Capitalism and sport: Sports for a few

Sachin Tendulkar (pictured) and other stars learnt their cricket in the compounds of their buildings or in lanes and alleys. But even these spaces are now beyond the reach of the common people.

By Vidyadhar Date

The competitive frenzy for winning in sports has been fuelled by aggressive marketing. Together they ensure that while a minority is trained with superlative sports facilities, the majority is deprived of even basic amenities to play and breathe fresh air. In India, market forces have pampered cricket while harming all other games in the process.

India won just three medals at the recent Beijing Olympics, though it did better than in the past. This is seen as a breakthrough by our ruling class,  which now wants the nation to gear up for further success at the London Olympics in 2012.

This is one way of diverting attention from the way this country is governed and the large numbers of babies with famished bodies. The competitive frenzy for medals ignores a basic issue. We first need to create a healthy nation with widespread participation in sports. Instead, the sports system is turning people into mere passive spectators and consumers; and players into sports celebrities endorsing brands like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Nike and Adidas.

Basic contradiction

The fact is that competitive sports do not create a culture of physical fitness and health. As a prominent Chinese artiste Ai Weiwei has pointed out, despite China’s record 51 gold medals, the country’s health standards especially for children are not up to the mark. Australia has soared to the top of the obesity chart in the world after the Sydney Olympics of 2000. The United States, which leads in the commercialisation of sports and has created a huge sports industry, is notorious for growing obesity and a healthcare system which is beyond the reach of most of the poor people. Michael Moore’s award-winning documentary film Sicko is a vivid indictment of this system.

A recent survey in England has shown that emphasis on competitive sports covers only a few students and leaves out most others who are denied facilities for basic physical exercises which can help achieve health and fitness.

So there is a basic contradiction here. While huge amounts are spent on imparting superlative athletic skills to a minority, the majority is deprived of the most basic amenities to exercise and even breathe fresh air.

Competitive sports generate belief in capitalist values. We start believing that competition is the order of life, when in fact we should be striving for cooperation and friendship. Competitive sports make us feel that one must reach the top, be the first, and be willing to make any compromise. This prepares people to feel that since the chief executive officers and other entrepreneurs have reached the top through competition, he or she deserves all the wealth they are getting.

Organised sports is now a big business and is controlled by the sports-goods industry, one of the biggest and fastest growing sectors in the US. Michael Phelps, the swimming star in Beijing, is now virtually a puppet in the hands of the corporates. One of his first public acts after the Olympics was to visit the New York Stock Exchange, ring the opening bell and declare that he was happy to be there on behalf of Speedo, the swimwear manufacturing company, and other sponsors. Immediately after winning the record eighth gold medal Phelps attended a function where he ate McDonald’s food with children. He has also come in for criticism for promoting other unhealthy foods which have high sugar and fats contents that cause obesity.

Expensive and scandal-ridden

The three Olympic medals and the recent world billiards championship won by Pankaj Advani of Bangalore suggest that India's best performances are in individual events and that we are severely wanting in games which need team spirit. The Olympic medal tallies in the last several years show that countries with high gross domestic product (GDP) or totalitarian countries are on top. But India, with all the talk about being an emerging superpower, has done worse than poor African and Caribbean countries. Even in cricket, India with all its disproportionate investment in the game has fared poorly and was knocked out of the World Cup at a preliminary stage in 2007. And this in a game played by only a handful of countries in the world, mostly former British colonies.

We need to look afresh at our sports policy. Unfortunately, even the left parties do not seem to have any alternative view of sports. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) leaders in West Bengal show the same fascination for the expensive, time-consuming, scandal-ridden game of cricket and seek to control the Cricket Association of Bengal.

Yoga and pranayam are excellent exercises which can play a great role in creating a healthy society at no cost whatsoever. They have nothing to do with religion as is clear from their growing popularity in the West. The left should have championed these exercises long ago but has ignored them and has allowed the religious right to monopolise them. Baba Ram Dev and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar clearly belong to the right but they have popularised the simple exercises at mass gatherings and have become cult figures. One of the fastest growing organisations in Maharashtra is Brahmavidya Sadhak Sangh which is close to the [extreme-right] Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. Its teaching material is replete with Sanskrit prayers, and a heavy emphasis on god and spirituality. There is a stress on the concept of immortality. The sadhaks or students are told not to think of death, and that life can be prolonged through one’s own efforts. That is fine but it sounds grotesque in a country that is doing little to check infant mortality.

Why has India done so badly in cricket despite the full play of market forces in the game, the huge corporate sponsorships, and the hefty financial incentives to players? The failure of our highly paid star cricketers can be compared with the incompetence of the overpaid bankers in the recent financial meltdown in the US.

Pumped-up bodies and egos

Ironically, it is the market forces which sponsor cricket that are grabbing the public grounds. Ordinary citizens do not have enough space to breathe, let alone play. Mumbai, India's most market-dominated city, has 0.03 acre space per 1000 people, the lowest ratio among cities in the world. Even the few available open spaces are grabbed by the clubs of the rich.

In Bandra (east) in Mumbai, citizens have been waging a prolonged battle against the grabbing of a large ground by the MIG Club (which is very upper class, though its name stands for middle income group). The ground is situated in a prime location. At the same time there is a proliferation of gyms -- privatised, expensive places for largely macho, narcissistic, artificial body building. The cult of the gym has spread rapidly, fuelled by the equipment industry.

It is an irony that the treadmill, the symbol of monotony which Karl Marx criticised for its deadening impact, is now a status symbol and even corporate offices now have a treadmill if not a full-fledged gym. Actually, some of the machines (if not handled properly) can cause serious injury if not death. George Bush, the US president, carries a treadmill even on his tours.

The macho culture is continuously glamourised in the media with pictures of pumped-up bodies of stars like Shahrukh Khan. Can one imagine legendary film actors like Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor with artificial looking bodies? The market forces now even want to promote gyms at home costing nearly Rs2,00,000. So there is enough space in affluent homes for swimming pools and gyms but not enough space in the city to shelter the poor.

The market forces have in fact harmed India’s sports by pampering cricket and neglecting the common people’s games like hockey and football, not to speak of indigenous games like kabaddi and kho-kho. Balbir Singh, a hockey star of the Olympics in Tokyo, expressed his anguish at a seminar in Delhi saying he wants to write his autobiography but no one is willing to publish it and that he was even thinking of selling his land in order to bring out the book.

We clearly need a proper history of our sports like the recently published People’s History of Sports in the US by the Marxist sports writer Dave Zirin. It says that the passion we put into sports can transform it from a kind of mindless escape into a site of resistance. Zirin gives several examples of champion sportspersons, like Muhammad Ali and David Meggysey, boldly supporting the struggle for civil rights and opposing US aggression in Vietnam. Ali was the most militant of them all. He refused to be drafted into the military, was sentenced to five years in prison and fined $10,000. He was stripped of his title and a vicious campaign was launched against him as was done against several dissenters in the US. Billi Mills, the Native American, won the 10,000 metres running final at the Tokyo Olympics but quit athletics a year later in protest against the Vietnam War.

The year 2008 marks the 40th anniversary of the expression of the power of protest of black people at the Mexico Olympics when the US athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, first and third in the 200-metre final, gave the Black Power fist salute at the award ceremony.

Sports stars can become powerful icons of dissent. That is why the system is doing everything to silence them through generous sponsorships. Naomi Klein has dealt with this issue in her excellent book No Logo, which the Guardian has called the Das Kapital of the anti-corporate movement.

Where was the black outrage over China’s role in abetting Sudan which is persecuting black people, the daily Independent asked recently. Eighty per cent of Sudan's oil is sent to China. The only way one can expect black athletes to protest today is by threatening to take away their lucrative corporate sponsorships, says Zirin.

It is sad that those who can very well afford to resist the market forces are becoming their willing accomplices. For example, Stella Mccartney, daughter of the famous Beatle Paul McCartney and animal rights activist Linda, designs sportswear for women for the brand Adidas. Her father, who is perhaps the richest singer in the world, has no objections to his daughter doing so.

Tragic consequences

In the highly competitive sports with high financial stakes, sportspersons -- be they cricketers, tennis players, athletes or gymnasts -- are forced to stretch their bodies beyond limits. That is why players in their teens require frequent surgery and many have to retire early. Among the most tragic victims are the champion athletes of the former German Democratic Republic who were fed drugs for performance enhancement by government in pursuit of gold medals. The athletes won the medals but at a great cost to their health. Athletes in their 40s now have bones like those of 80-year-olds. Some have got compensation for the damage caused by state-sponsored doping but in the case of several athletes the records have been destroyed and there is little they can do.

Every four years in the Olympic Games someone is called the greatest athlete. But the truly great athlete of all time was Jim Thorpe – not in just one sport like swimming but in several events like long jump, high jump, 100 metres and javelin, winning the gold medal in the decathlon and pentathlon in the Olympics in 1912. He was also the leading US baseball and football player. But he was treated shabbily by the US establishment partly because he was of Native-American origin; Native Americans were not even recognised as citizens then in their own land. He was stripped of his gold medals which were returned to the family only in 1983, 30 years after his death. His crime was that in his boyhood he had earned $25 a week as a baseball player. So he was seen as a professional in the days when professionals were looked down upon by the elite.

The very society, which treated Thorpe so cruelly, is now turning sportspersons into superbrands, commodities to be traded. So Nike star Thiery Henry defected to Reebok in 2006, where CEO Paul Harrington spoke of ways of marketing the star. When swimming champion Phelps visited the NYSE, he was described by the traders as the “hottest commodity” from Beijing. Even before Phelps triumphed in Beijing, a number of big brands like Visa, Omega, AT&T, Kelloggs, Hilton and Speedo had made marketing deals with him.

Ordinary people, however, are denied elementary sporting facilities and are reduced to couch potatoes, confined to being mere viewers of events on television. The excitement and spontaneity that comes out of actual participation in sports has been drained from people’s lives. Sachin Tendulkar and other stars learnt their cricket in the compounds of their buildings or in lanes and alleys. But even these spaces are now beyond the reach of the common people.

Children now spend more time on games on computer screens than outdoors. Exercise and play have to be a natural part of our lives like reading, talking or eating. But people are now reduced to a captive television audience, mere eyeballs to watch commercials of giant companies packaged with sports.

[Vidyadhar Date is a journalist, who has worked at the Times of India in Mumbai for 36 years.This article first appeared in the November 22, 2008, edition of Economic and Political Weekly. It has been posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the author's kind permission.]