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What do Governments Want from Sport and What do they Get?

August 5, 2008

Lincoln Allison
Editor: Erik Leaver
Foreign Policy In Focus 
July 30, 2008

Sir John Wolfenden is chiefly famous for chairing the British
committee which produced the Report on Homosexual Offenses and
Prostitution in 1957. The report developed the principle that sexual
activity conducted in private was "not the law's business," a
principle which was implemented as a series of legislative changes
over the next dozen years which became the basis of Britain's
"permissive society." Relatively few people remember that no sooner
was the ink dry on that document than Sir John set about another
influential report, Sport and the Community, published in 1960. This
recommended a much greater state involvement in sport and the
establishment of public "councils for sport." In short, Sir John was
the man instrumental in reversing the Victorian orthodoxy: he got the
British state out of sex and into sport.

WHAT GOVERNMENTS HOPE TO GET OUT OF SPORTS

But what was Sir John hoping to achieve? The question of what
governments want from sport turns out to be a good deal easier to
answer than the question of what they get. Ignoring purely internal
policies concerned with physical fitness, crime prevention and so on,
most governments in the first half of the twentieth century wanted
very little from sport. Any benefits they sought generally fell under
the heading of "goodwill." This had two aspects: positively, it meant
seeing sport as part of a cultural output which suggested friendly
and harmonious international relations. But it also meant mitigating
the negative effects of such unsportsmanlike behavior such as dubious
cricket tactics and violent and chauvinistic fan behavior.

However, from the middle of the twentieth century the era of (mild)
concern with goodwill was increasingly overlaid by the prestige which
could be gained from international sporting success. This began with
non-democratic governments, initially and briefly Nazi and Fascist.
But the sustained pressures were to come from the Soviet Union and
its Communist allies. As a result the overwhelming majority of
contemporary governments, whether democratic or not, now have
programs which set aims and objectives for international sport in
order to enhance success and prestige. This is principally to be
understood as international prestige for domestic consumption, a
matter of "reflected glory" and "seeing ourselves as others see us."
For the larger countries these aims include the securing and
successful holding of international "mega-events;" for example, this
is now an official objective of British sports policy.

One might assume that an international competition for sporting
prestige is a zero sum game, but this is not necessarily the case
because different cultures put very different weightings on the
variety of sporting achievement. For example, Norwegians value
success in the "Nordic" events of the Winter Olympics very highly
because they see them at the core of their national character and way
of life. (These are principally the cross-country skiing events.)
Other populations, even if they care about winter sports at all, are
likely to see the "Alpine" events as far more important. Similarly,
both Finland and several African countries tend to put track
athletics at the pinnacle of sporting achievement, an evaluation
which is shared by relatively few people in most developed countries.
It may not be possible for everyone to get what they want, but the
prestige game is far from being a simple zero sum game.

THE REALITY: WHAT GOVERNMENTS ACTUALLY GET

Since the USSR is the original and exemplar of modern sporting policy
it is important to question what they got out of it. The official
justification was that it demonstrated the superiority of the Soviet
way of life to the West and to non-aligned countries. But in reality
it didn't meet these goals for two reasons. First, the Soviet sports
system failed to produce the kind of heroes and megastars which would
endear it to sports fans and enable the USSR to compete with the West
for glamor. There was nobody remotely like a Pele or a Muhammad Ali.
Second, the Soviet concern with the mere quantity of medals meant
prominence for shot-putters of dubious gender and waif-like gymnasts
often came across as grim and/or grotesque. (Soviet male athletes
used to joke with their Western counterparts, saying that the
punishment for under-performance was to spend the night with Tamara
Press, the great "lady" shot-putter.)

However, the USSR was successful in a more feasible and important
objective, the reinforcement of national unity. It didn't really
matter that Soviet athletic success was admired in New Orleans or New
Delhi, but it did matter that it was enjoyed in Tbilisi and Kiev. The
home market was what really mattered or, rather, the "near abroad,"
the fourteen non-Russian republics of the Union. Here it was like
those other successes of the command economy, the space program, and
the Moscow military parades: it created awe, but also identity.
People in the Republic of Georgia, who now feel very hostile to
Russia, felt proud when they saw three Soviet athletes on a podium
with the hammer and sickle rising behind them. This was a complicated
political relationship at the time, not an occupied country. Stalin's
tactic of allowing folk culture to be organized on a local basis, but
sport on a "Soviet Motherland" basis was essentially a success. It
was not a great enough success to keep the Union intact, but there
are plenty of people in the former USSR who miss the Soviet sports
system more than they miss anything else about the Union.

At the same time it must be acknowledged that success at the Olympics
were a soft target, especially for a command economy. From the point
of view of many American or British sports fans, the Olympics is not
a major sporting event nor is it a major event in the individual
disciplines. Few athletes would conceivably prefer an Olympic gold
medal at soccer to a world cup winners' medal, nor one at tennis to a
Wimbledon championship.

It is worth thinking of this in hard cash: $100 million will not buy
you a competitive F1 car, nor will it buy you the contract of
footballer Cristiano Ronaldo, but the French and British governments
have both proved that a sports program costing that sort of sum will
raise your medals total considerably. Yet, for all the skepticism
that true sports fans might have about the status of the games, they
retain a special kind of cultural status. Soccer's world cup may get
the bigger audiences, but it isn't global in quite the same way. The
Games remain the unique expression of the "global village," a more
truly "mega-event" even more than any other.

What is odd about the widespread imitation of Soviet sports policy is
that it seems much less rational in a multi-party state than in a
one-party state. Governments may set up a sports development program
which creates medal winners, but it takes time and your opponents are
as likely as you are to benefit from any "feelgood" consequences as you are.

The same is true of the new competitiveness in the allocation of
major events to host nations (remembering that the Los Angeles had no
competitors as an Olympic venue and Seoul was only up against
Nagoya). Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac both attended the IOC meeting
in Singapore in 2005 and Blair was supposedly crucial in securing the
2012 games for London but both political leaders have already left
office. And the costs and benefits of holding an event are matters of
risk. The benefit can be that you get to bask in the favorable light
in which others see you: the best examples are said to have been the
Sydney Olympics of 2000 and the football World Cup in Germany in 2006.

But there are no clearly measurable benefits in either case and some
events may generate an unfavorable press for the hosts. This was
generally true of the Atlanta Games in 1996 and it may be Beijing's
problem. China has demonstrated over the years a sort of frustrated
desperation to hold the games as one of the marks of respect for its
status. But it may be that the will is blind rather than rational and
that the whole process of the games will do more to expose China's
problems and failures (pollution and Tibet, for instance) than its
achievements.

CONCLUSION

The question of what governments get from sporting programs is
difficult to answer. Sport is one factor – though often a peculiarly
symbolic one – in the complicated process of change in how people
feel about themselves, their countries and their governments. Spain,
where the national soccer team has just won the 2008 European
Championship and where individual competitors like Rafael Nadal are
also achieving global success surely has a "feelgood factor" as a
consequence compared with (say) France whose sporting stardome has
been on the wane in recent years. Spain must be slightly easier to
govern than it might have been as a consequence. Politicians clearly
believe in this effect and we cannot dismiss it: non-quantifiability
is not the same as non-existence – except, perhaps, to an economist.

If China is seen to run a "good" Olympics and also comes in the top
two places in the medals table, there will surely be sound intuitive
reasons for the Chinese government to feel pleased with itself. But
the benefits from a "feelgood" performance may not last longer than
it takes to win the 100 meter dash.

Lincoln Allison is the author of Amateurism in Sport and editor of
The Global Politics of Sport. He is Visiting Professor of the
Politics of Sport at the University of Brighton and Emeritus Reader
in Politics at the University of Warwick and is a contributor to
Foreign Policy In Focus.

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