Olympics and politics: Not Just a Game Anymore

On February 8th this year two events took place in London. In a crown court Harry Redknapp, manager of Tottenham Hotspur, a football club which has not won England’s league title for 51 years, was cleared of tax evasion charges. A few hours later Fabio Capello, England’s Italian football manager, resigned. The speculation (since proved inaccurate) was that Redknapp would succeed Capello.

Interesting as these events were they were not earth shattering; indeed they paled in comparison with news from around the world. The regime of Syria’s President Assad was bombarding the city of Homs, aided by Russia’s and China’s veto of UN action, while in the US the 2012 Republican race to find a challenger to Barack Obama had taken another turn. Yet that night football led the BBC’s News at Ten. Even The Times, which described the Syrian impasse as the ‘most serious East-West confrontation since the end the Cold War’, devoted its whole front page to football matters; Syria did not even rate a mention. So how did sport become so important?

Sport, often of a brutal kind, was popular with the ancient Romans. But the Roman Empire had little or no influence in China or India. Today these two countries, whose combined population numbers over three billion, enjoy a ringside seat for most sports thanks to modern global media.

A century ago there was neither the media nor much political interest in sport. When nearly £20,000 was needed to send a British Olympic team to the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, Winston Churchill, secretary of state for war, refused to release government money. He urged businessmen to help. Today, despite the worst recession since the 1930s, David Cameron has few problems justifying the spending of £9.3 billion of public money on the 2012 Olympics.

For Churchill and the generation that preceded his, sport was mere recreation. In the middle of the 19th century when Prince Albert wanted to advertise national glory he organised the Great Exhibition. Now Expos pass unnoticed, while hosting Olympics and World Cups proclaim a nation’s status. Tony Blair underlined the modern political mood. The vote on the 2012 bid, in June 2005 in Singapore, came on the eve of the G8 summit, which Blair was hosting in Gleneagles. Despite this he managed to fit in a visit to the city-state. It worked so well that London beat Paris and New York to the prize. Two years later Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister, won the 2014 Winter Games for Sochi, a city on the Black Sea with few winter facilities.

Both Blair and Putin were following in the footsteps of Nelson Mandela who, in order to secure the 2010 World Cup for South Africa, wooed Jack Warner, a FIFA vice-president from Trinidad who has since been removed for alleged corruption. The South Africans were worried that Warner, who controlled three votes on the 24-man executive, had turned hostile. Bishop Desmond Tutu had gone to Trinidad to hold a special mass but the Mandela magic was required. So the day before he vote Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, the South African president, met Warner in a third-floor suite of Zurich’s Grand Dolder Hotel in the hills above the FIFA headquarters.

What these men discussed has never been revealed. As they emerged I asked Warner who would win? He said: ‘Who knows, anything can happen.’ Then he gave a smile suggesting that the Mandela trump card had worked. So it proved and at the South Africans’ celebratory lunch Mandela raised a glass to his new friend.

Politicians could argue that they are merely following society where sports stars are role models and used to endorse goods and services. Absurd as it is that superior sporting skills are presented as superior moral values, athletes are now filling a vacuum created by the increasing lack of trust in politicians, men of science or letters, even religious leaders.

Sport has some of the ingredients associated with religious observance: theatre, ritual, beauty, belonging, a source of hope and belief, a space to express feelings, a sense of right and wrong, even a glimpse of another kind of existence. A visit with fellow supporters to an important fixture away from home, especially overseas, has some of the character of a medieval pilgrimage.

Sport has become a rare source of trusted news in an increasingly sceptical world, for a sporting result is a fact about which there can be no argument. It can be understood by all, regardless of language or culture or intellect. But, if all this has made sport’s appeal inevitable, the woeful leadership of sport administrators combined with the vast sums of money generated by global audiences means that sport also carries within it the seeds of its own destruction.

Mihir Bose is the author of The Spirit of the Game: How Sport Made the Modern World (Constable and Robinson, 2012)