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The global game

Print edition : Mar 14, 2003 T+T-

The globalisation of sports by the corporate world has reduced players to commodities and spectators to prisoners of this ambitious industry.

Recorded history bears ample evidence of the extent to which human beings are obsessed by sport. The need to play is, of course, a deep urge common to all animals but the constant need to create more elaborate forms of play is, perhaps, the most developed in humans. So our current preoccupation with sport in various forms is not new.

Nor is the rise of spectatorhood - the move away from playing sports to mostly watching them - such a new shift. People have always loved to watch excellence in games performed by others and that has been used to advantage by rulers as well. Even the ancient Roman emperors knew the value of circuses when bread was in short supply.

Nevertheless, there are features in the current situation that are quite new - the tremendous expansion of the sports business and the globalisation of sport itself in quite a novel way. All this has been much discussed, and certainly we in India no longer need any reminders of how closely certain sports are linked with business.

The business activities - and the profits to be made - come not only from the organisation of the game itself, but also (and usually even more so) from advertising and related promotion of all sorts of other goods, as well as from more shady activities such as gambling. There has been much talk of how sponsorship and other activities threaten the "purity" of a game and of what they do to players' aspirations. But still, it is likely that many of us do not really know the full extent to which all of us - and even the players themselves - are being manipulated in the new global organisation of sports.

That is why a new book brought out (in Bengali) by a team from Ganashakti , "Globalisation Covers the Sports Field" (Maath dhekeche bishwayane; Ganashakti, Kolkata, 2003) is so fascinating. This small book manages to capture the essence of some of the major changes in the way that sports are now organised and presented, the particular forms that the globalisation of sport has taken, and the implications for both players and audiences.

One of the aspects that the book brings out most clearly is how the extensive commercialisation of sports has actually led to the growing unfreedom of players. In a perceptive article on Brazilian football star Ronaldo, Debashish Chakravarty traces the evolution of the boy from the slums of Bento Roseiro who has emerged as the sport's latest and most spectacular "phenomenon". Chakravarty suggests that Ronaldo's early and harsh lessons in the role of money - such as his inability to raise the fare to travel to participate in selection trials of the famous Brazilian club Flamengo when he was a teenager - made him understand the importance of sponsorship. This made him actively seek out and respond to agents and sponsors subsequently.

But, of course, such sponsorship carries its own hazards. Several articles in the book reveal Ronaldo, the illustrious and magical sportsman, to be effectively the prisoner of the sports and footwear multinational company Nike. Shantanu Dey describes that in the World Cup final of 1998, when Brazil met France, Ronaldo had convulsions the night before the match and was declared unfit. When the Brazilian team arrived at the stadium without him, there was panic among the sponsors and especially Nike.

Apparently at Nike's insistence (the company also sponsors the Brazilian team and had paid large amounts of money to it that year) the decision to play without Ronaldo was reversed. The suffering sportsman finally had to be injected with painkillers and somehow brought to the playing field, where he delivered one of his poorest performances. The player had become a commodity more valuable than his own health or abilities.

After all, the match was not simply a contest between Brazil and France but also between Nike, personified by Ronaldo, and Adidas, promoted by the French-Algerian star Zinedine Zidane. In this continuing tussle, the winning side keeps varying. That year Adidas won but in 2002 Nike emerged the victor with a triumphant Ronaldo.

Football is (and has been for some time) the most globalised and one of the most commercialised sports. Pritam Sinha shows that the major European football clubs are hugely profitable business enterprises, which are usually part of much larger privately owned commercial empires spanning media and other entertainment activities as well.

These clubs draw into their ranks players from all over the world, increasingly from developing countries. Indeed, for most footballers in the developing world, the dream is to be accepted into (and eventually purchased by) these clubs. Vast sums are exchanged in the "purchase" of players, who are allowed to keep some proportion of this money for themselves. In addition, there is the cash to be made from advertising and promotions, as long as the player is marketable.

Of the 23 main players in the Senegal team that won so many hearts in the 2002 World Cup, as many as 21 play in the French league. The real Senegalese football, it has been pointed out, is not played within Senegal but in the clubs of Europe. And the local football association within the country has been reduced to little more than a talent-spotting enterprise that allows local boys to enter that hallowed world of demanding but rewarding European soccer.

EVEN in India, the national football team of which has never qualified for the World Cup, this process has not just started but is getting entrenched. Shubhro Mukhopadhyay describes how Indian football teams like Mohun Bagan have become private limited companies in their own right and try to mimic their more successful counterparts abroad by buying lower-rung international players.

Of course, the current fever is all about cricket and Panu Bhattacharya provides a useful backdrop to the huge media hype and attention that is being lavished on the Indian cricket team. The extent to which the expectations of the masses in the country have been built up for months in advance of the World Cup - by a wide-ranging series of advertisements and obsessive descriptions in the media of the wonderful qualities of this team - is extraordinary.

The media hype was maintained and even pushed further, despite the poor performance of the Indian team in New Zealand, simply to keep public attention - and consumer interest - focussed on the World Cup and to ensure adequate rewards for advertisers and other promoters in the process. So overarching was this concern, that even when India played very badly in the first two matches, the media attention on the team overshadowed all other news.

On a weekend in which history was being made on streets across the world, when around 10 million people marched peacefully in more than 600 cities to protest the Bush administration's war against Iraq, most of our own print and television media did not have the time or space to describe this unprecedented set of events that may mark a historical turning point. Instead, they were all obsessed with the poor performance of the Indian cricket team in the match against Australia.

And our own cricket fans, in turn, who had been led by the same media to fantasise about winning the World Cup, expressed their disappointment and anger not only through acts of aggression on the streets but also through what has now become the most effective form of protest in this business. Thousands of erstwhile fans declared that they would no longer buy goods endorsed by our cricketers, thereby threatening the entire material edifice on which all the hype had been built.

This move sent such shivers down the spines of sponsors that some of them were reduced to taking out large advertisements in newspapers pleading for people to be more understanding of the cricketers! It is not surprising that sponsors, advertisers and those involved in the business are able to generate such a frenzy of excitement among ordinary people. Of course, cricket and other games provide a welcome distraction from the more depressing trends in current affairs and allow us to forget the irritations and insecurities that increasingly plague daily existence. But that is not the only reason.

Perhaps the more significant - even more subliminal - reason has to do with the vicarious satisfaction that is provided by the evidence that individual achievement, in some sports, can become the means for social and economic advancement. This is all the more satisfying when other instances of such mobility have become less apparent.

In fact, sport - like other forms of entertainment - is one of the few remaining means of individual social mobility in a world in which economic stratification is increasingly defined by access to quality education and where actual mobility has become more restricted.

The rags-to-riches stories of Ronaldo or even the success of the boys-next-door such as Virender Sehwag create a sense of fulfilment in all of us, even more so because there a few such stories in other fields.

This may be why all of us consent to become prisoners of this new and ever more ambitious industry, as players or as spectators, and why we allow the actual game to be only the smallest part of the much more important and profitable game that is being played out by the corporate world.