History will not look kindly on the moral bankruptcy of too many sports administrators


There is no end to the array of statistics that show the importance of sport to modern society. These statistics – compiled by states and sports organizations, research institutes and corporations – document virtually every aspect of the modern sporting world. From the percentage of the world’s population that plays and watches sports to the centrality of sporting events and sports merchandising to the economy, the evidence of how steeped our world is in sports is undeniable.

Every company we have significant evidence for has evidence of people playing games. The story of millennia of people playing games is, in part, the story of people finding new ways to do the same thing: play games competitively.

It is in this passion for the game that an understanding of the origins and development of our modern sporting world is based.

The great change of the last 150 years of human history in gambling is the creation of organizations at the national and international levels to codify, regulate, organize and ultimately control the practice of sport on a global scale.

In just over a century, sport has evolved into big business, and the organizations that control sport – by virtue of the wealth and prestige accumulated over decades – also have a political function.

Throughout their history, international sports organizations have sought to uphold the pretense that sport is just sport, or if it has a wider function, it is to bring people together, bridge differences , to help modernize and other rhetorical assertions of the ‘mommy and apple pie’ variety kind.

The way sports organizations have disgraced themselves by identifying with Putin is just the latest example of how insulting that is.

This has happened throughout the history of these organizations. This happened, for example, most notoriously with Hitler and the Berlin Games of 1936. But it has also happened in countries large and small – from the Olympian cavorting with the Chinese in recent decades to the 1978 Argentine Junta World Cup.

The moral bankruptcy of too many sports administrators has been exposed time and time again. They have had their noses in the trough and demonstrated their ability to facilitate political regimes that act inexcusably.

When I teach this aspect of modern sports history to my students at UCD, I draw on the work of the brilliant French sociologist and philosopher Jean-Marie Brohm, who taught for many decades at the university from Montpelier. Since the late 1960s, Brohm has repeatedly exposed the multiple failings of the sports world, doing so most brilliantly in his recent book, Sports tyranny. Critical theory of an opium of the people.

Brohm argues that modern sports spectacle “treats the masses like morons”, “that any hope of ‘cleaning up sport’ financially is an illusion”, that it “enslaves women and perpetuates the patriarchal system”, that sport performs the function of getting people to “acclaim the established socio-political system”.

Almost invariably, students agree with Brohm’s analysis of the evils of sport. They cannot argue with the weight of evidence that demonstrates the sordid aspect of the modern sports world.

Where they almost always disagree with Brohm, however, is when it comes to the action he calls for. Brohm has repeatedly called for a boycott of the Olympics, World Cups, and all those vast modern sporting events that dominate large swathes of modern media. He simply argues that “modern sport must be destroyed”.

But students – representative of society at large – really enjoy sports festivals and particularly appreciate them when there is Irish participation, especially when that participation includes at least some success.

And here’s the big conundrum: On the one hand, modern sport is run by organizations whose basic capacity for ethical behavior has repeatedly proven to be appalling. But, on the other hand, major sporting occasions bring drama, color and joy to hundreds of millions of people from all walks of life around the world.

Such is the grip of modern international sport on the media, on States and on society as a whole, it is tempting to believe that in the current state of things its future prosperity is certain.

But, again, this is false.

In sport, history shows that the only certainty is change. No sport can stand still and imagine that its current status is sufficient to guarantee its future. And the world of sport itself is constantly subject to changes in the organization of society at large.

For example, the modern sports world that was created in the 19th century would have been impossible without the invention of trains (which allowed teams to travel long distances to compete in national competitions) and the invention of, say, technologies that allowed mass production of standardized bullets.

Goodyear’s vulcanized rubber – and the inflated bladders under the leather panels of soccer balls – were a milestone in the development of modern sport. They enabled change.

In the modern world, the ubiquity of sport – and the power of the organizations that govern sport – manifests itself most powerfully in the proliferating sports grounds. There is something deeply awe-inspiring about a well-made sports stadium that is unique and integrated into its surroundings in a way that augments itself and everything around it.

As things stand, there are few better places to understand city life. The illusion is that – because it is built of bricks and mortar – it will last forever, but of course it is built for now and its time will pass, just as surely as that of the Colosseum in Rome.

This also applies to modern sports organizations. The days of FIFA and the IOC will pass. If you doubt this, remember that it once seemed impossible to imagine a world in which the ancient Olympics would disappear. But they disappeared.

The power of the organizations that run modern sport is fleeting. Ultimately, it may be the impending environmental crisis that will destroy their power and prestige. As the temperature rises and resources, such as food and water, come under increasing pressure, how will sports bodies and event organizers meet the challenges of sustainability? It is unclear how this will be handled. The context of broader environmental change will ultimately define much of how people play sport.

But they will play: the sport itself will not disappear one way or another. The love of play that drives sport is central to the human experience for many people, just as it has been for millennia. This love of the game is something that is reinvented, over and over again, to suit different societies, different places and different times. It is something that grips the mind as well as the body.

People will keep running, jumping, kicking balls, hitting them with sticks, hitting each other, chasing animals, racing each other, etc.

The question is: how should all this be organized and to what end? And why should people bend the knee to men whose decisions turned out to be so bad on so many different levels?

Paul Rouse is Professor of History at University College Dublin


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