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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Fun, games and money

August 2, 2008

Sport has become a global business as well as a recreation for
billions, says Patrick Lane (interviewed here). But how to make it
faster, higher, stronger?
The Economist (UK)
July 31, 2008

EVEN in China, a century is a long time to wait. In 1908, as the
fourth modern Olympic games took place in London, a magazine called
Tianjin Youth posed three questions. When would a Chinese athlete
take part in the games? When would the country send a team? And when
would it stage the games?

The answer to the first question turned out to be 1932, when Liu
Changchun, a sprinter, made his way to Los Angeles from his home in
north-eastern China, then under Japanese occupation. He won nothing,
but is remembered as a hero.

China sent teams to the Olympics in 1936, 1948 and 1952, but then
stayed away until the winter games of 1980. Four years after that,
when the summer games returned to Los Angeles, Xu Haifeng, a
pistol-shooter, won China's first gold medal.

Now China has a full set of answers. The greatest sporting show on
Earth is coming to Beijing, and the organisers are leaving nothing to
chance. They have crammed as many lucky number eights into the
arrangements as they sensibly could. The opening ceremony of the 2008
games will begin at 8.08pm on August 8th.

When the Olympic flame is lit, China will be hoping for a 17-day
festival of sport and international friendship. It sees the games as
marking not just its re-emergence as a global economic force but also
as a country that the rest of the world treats with admiration and
respect. Lately China has come to view the flame as a bright light in
a year of calamities, including heavy snow that caused chaos in
January and February and an earthquake in Sichuan province in May
that killed tens of thousands. It has, however, had less comforting
connections with unrest in Tibet.

Beijing is sure to get its festival of sport, with 10,700 competitors
from more than 200 countries playing 28 sports. In September it will
also play host to 4,000 athletes with disabilities, in the
Paralympics. There are sure to be moments that raise the hairs at the
back of the neck. With a bit of good fortune, one such moment could
come on the first weekend of competition, when in a spanking new
18,000-seat basketball arena in west Beijing China's men are due to
take on the mighty United States.

Fortune depends largely on Yao Ming's left foot. Mr Yao is a sporting
icon in China and also a star in America, where he plays for the
Houston Rockets; at 2.29 metres (7'6"), he is the tallest player in
the National Basketball Association (NBA), as well as one of the
best. But he suffered a stress fracture in February and started
playing again only in mid-July.

China wants to be a great power in sport as well as in economics and
international affairs. Ask Chinese officials whether they care about
winning the most gold medals, and they will demur politely: winning,
they say, isn't everything. But winning does matter, as it does to
Americans, Russians or Germans. Few will be surprised if China tops
the medal table this time (see chart 1).

Whether China gets its festival of friendship is another matter.
Plenty in the West think China should not have been given the games
at all. Its critics say it has done too little to elicit better
behaviour from its nasty friends in places such as Myanmar and Sudan.
They say, too, that China is cruel to dissidents and minorities at
home, not least in Tibet, where unrest erupted just before the
Olympic torch began its relay from Greece to Beijing. The
relay—invigilated by burly Chinese minders—was met by protests in
several cities, which angered the Chinese.

The games in Beijing will not suffer a sporting boycott like those of
1956, 1976, 1980 and 1984. But some foreign leaders will stay away
from the opening ceremony, and neither China nor the International
Olympic Committee (IOC) can do anything to prevent criticism from
abroad. Some athletes, too, may see the games as an opportunity for
making a political protest, even though that is against Olympic
rules. It has happened before.
Plympic Medal (http://www.economist.com/images/20080802/CSR550.gif)

FESTIVAL OF COMMERCE

However, the Olympics can also be seen as another sort of festival:
of global business. True believers in the Olympic spirit might balk
at this. There is no prize money on offer: athletes compete only for
the glory of gold, silver and bronze. Most of them are thrilled just
to be there. The IOC insists it is not a profitmaking body. And
Olympic venues are free of the advertisements that encircle other
sporting arenas.

Yet commerce is more certain to be in the air than the Beijing smog.
Olympians ceased to be amateurs long ago. Win a medal, and financial
rewards will follow. Sporting federations will be keener to provide
facilities, and corporate sponsors want to back winners. For
companies, the games are a golden marketing opportunity. Sportswear
manufacturers have no better showcase. For almost anyone selling
anything, the Beijing Olympics are a chance to reach 1.3 billion
people in an economy with double-digit growth, not to mention
billions more watching around the world.

The Olympics have 12 main sponsors, from Kodak, which backed the
first modern games in 1896, and Coca-Cola, part of the show since
1928, to Lenovo, a Chinese computer company that signed up in 2005.
For the four years to 2008, they are paying out a total of $866m in
money, goods and services. In all, more than 60 companies, both
Chinese and foreign, are sponsoring the games. "No multinational
company bent on expanding into China or national company seeking to
grow inside or outside China will miss out on the branding
opportunity presented by the Olympics in Beijing," according to Sir
Martin Sorrell, chief executive of WPP, a giant advertising and
marketing agency.

Underpinning this festival of commerce is the symbiotic relationship
between sport and the media. That still chiefly means television, but
more and more people also follow sport on computers, BlackBerrys and
mobile phones.

Sport has clearly become a global business -- but in fact it has been
since long before -- globalisation" was invented. International sport
dates back to the 19th century, and the commercial exploitation of
sport is even older than that. What is new is the degree of
commercialisation and its spread to emerging markets.

One sign is that capital is chasing sporting profit across borders.
For example, nine of the 20 football clubs in the English Premier
League last season were owned by foreigners. (The final count was
eight: no amount of American cash could have saved Derby County from
relegation.) One or two may be rich men's playthings, but most have
been bought for the media rights, ticket sales and merchandising.

Another sign is the international integration of sport's labour
markets. Brazilian footballers, for instance, turn up in leagues from
the Faroe Islands to Vietnam. Successful sportsmen and women are now
earning sums that the stars of a generation ago could not have
dreamed of. Money from broadcasters and sponsors inflates pay packets
to eye-popping dimensions, especially when an attractive image meets
sporting brilliance. Tiger Woods is as far ahead in earning power as
he is on the golf course (see chart 2).
(Muscular Earnings, http://www.economist.com/images/20080802/CSR546.jpg)

Sport's product markets, too, are becoming ever more global as
Western businesses target the newly affluent in developing countries.
And those developing economies, notably India in cricket, are
creating powerful sports businesses of their own. Ambitious countries
in Asia and the Gulf want their own tennis tournaments and Grand Prix.

The old marriage of media and sport has proved durable because it is
so mutually beneficial. What they both get out of it is eyeballs. The
sports business is based on the idea that people are willing to pay
to watch others play, and television expands the audience vastly,
from thousands inside the stadium to millions outside. For
broadcasters, more eyeballs mean more subscribers and advertisers.
And sport is one of the few things that still has people tuning in by
the million.
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