June 16, 2014

With so much attention given to FIFA’s World Soccer Cup in Brazil, it is worth recalling the political importance of sport.

First, sport is the new form of international warfare. Countries fight it out on the sporting field rather than the battlefield. The colour, drama, heroism – and even the language – of war are now devoted to sport.

The modern Olympic movement began in 1894. The movement was inspired by the ancient Olympics of Classical times that lasted for several centuries. During the original Olympics fighting between the Greek city states had to be halted to allow the games to take place.

At the end of the 19th century Europeans assumed that the 20th century would be the gloriously peaceful “European century” with trade knitting the world together, and warfare between the European countries a thing of the past. It was hoped in 1894 that people would concentrate on sport rather than war.

The 20th century’s two World Wars and many other conflicts eroded that dream. But it didn’t die. On the contrary governments now compete to host international sporting events, and they support their teams as national ambassadors. Most counties now have some form of ministry of sport to facilitate sport within their country – something which would have been inconceivable as recently as 1945.

The most dangerous time to have lived was 1900-1950 (outbreak of the Korean War). Since 1950 there has been a reduction in the number of international wars and the number of people killed (tragically there has not been such a dramatic reduction in civil war). The sporting dream of 1894 is gradually coming in to effect, at least at the international level.

Second, sport has reinvented political priorities. Governments are obliged to pay more attention to sport because they can no longer gain much prestige from war. A traditional leader like Napoleon acquired national prestige for France from military victory and foreign conquest.

But, especially in developed countries, people now have less appetite for war. Their patriotism is for sport and not for war.  The improved media coverage of war has brought the horror of war into their homes, and people don’t care for it. (If the BBC and CNN had existed in 1914, then World War I’s trench warfare would not have dragged on for four brutal years). Governments are expected to deliver economic growth and social development.

National heroes are now sporting heroes – and not military ones. Young people aspire nowadays to represent their countries in sport and not in the military forces. Few military figures can attract the national following of a sports star. Similarly politicians eager for favourable publicity like to be associated with sporting events and so bathe in the reflected glory of their sporting teams.

Unfortunately some male sporting figures have not yet realized that they enjoy a special national status. They are role models for the next generation and so they should behave like role models – after all, they are now being paid handsomely for their new status. But tragically the poor behaviour of some young men shows that they are still not aware of their special status. (By contrast few young people aspire to be politicians!)

Finally, bringing those two factors together, sport is now big business. Government pour money into international sporting events as a way of advertising their countries Many Brazilians, for example, would probably prefer the World Cup money to go into social services. But governments can find money for special sporting events in a way they cannot do so for social programmes.

Meanwhile as the global middle class has expanded – given the increasing expansion of national economies and international trade – so the middle class have more money for sport. Once the basic needs are taken care off (food, shelter, clothing), so some of the rest of the income can go into other services, such as sport and recreation.

Australia was a pioneer in making sport into a profitable industry. The English economist William Stanley Jevons, based for a few years in Sydney, wrote home in 1857 how about a quarter of Sydney’s population turned out to watch a cricket match. As Australian society developed, so the citizens had more time for sporting pursuits.

In recent decades, public interest – and additional personal income of the average citizen – has become so significant that sporting personalities can earn salaries undreamt of only a few decades ago. One way of becoming one of the richest people in a country is to be good at sports. It can each such a point that a star need no longer win events to earn money; simply turning up on the day will attract crowds and so make money.

Another source of revenue is commercial sponsorship. Companies have recognized that being linked to some sporting events can boost their image (much the same way as elite goods like to be linked to artistic events).

To conclude, sport is now politically important: it brings countries together, it increases national pride, it reinvents politics and it makes money. This is a lot better than waging war.

Written By: Keith Suter, Managing Director