By TONY SEED*
Editorial, Shunpiking Magazine
September, 2000, Volume 5, Number 5, Issue #36
In the name of all the competitors I promise that we shall take part in these Olympic Games, respecting and abiding by the rules which govern them, in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honour of our teams. – Olympic oath
THE HUE AND CRY by the sports media about drug infractions and “cheats” in the current Olympics in Sydney, Australia reminds us that there is a murkier, unsporting side to the promotion of international athletics. The intense debate about sport and the responsibilities of athletes also brings to mind an old question; who does sport serve? Is the problem in sport just one of individual athletes?
Sport and society. This has historically been the subject of much debate. We can all agree that participation in sport and recreation is a positive thing, as far as it goes. But is participation an end in itself? Should we be satisfied with “the game for the game’s sake” – or should we be looking further?
Shunpiking magazine, for example, was given birth to with an aim in mind. It was not established as an “outdoors” magazine, or because some of us liked to hike and canoe, or play basketball and fantasy baseball, and then write about it.
Shunpiking came into being because we saw a need for a magazine that not only dealt with the need for enlightened public opinion but also addressed and linked itself to the concerns of the people.
This same view can be taken when considering athletics – that is, sports should reflect the best sporting ideals of mankind and serve the concerns of the people. While anyone can take as a hobby to jog or lift weights, etc., sports and physical culture as supported by the people through the government should do more than offer personal satisfaction to the individual.
We think that the content of sport should be considered first.
If what is being done in sport is rotten, if it produces celebrity athletes who are self-serving, who are degenerate Rodmanites, etc., if competitions are being manipulated to produce more gold medals, would we want to support this? This is what we mean by looking at the content.
“It’s how you play the game that counts” is true – so far as it goes. The decline in health and fitness of the general population is the greatest indictment. Increasing stress at work and longer working hours mean that people get less opportunities to exercise. People cherish living. But their aspirations to participate are frustrated by social conditions. Masses of unemployed become sitting ducks for TV. Ninety per cent of all school children do not play any sport. Parents are appalled at the rising high costs of gear and registration fees. Less and less facilities, cement-like playing fields full of potholes, “user pay” fees for public facilities, and a general decline in the quality of coaching, yet amateur sports funding is being slashed by governments at all levels: “there is no money.”
The Government of Canada, through Athletics Canada, stipulates that sport must now be self-financing, “marketable”, “branded”, and streamed pyramid style as youth develop towards producing elite athletes capable of winning gold. Yet the majority of our athletes live below the poverty line. (1)
Marketable to whom?
Television, and American TV in the first place.
And what is the interest of the media moguls? Their only interest in sports and “brand name” events is that they can use them as a narcosis or “battering ram” – as Rupert Murdoch famously declared to his stockholders in 1996 – to monopolize markets and penetrate national economies.
To this end, the TV networks have been directly implicated in the cartelization of sports and the very ills and filth of organized corruption and match-fixing that the media blames on “greedy” athletes. Every activity, from elections to international and national sport governing bodies to the awarding of franchises and the bidding of host cities for the Olympic Games is manipulated, collectively reducing the concept of “free and fair competition” to a fiction and a joke. General Electric-owned NBC-TV, with a monopoly on IOC broadcast rights until 2008, even has its own permanent delegate on the International Olympic Committee, Alex Giladi, senior vice president for global operations and NBC executive since January, 1981; Giladi was elected by the IOC as a member in 1994 and is a confidant of Juan Antonio Samaranch (the IOC president and unapologetic Spanish fascist since 1936). At a celebratory dinner in Switzerland in August, 1995 after receiving Olympic TV rights in a closed process, NBC donated $1m to the construction of a new Olympic museum near IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, a pet project of Samaranch. In the US, Fox TV, owned by Robert Murdoch’s News Corporation (American-owned, Australian-based), controls broadcast rights to 75 professional sport franchises. The rights to exploit the massive cricket audience in South Asia, constituting one fifth of humanity, has been divided up between Murdoch’s Star TV and Disney’s ESPN.
The TV moguls have tampered with and changed the laws of the game and their form too. Fox TV wanted to divide hockey into quarters to allow for more ads, something which happened 20 years ago to rugby league football in Australia; even cricket was “speeded-up” and the colours of the ball changed for Murdoch’s TV network in his native Australia. (2) The NCAA changed the game of college basketball in the US and its flow to serve its corporate sponsors and CBC; during the Final Four, time-outs can stretch up to 2.5 minutes compared the limit of 90 seconds or less during the regular basketball season. This, of course, negatively affects teams with deep benches. Tennis is played indoors and on slower surfaces to cater to television. Cycling, archery, fencing, field hockey and even track and field amongst others have been marginalized or deemed outmoded and “fringe” or “niche” sports.
Fantasy sports are promoted everywhere. The role of the professional is “entertainer”. Some have achieved the status of Hollywood celebrities with annual salaries over $15-million and counting. Advertisers seek more female viewers: the IOC adds contrived sports, rhythmic gymnastics and even – wait for this – considers ballroom dancing. During the Nagano Winter Olympics in 1998 more than a dozen CBS-TV announcers were required to wear the Nike “swoosh” logo on their parkas, blazers and turtlenecks, also provided by Nike. (3)
The US Olympic Committee, that bastion of “ethical” behaviour and “sportsmanlike” values, according to an extensive investigation in the Los Angeles Times, “receives over half the $406 million that the IOC funnels to member countries, leaving other countries to jockey for the rest … For 140 “small” nations, such as Cambodia and Mongolia, the IOC provides $40,000 each. Of the “big” countries, 56 get between $50,000 and $5 million; the two nations hosting the Games get a special share.
To win more gold, Canada and the USA maneuvered to add such international “sports” to the 1999 Pan Am Games held in Winnipeg as roller hockey (played by three countries, Canada, US and Brazil), water skiing, squash, racquetball, and badminton, just to name five, while dropping popular sports traditional to the Pan Am Games (diving, rhythmic gymnastics, judo, weightlifting, wrestling, rowing, taekwondo, shooting, and archery) that Cuba, among other countries, did well in. The United States and Canada split all 19 gold medals in these events between them.
The highly-paid sports commentators of the monopoly media continuously attack and distort the principles and ideas of amateurism, as if amateurism is an exclusive purview of elite gentleman, as in ancient Greece, a mythical Corinthian golden age or Victorian England, and the ethic of “sports for all” is just pie in the sky. Broadcasts celebrate the so-called “good foul” in basketball which has replaced honest sportsmanship. The IOC and the USOC have been repeatedly accused of covering up positive test results of athletes from the 1984 Los Angeles, 1988 Seoul and 1996 Atlanta Games; while it sounds off against performance-enhancing drugs, the IOC glamourizes performance-enhancing technologies. Pace makers (which are illegal) are used in the track and field Grand Prix meets.
To systematize event sponsorship, they regulated a guaranteed supply of cheap labour, i.e., appearance fees for athletes (1982) at meets, authorizing bonuses for world records, and so forth. The rich countries systematically recruited athletes from Africa, the West Indies and other regions including Canada with lucrative scholarships and instant citizenship. The European press has acknowledged the existence of “soccer slavery”, a slave trade involving thousands of African, Asian and Latin American teenagers and children in Belgium, Holland, France, Italy and Spain. “Manchester United was criticized for its partnership with Belgium’s Royal Antwerp, a team considered to be a holding camp…” (4) So-called “dream teams” were brought into being, as in the Barcelona Olympics, doing nothing more than humiliating countries with few resources.
Instead of promoting international good will, an enjoyment of the capabilities of athletes from all nations and bringing people together, consider how the media coverage of the Olympics is marked by an increasingly unrestrained boosterism; it seems to inflame the “winning-is-everything” mentality; a hostile, chauvinistic, rah-rah competitiveness that defeats the very purpose of international games. The immense athletic prowess and accomplishments of mankind seems to be negated to benefit a handful of speculators.
Two concepts of sport
What is the real match, the real contest here?
There are two concepts of sport, just as there are two sports played in Canada – amateur and professional, sport played by people or sport performed as a tool of Mammon and the pursuit of gold. It is a matter of two outlooks; an amateur concept of human-centred sports and the concept of capital-centric sports as “entertainment”.
The concept of sports as the people’s right, as a source of health and well-being for all, or the concept of sports as a market commodity, a source of personal wealth, and a proclamation of international superiority.
Either “friendship, first, competition second”, or “winning-is-everything” – the pragmatic mentality that “the end justifies the means.” This demand is an unprincipled approach and self-serving. Are profits, ratings and gold medals more important than enjoyment of the game and mass participation in sport and recreation? The term “couch potato” is now part of our every day vocabulary, and even the title of a media sports column in the National Post. Is this “the end” the powerful sports monopolies, the big media owners and the government are striving for behind the focus and demand for gold? A nation of “couch potatoes”? This is an astounding view – that drugging people with the narcosis of sport as entertainment, spectacle and diversion is profitable whereas developing positive sport is extremely costly! There must be something behind it.
These two ideas contend every day, locally as well as in international competition. One is a narcotic. One is a cheat.
But it is not amateur sport which is the drug peddler.
Note: Due to space limitations an edited version of the original article was published. The entire article is reproduced along with the addition of annotated endnotes and a sidebar “Reality Check”.
1 In 1989 Canadian Olympians testified before the Dubin Inquiry that they were under increasing pressure to perform and produce international results for Canada in order to qualify for a monthly patronage of less than $600; hence some had resorted to performance-enhancing drugs. Twelve years later, today’s Canadian Olympian receives $1100 a month in expenses, well under the poverty line. The prolonged raising of prices which resulted from the formation of the cartel between the IOC-NBC-TV-multinationals has hitherto been observed only in respect of fees paid for broadcast and sponsorship rights, but never in respect of the mass of athletes. Canadian athletes explained that they needed the help to keep up with the supercharged foreign competition. In essence, they explained, they were seeking only to level the playing field for cheats.
2 Rupert Murdoch: World Domination Through Sports?
In the winter of 1998-99, Murdoch stunned the sports world by announcing his intention to buy Manchester United, one of the most popular soccer teams in the world for an estimated $US 1 billion. Manchester United is a limited company, with a turnover of approximately £100 million. Murdoch, who reportedly had never seen a major-league baseball game before his purchase of the Los Angeles Dodgers the spring of 1999, had already built his Australian media empire on the backs of sports, at times buying up or forming entire leagues to ensure himself a broadcast monopoly. With Manchester United in his stable, Murdoch hoped to be able to control broadcast rights to England’s Premier League, and even to form a new European super league to carry on his cable networks.
“The move horrified Britain’s soccer-crazed public, but Murdoch was only following the successful formula he had worked in his native Australia to take control of that country’s rugby leagues. Unable to secure the broadcast rights to the existing leagues, Murdoch promptly invented a new sport: Super Rugby League, with some minor rules changes from existing rugby. By luring away the best players from the existing league, and monopolizing international competition, Murdoch was ultimately able to exact a compromise, in which he would fold his league into the existing one – in exchange for broadcast rights.
“As for Manchester United, though the British government later blocked Murdoch’s purchase, it was a startling example of the power of sports-media conglomerates. As the Vancouver Sun (5/22/99) summed up Murdoch’s strategy: “He who controls the fun gets to rule the world.” (“Throwing the Game: Conflicts of interest prevent tough coverage of sports issues”, by Neil deMause, Extra!, November/December 1999, http://www.fair.org/extra/9911/sports.html)
3 CBS-TV and Nike
On 6 February 1998 CBS News reporter Robert Baskin sent out a two-paged, single-spaced memo to executives throughout the CBS News hierarchy. “As far as I could remember, in my 20 years in television journalism, it was the first time a network news organization had allowed its correspondents to double as billboards,” Baskin wrote. In October 1996, Baskin broke the story of Nike’s labour practices in Vietnam on the CBS investigative program “48 Hours.” She traveled to Vietnam, talked with young women who make Nike shoes and heard tales of physical abuse, illegally low wages and long working hours. Baskin alleged that her boss, CBS News President Andrew Heyward, vetoed a July, 1997 scheduled rebroadcast and update of her “Nike in Vietnam” investigation.
“Baskin said that over the past year, she has suggested follow-up reports on Nike’s labour practices when news warranted, but was told no.
“Baskin said that she also wanted to respond to a Wall Street Journal op-ed attacking her reporting on the issue, but she was told she couldn’t.
“Last night, when I saw CBS correspondents adorned with the Nike ‘swoosh,’ it became clear to me why (CBS News) had spiked all follow-up reports on my Nike investigation and blocked my reply to the criticisms printed in the Wall Street Journal,” she wrote. (“Goodbye, Roberta: The CBS-Nike Connection”, Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman, Focus On The Corporation, 20 February 1998. Also: “CBS Under Fire For Nike Logo”, 14 February 1998”, http://www.cbc.sympatico.ca)
“Yes there is a deal,” said Dana McClintock, a CBS Sports spokesperson said from Nagano. “We can’t disclose the terms of the contract, but Nike is paying CBS and we’re wearing the logo.” McClintock said that sports reporters promoting a sponsor’s product “have become part of television sports.”
“During the last winter Olympics, reporters wore the logo of NorthFace, and NBC reporters have worn the logo of ProPlayer,” McClintock said. (ibid)
Nike sponsors more than one thousand athletes at the Olympics and was the official provider of Olympic apparel for Sydney.
*Tony Seed, editor of Shunpiking magazine, is co-author of The Kids’ Baseball Book with Curtis Coward, president of the Nova Scotia Cricket Association and a certified coach in baseball, basketball and cricket. He organized the 1989 Symposium, “The Crisis in Sport; The Amateur Perspective” at Saint Mary’s University, Halifax. The article has been slightly revised since publication with added endnotes and a sidebar.
Sport and recreation have been disproportionately affected over the last ten years by funding cuts by all levels of the Canadian state. The budget of the Nova Scotia Sport & Recreation Commission, to cite one example, is in the area of $7 million. Funding which goes directly to sport programming is currently minuscule in terms of its overall budget. When facility and other funds are separated from the NS Sport and Recreation Commission’s budget, only $1.9 million (approx.) goes to sport. Of that,
– $800,000 to Provincial Sport Organizations;
– $300,000 to the Sport & Recreation Administration Centre;
– $200,000 to Sport Nova Scotia; $160,000 to Canada Games;
– $60,000 to coaching development;
and the remainder to various programs, services, salaries and overhead of the NS Sport & Recreation Commission’s sport section (2.5 Sr. staff, plus shared admin. staff).
Source: Sport Nova Scotia
Source: Shunpiking Online, http://www.shunpiking.com/ol0113/NarcoticinSport.htm