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The circus is over – now what about the bread?

The circus is over – now what about the bread?

Paul Bickley reflects on the impact of hosting large–scale sporting events in light of recent World Cup mania. 17/07/2018

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The 2018 World Cup stands in a long tradition of nations with dubious leadership using major sporting events to shift global perceptions. These ‘mega–events’, which take years to organise, billions of dollars to run, and last a few short weeks, are the canvas on which politicians attempt to paint a picture of a nation [throwing off an unhappy past] [thriving economically] [hurtling into the future brimming with self–confidence]. Fill in your blank, Qatar.

The question is, is the picture a convincing likeness? Once the colour and verve of the event itself recedes, was there any substance to all the style? Decaying stadia and unused facilities often tell the opposite story to the one intended: all circus and no bread. There is little evidence that mega–events in themselves provide much public benefit (though of course they yield plenty of benefit for commercial interests and the so–called ‘governing bodies’ – even committee members who did not technically allow themselves to be corrupted still luxuriate in excessive privilege, particularly when host nations are not wealthy). The sport–loving public are generally looking at what is happening on the pitch not at the gilded hospitality boxes, assured by the vague suggestion that they will provide some economic or social benefit that is worth all the money and hassle.

Rarely do these emerge in practice. Take London 2012 as an example. The games themselves were well–executed (though we tend to forget the low points like G4S’s failure to deliver on their security contract). As a sporting and civic national occasion, it was a wonderful two weeks. The £9 billion of funding even left some legacy in terms of facilities and the development of the Olympic Park in East London. However, the ‘Singapore promise’ to inspire a generation to greater engagement in sport and physical activity has amounted to not a lot – participation rates continue to fall in most Olympic and other sports. That’s not to say the Olympics were a ‘bad thing’; just that the games themselves could never reverse deep trends in society which encourage us to be less and less active. This shouldn’t really have come as a surprise (we argued as much in our 2012 report, Give Us Our Ball Back). Why would the spectacle of Mo Farah’s 10,000m final, glorious though the victory was, help – for the sake of argument – physically inactive older women in Copeland overcome barriers to engaging even in low levels of exercise?

Russia’s 2018 World Cup is in a similar position. Most people agree that the games themselves have been a success. The infamous ‘ultras’ have made no appearance, and reports suggest that foreign tourists have enjoyed their visa–free stays. Yet the cracks in Russia’s international reputation and domestic programme can’t be so easily papered over. Since it was awarded the World Cup eight years ago (amidst more than a whiff of corruption) its international reputation has slumped. The charge sheet includes interference in the US election, the annexation of Crimea, the ongoing military conflict with the Ukraine, support for the Assad regime, the alleged use of chemical weapons on foreign soil in a country with whom it is supposed to have nominally peaceful relations, and – even with the World Cup itself – using North Korean forced labour to complete some of the stadia. Domestically, Putin’s popularity seems to be flagging (his government quietly announced an unpopular rise in the retirement age during the World Cup).  

Why is it that countries are so desperate to host such mega–events, in spite of their consistent failure to deliver their anticipated benefit? Perhaps part of the answer is a misunderstanding of sport. Could it be that affective significance is mistaken for effective power? We know that people ‘love’ sport – and many decision makers ‘love’ sport too. They are so moved and excited by the prospect of a large festival of sport that they imagine it will do all sorts of things that it really can’t. Sport remains stubbornly ‘autotelic’ – about itself, and not about other things. Once sport becomes ‘about’ something else, the magic evaporates. The cultural critic Christopher Lasch once argued that the spectacle of sport being used in this way is a corruption in its own right.

The degradation of sport, then, consists not in its being taken too seriously but in its subjection to some ulterior purpose, such as profit–making, patriotism, moral training, or the pursuit of health. Sport may give rise to these things in abundance, but ideally it produces them only as by–products having no essential connection with the game.

I think this view is partly right, but is a little too starry–eyed when it comes to sport itself which – even in its unadulterated form – can be corrupting (I say this even as a ‘fan’). The Swiss theologian Karl Barth once asked, “What is behind the enthusiasm of millions of sporting fans who watch the players with such passion and often frenzied excitement… why all this fuss and fury?… It should be obvious that we have here a special form of derangement”. For him, sports sit in a category of human activity that, if allowed to break free of their boundaries, “serve to bind… to obligate, to tyrannise, to lead where one does not wish to go”. Alongside sport, this category includes technology, fashion and transportation. All these should ‘serve’ human beings as sources of joy, pleasure, and convenience, but somehow they master us instead. This is not intended to be moralistic – as with digital technology, we should recognise that a ‘good thing’ can have multiple and serious downsides.

I recall in the run up to the London Olympics having the sense that, regardless of the quality of the sport, there was something parasitic about these mega–events, like the Tudor court eating their hosts out of house and home. As the FA gears itself up for a bid for the 2030 World Cup – now with political support – we should temper our ‘love for the game’ with a healthy suspicion of the inflated promises of health and wealth that usually accompany such a bid. Host nations tend to think they have an opportunity to ‘use’ the events to improve their own standing, but the question should be asked, what is being used by whom?


 Image by Fifg under a Shutterstock License.

Paul Bickley

Paul Bickley

Paul is Director of Political Programme at Theos. His background is in Parliament and public affairs, and he holds an MLitt from the University of St Andrews’ School of Divinity. @mrbickley

Posted 17 July 2018

Capitalism, Economy, Global Politics, Sport

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