with the average viewer watching over twelve hours of Olympic coverage, according to the International Olympic Committee.

(MINUS): Why do we care so much about sports, and, are they in any sense, "important"? This is one question that I can't answer. For those interested in particularly Marxist or capitalist explanations, sports might seem to be truly the opiate of the masses. If you conclude that sports are merely the dumbed-down content that global media corporations are using to push advertising, and given the vast sums of money being spent on television and cable rights for sporting events, you are probably partially right, too.

(PLUS, mitigating): Sports do seem to be intrinsically popular. I am skeptical of the power of the media to push the popularity of sports, when the popularity of sports seems to be manifested at so many different levels, scales, and varieties. For example, the 1998 FIFA World Cup was broadcast free-to-air -- rather than on cable or paid broadcast -- and the 2006 FIFA World Cup was broadcast to a significant number of free-to-air partners. If anything, the mix of free-to-air and paid broadcasting indicates to me a wide variety of audiences and constituencies for sport. Even Al Jazeera has recently started sports coverage! On a less Marxist and more emotional level, in a 2000 profile on, Roger Angell, the venerable New Yorker writer and famous baseball fan, has a wonderful and emotional explanation for why grown men and women care about sports.

(PLUS): Sports as global citizenship: Richard Giulianotti, a sociologist, argues in the edited book Sports and Human Rights in Global Society that "sport provides a potentially felicitous arena for sentimental education, as we encourage our fellow and future citizens to view other peoples as our fellow-players, team-mates and supporters." What I fiercely dislike about the typical American network coverage of the Olympics is their relentless effort to portray athletes from other countries as representatives of other countries in a kind of Disneyfied "It's a Small World After All" pageant. However, what I do like about the Olympics is that there are more countries and opportunities to see people who are from other countries. By putting people on the same playing field, they do provide a lens and a face for many to learn about other societies and cultures.

(MINUS): Global sporting events and human rights: The same authors find participation in global sporting events as enhanced opportunities for governments to surpress human rights, such as the rights of athletes in Soviet-era East Germany; athletes in Communist China; and the suppression of civil liberties and human rights of protesters at global sporting events.

(MINUS): Sports as intimately related to our conceptions of our bodies. 'Body criticism', particularly in academic critical theory in the 1990's, sought to identify the body as a fundamental point of resistance to global capitalism or technology -- in short, because we fundamentally care about what what we eat and whether we are healthy, this was thought to be a realm that could not be co-opted by the logic of capitalism or technology. Now, with all of the scandals that I have mentioned above -- particularly involved dizzying amounts of performance-enhancing drugs -- it is certainly difficult to subscribe to the romantic ideal of most athletes as just like you and me. Many modern athletes, through either systematic programs of talent evaluation or training regimens, technology, or diet, probably bear little resemblance to the amateur athlete.

(PLUS): Conflicting opinions about technology in the pursuit of performance. What is interesting to me is that we are profoundly conflicted in our pursuit of athletic excellence. On one hand, you could view the level of outrage over the use of drugs by athletes as profoundly hypocritical, because athletes have been driven to use enhancements by a winner-take-all mentality. On the other hand, I think one could view the criticism as an expression that people are unable to identify with athletes that they see as drug-enhanced machines. In short, I'm certainly worried by the revelations of drugs in sport, but what I'll be more worried about some day, is when there is no criticism.

(PLUS): The spirit of play. There is really no saying which team -- the most efficient (Germany), the most stylish (Brazil), the most athletic (perhaps, the U.S.) -- is going to win. It's why people watch the games, and then we try to draw meaning and conclusions from the result.

So, WorldChanging readers, what do you think about sports? Are they great? Are they stupid? And why are they so important to so many people?

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I commend David Hsu opening up this very important topic.

No, I am not a sports fan per se nor German, but as someone who lived in Sydney at the time of the last Olympics and lives in Berlin now, it's very obvious how important sport is.

So why is sport a form of daily religion for so many? I've considered this question a lot over decades.

For me the answer is blindingly obvious if one uses a developmental perspective. Sport is a tool for all involved, not just the athletes, to act out certain necessary developmental stages in a safe way. Yes, the old analysis of sport for the athletes being ritualized war, is certainly accurate.

But sport is far more than simply a field of human expression for the athletes themselves: it plays out the importance of symbols, rituals and hero-worship for the fan; safe aggression for the athletes; control of that aggression and development of rules for the referees; and management of this process by the sports corporations and organisations. Do you get a slight sense of the evolutionary framework I'm pointing to?

I highly recommend Don Beck's work with Spiral Dynamics. Ken Wilber's work is also very helpful.

With this understanding one can clearly see why the United Nations should have sponsored full access to World Cup TV coverage for all the war-torn countries of Africa. Why? Because then all those young men would have seen a safe evolutionary pathway through the essential stage of "young man as warrior".

Don Beck calls it the red meme, which is why he worked with Mandela and with the South African Rugby team, in order to deliver less violent evolutionary pathways away from apartheid.

Instead the much more limited view of FIFA only focussed on how much money Africa could offer them, resulting in TV coverage far too expensive for most Africans. What a pity! An evolutionary opportunity was lost.

Please forgive this brutally short, and perhaps even simplistic response, dictated by my own time constraints. David Hsu is welcome to email me for later discussion.

Mo Riddiford in Berlin

Posted by: Mo Riddiford on 29 Aug 06

Sports fans are so because it is fun. Entertainment. End of story.

If you prescribe to the Chomsky view then corporations are using it as a medium to dumb us down so as to passively absorb advertising, but the bottom line remains: it is fun.

Spectator sport is a little escapism, and yes, Mo, participatory sport does seem to be a developmental thing.

It is fascinating to gain insight to others perspective of sport (again, Chomsky would have us believe that the "masses" perspective is a simple one, and therefore not of "value"). The perspectives are as varied as participants at the football World Cup itself.

Me? I'm a sports fan. Especially football (the "global" one) and cricket. It's fun to watch, but also fun to (somewhat childishly) remember what it was like to aspire too the feats of those I'm watching.

Mike Frew
Wellington, New Zealand.

Posted by: Mike on 29 Aug 06

Absolutely global sports matter. One of the best, most poignant examples of how global sports matter is in the last post of In this blog written by a friend of mine who experienced the recent 'war' between Israel and Hizbullah from Beriut, he searches for meaning, resolution and unity among Lebanese after the cease-fire. I've excerpted a bit here but its really worth reading all of.

"Waking up in Beirut has been like waking up in an episode of the Twilight Zone. There is little talk of war...little talk of much at all. No tension, no joy in the expressions of any of the shopkeepers. Not even relief.

'...what are you rebuilding exactly? What’s going to change after this? I just don’t understand why thus far there hasn’t been…there’s been nothing! There’s been no real unifying statement by politicians, no parade, nothing to signal...I guess I don’t understand how an entire country can suffer through something and not then feel some need to come together afterwards...'

I’d be willing to take a modicum of solace from any change. All seem generally negative, though.

The politicization of even major catastrophes is nothing new to any of us. It’s commonplace. The spin, the use of the public’s raw emotion for some political gain. Here, the various political factions all set up shop in the shelters across the city, happily providing services to the temporary residents with their flags and banners properly hung.

Still, even this seems empty--a series of signs; hung in a city center that has been empty for weeks. Before the war they had been frequented mainly by the wealthy and trendy.

As fractured as the people of this country and region are, they are capable of such unity. I have witnessed it.

I first arrived in Beirut on June 9th--the night of the World Cup. Perhaps thinking that what I had seen then - just a mass of people, a crowd of Lebanese all huddled about projection screens set up by the Nejmeh Square cafes - might possibly have been a single group, just Sunni or Shi'a or Christian or just one party dominating the place, I asked Selim in the car today what groups had comprised that crowd. Had there been only one group represented there that night?

Selim (to me, in the car on the way to the office): "Oh no, oh no. No they were all there. We all come out for the World Cup."

Posted by: Devin on 29 Aug 06

Mike from Wellington wrote that sports fans are "so because it is fun. Entertainment. End of story."

I don't exactly disagree, but that description suggests that sports are some casual, forgettable way of passing the time, like going to the fair, and that the way people feel about them isn't important. It obviously is important, as people spend worried nights, weeks, years, obsessing about their teams. Think of long-suffering Cubs fans or Red Sox fans.

There's a lot more going on than fun. I remember the silent, bitter air that filled my house when the Redskins [my hometown American football team] screwed up and lost a close one. Somehow the loss seemed to reflect on us, the citizens -- either we weren't good enough, or we had been cheated, or betrayed. Naturally all favored the latter explanation. It was more dramatic.

So that's the word I'd use for sports: drama. Sports are ongoing drama -- and one that people really put their hearts into, a lot more than other kinds of entertainment. The hijinx of the stars off the field is just one more part of the show. Whether you like what's happening or not, it says something about you, the fan.

But even with all the scandal and tawdriness and commercialism, I buy it: Sports does have something to offer as an example of global citizenship. It's people competing and jousting with honest appreciation for the opponent. Of course there's the famous Christmas Truce of world war I where men from the trenches played football.

But I think of something else: the Pride fighting championships from Japan, a fairly rough mixed martial arts competition, mixing boxing and wrestling, where for some time the dominant winning style of fighting was "ground and pound". After a bloody hour or two of arm bars and knockout swings, the contestants nearly always embrace and show each other respect.

It's true sportsmanship. I'm not sure what this has to do with "world changing" but I'm sure as hell that the world could use more of it.

Posted by: bottleman on 29 Aug 06

"With this understanding one can clearly see why the United Nations should have sponsored full access to World Cup TV coverage for all the war-torn countries of Africa."

Sorry, this doesn't make any sense. Which countries exactly do you mean? And which young men do you mean? Are you seriously suggesting that war will be averted if sport is televised? What makes you think sport is not televised across Africa?

The fact that sport in the USA is endlessly televised doesn't seem to have made much difference. As for "all those young men would have seen a safe evolutionary pathway through the essential stage of "young man as warrior" - it didn't seem to make much difference to those young men who went to Vietnam or are currently busy in Iraq. Nor for that matter did holding the Olympics in Berlin seem to give Hitler a "safe evolutionary pathyway" of any sort.

War is not an expression of developmental angst, it's politics by other means.

Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 30 Aug 06

Modern media-driven sports events are a huge waste of human potential and a pathological distortion in modern society. The over-glorified competition ethic creates immense damage, both as physical injuries and emotional stress. PE is certainly not a true form of Physical Education, but instead a thinly disguised excuse for introducing military attitudes, training exercises & ritualized war behaviors to children & young adults.

True forms of humanistically-oriented Physical Education may be found in the works of Alexander, Pilates, Dr. Ida P. Rolf (Structural Integration) & in some forms of Yoga & Dance.

Replace competition with co-operation & we will see a positively transformed society, capable of real compassion & socially sustainable decisions & constructive behaviors.

Ghandi was right: Western Civilization would be a good idea.

Posted by: Richard Wheeler on 31 Aug 06

Thank you, Zaid, for your response to my post.
I trust you will read my response in a spirit of generous interpretation of the meaning that I am trying to convey.

Zaid Hassan asked various questions why I said "With this understanding one can clearly see why the United Nations should have sponsored full access to World Cup TV coverage for all the war-torn countries of Africa."

As I said in my first post, my own time constraints forced a brutally short, and seemingly simplistic response. This may have sparked your response.

To answer: I’m simply suggesting any war-torn country with access to television. No, I am not at all suggesting the UN pays for televisions – but rather very cheap, or free, access to the broadcast coverage of the World Cup.

Zaid H. asked which young men I referred to. Obviously, or at least I thought it was obvious, I am referring to those young men, their bodies aflame with the male adolescent hormones that love risk and also need to define themselves via conflict. (question: why do young men have far more fatal car accidents than other parts of any population? Part of the reason is young male hormones) AND who are at risk through poverty etc. of being recruited into war-fighting.

Zaid H. asks whether I am “suggesting that war will be averted if sport is televised”. I think most readers of WorldChanging would already understand that almost no global problem can be solved with one ‘silver bullet’. We live in a new century with more complex problems that need to be addressed in multiple ways. My creative, and extremely cheap, suggestion represents one of many actions needed to reduce the likelihood of war.

Question: Did you notice the looks of joy and communal happiness as war-torn communities in Baghdad and elsewhere participated in watching the World Cup?
Why is that?? Was it simply participation in some virtual drama safely played out somewhere else? I suggest there is more going on there.

Zaid H. asks, “What makes you think sport is not televised across Africa?” As far as my understanding goes (I have only heard it reported and have not researched it) most poor villages in Africa simply could not afford the World Cup coverage that was technically available. In my view, just the villages that needed it most.

Zaid H. suggests that TV sports coverage to American youth did not ensure they would not go to war in Vietnam, Iraq etc. Again, this is an either/or black/white argument. Again, I suggest that coverage of the World Cup to poor war-torn villages (who already have TV access) would be just ONE helpful and cheap *partial* vaccination against the virus of war.

Zaid H. suggests “Nor for that matter did holding the Olympics in Berlin seem to give Hitler a "safe evolutionary pathway" of any sort.” Sorry, Zaid, those Olympics were held in 1936 at which time there were roughly 200 televisions worldwide. Obviously those televisions were not accessible by the poor youth of war-torn countries in Africa – the population which is currently under discussion.

Finally, Zaid H. writes, “War is not an expression of developmental angst, it's politics by other means.” I do agree war is, *in part* politics by other means.

Nevertheless the key point is that I have personally found it very helpful to view many expressions of human life, including war, as part of a process of evolutionary development.

Assuming we adopt a sufficiently long-term and sufficiently global perspective (NOT at all easy to do!!!!!!) war does precipitate change that can *sometimes* prove to be very evolutionary.

Mo Riddiford

Posted by: Mo Riddiford on 4 Sep 06

Sports can teach us a lot about cooperation and teamwork in other ventures. Sports and business can teach each other many things about collaboration and leadership. Business Week recently wrote about this...

Posted by: Valdis Krebs on 12 Sep 06



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