Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Perils of Major Sports Gigs in Marginal Digs

Kicking a ball across a field.

Sliding down a mountain on strips of plastic.

Writhing and wriggling your body across a pool of water - and back again.

Taken individually, such expenditures of energy don't necessarily amount to much.  But put them in the context of an athletic competition, and suddenly, lots of people can become wildly excited.

It can be rewarding on many levels for both participants and spectators.  However, at what point does all of the skill, hard work, determination, tenacity, and even pain invested by athletes into their sport become just another commodity to be bought, sold, and manipulated by people who have their own agendas to win?

At what point do the promise and pleasure of sports become some sort of peril?

Earlier this week, in the storied Russian city of Volgograd, two terrorist bombings in two days killed a total of 31 civilians.  Although experts aren't sure, they believe Chechen rebels, Russian's main Islamist enemies, are likely responsible for the attacks, since earlier this year, rebel leaders vowed to destabilize the country as it prepares to host the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, now less than two months - and only 400 miles - away.

With no ability to prove it, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) yesterday nevertheless expressed confidence that the Russian games will be "safe and secure," as if anybody would be gullible enough to believe it now.  Considering the fact that Volgograd authorities either had no warning that these bombings would take place, or if they did, they couldn't prevent them anyway, hollow platitudes intended to pacify both locals and the international sports community don't help.  Hopefully, there will be no more terror strikes - at least in Russia, and related to the Olympics - but if that troubled region wasn't safe and secure before Sunday's first blast, why expect it to be by February 7, the winter games' opening day?

Ever since the IOC picked Sochi as a host city, and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) picked Brazil for the 2014 World Cup, sports writers have been grousing ever loudly that the world's elite athletes have become political pawns.  That claim itself is not new, or even wildly doubted, since sports is big business all over the world.  Whether it's American football or South American fútbol, it's hardly the pure, altruistic exhibition of sportsmanship and athleticism that we like to excuse our collective infatuation with it as being.  But don't the locations being chosen to host our biggest and most celebrated sporting events seem to be getting more curious and marginal?

It's no secret that influence-peddling sports commissioners spend more time in boardrooms than on playing fields seeking cushy marketing and broadcasting deals.  In turn, potentates seeking validation for their rule promise the moon to these commissioners, even if it means a lot of nasty back-room wrangling - and labor rights violations - to get venues ready for their close-up in front of the planet's television cameras.

Meanwhile, in countries prosperous to impoverished, young people whose idealism drips out of them like sweat are the photogenic, adrenaline-fueled product being increasingly exploited for those high-dollar marketing contracts, broadcast rights, and stadium construction projects.  Not to mention the new airports, mass transit systems, highways, and other grand infrastructure dreams that get thrown into the mix with these mammoth sporting spectacles.  In countries like the United States, Canada, Japan, Germany, Finland, and Australia, virtually all of the elite athletes are very much aware of their sport's reciprocal relationship with these big events; those athletes who can excel will likely reap lucrative promotional deals, so performing for the cameras risks becoming more of a job than a passion.  But one wonders, for the kids coming out of poorer and more remote countries, where passion for one's sport will likely be their only long-term reward, if all of it is really worth it?  Especially now, with terrorism setting a gruesome prelude for the Sochi games?

Granted, with Russia's winter Olympics bearing down, it's a little late to pick a new venue, and besides, doing so would be the wrong response to the attacks in Volgograd (which used to be called Stalingrad, by the way).  Perhaps the IOC should never have picked such a sensitive location to begin with, as some critics have been suggesting, but then again, terrorism knows no boundaries.

Cancel the games?  Not only would that be unfair to athletes who've spent the past four years preparing for the Sochi Olympics, but perhaps more significantly, there are billions of dollars on the line that will not be ignored, or denied.

Close the events to spectators, to minimize their attractiveness as targets, and make everybody watch on television?  That's probably something crisis management experts are quietly encouraging, but a large part of athletic competition is audience involvement, and how well will athletes perform in empty, silent stadiums?

This isn't the first time terrorism has dampened the Olympic spirit, whatever the Olympic spirit is anymore.  And this time, some Russian spin doctors are attempting to portray the violence in Volgograd as mere intimidation tactics before the country's annual New Year's revelry, instead of a threat against the Sochi games.

But if the Olympics have become too tempting a symbolic target for terrorists, the options available to reduce whatever political significance particular geographic locations of the games may hold have already been offered.  For example, holding both the summer and winter games within a rotating selection of cities, where infrastructure has already been constructed for previous Olympic events, would save cost, time, and effort in a host of logistical areas.  Or, the IOC could hold the summer games every quadrennial in Athens, Greece, the original home of the Olympics, and the winter games in Switzerland, which has historically been a politically neutral country.  That way, a lot of the drama over site selection, security preparations, and venue installations could be more easily negated.

If the whole point of these athletic contests is supposed to be the athletes competing for national pride, why does the locale of the games matter so much to the IOC?  After all, it's a pretty sure thing that no games will ever be held in tiny Jamaica, or war-torn Sudan, or obscure Iceland, or polarizing Israel, so isn't the charade of site selection already prejudiced against such countries?  The IOC doesn't choose sites based on utter practicality or even popular consent (who wouldn't want the summer games in a Jamaican paradise every four years - except, perhaps, the Jamaicans themselves?).  No, frankly, the IOC's current site selection protocol rests on which country can offer the most loot.  Bribes, really.  How's that for a sporting competition?

No location can ever be totally secure - even in Greece, the populace has shown its willingness to riot lustily over economic issues - but site consistency could remove a lot of the guesswork from daunting safety concerns.  Perhaps that also means that the IOC would be relegated to being a rules-and-regulations authority responsible for administering athletic contests every two years and handing out medals to the winners.  But isn't that all most people around the world want it to be anyway?

And what about FIFA, the soccer authority that was roundly castigated for giving the 2014 World Cup tournament to Brazil, a country notorious for corruption and bureaucratic incompetence?  FIFA has also awarded their 2018 World Cup spectacle to Russia, for which our upcoming Olympics may be setting an ominous precedent.  And in 2022, the World Cup goes to Qatar, a country where personal liberty is notoriously restrained, and conditions bordering on slave labor flourish on construction sites as soccer venues are being built.  Ostensibly, sport is being framed as a populist means to a human rights end, but tell that to the hundreds - perhaps thousands - of manual laborers working in Qatar who are projected to die - yes, die; mostly from sudden heart attacks - from being overworked in the tiny emirate's $100 billion build-up to 2022.

By the way, both the Russian and Qatari bids and wins to host the World Cup are currently under investigation by a United States law firm amidst allegations of corruption in FIFA's site selection process.

Somewhere in all of this, it's easy to forget the throngs of young people out there who simply want to enjoy their sport.  Yes, and win, and gain some fame, and even some promotional income.  But at least they're earning it, as opposed to everybody else who's trying to piggyback onto the specter of international athleticism for their own personal gain.

We need to remember that the famous phrase is "let the games begin!"

Not "let the gamesmanship begin."

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