Sports and the Third World

Olga Korbut, Soviet Gaymnast in 1972 Munich Olympics

Sports Behind the Iron Curtain

Russia was a founder member of the modern Olympic movement, but after the Russian Revolution of October 1917, no Soviet team took part in the Olympics until 1952. Initially, there was an explicit rejection of “bourgeois” sports: the Soviets boycotted important Western competitions. Instead, a centrally organized government program of national fitness, “physical culture” and sport for the masses, free of charge, was designed to create in every citizen a sense of emotional identity with the aims of the Soviet state, as a way of uniting the diverse nationalities and cultures of so vast a country.

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The Politicization of Sports

With the nation state the primary unit of international sport, nationalism provided the most conspicuous form of political interference. Sophisticated ceremonial, ritual displays of nationalism, pageantry, medals and tables of results became intrinsic to all big international competitions, and the media exploited the volatile nature of sport to promote feelings of patriotism and rivalry, often carrying racist overtones. Competition was treated as a drama of national emotions, survival, and political and ideological superiority.

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Munich 1972 and the Olympic Boycotts

In September of 1972 an unprecedented terrorist attack unfolded live before 900 million television viewers across the globe and ushered in a brave new world of unpredictable violence. It was the second week of the Summer Olympics, and in Munich, West Germany, the games that had been dubbed “The Olympics of Peace and Joy” were off to a rousing start with swimmer Mark Spitz and gymnast Olga Korbut wowing the crowds.

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Sports and the Media

Modern sport is characterized by its precise attempts to achieve outstanding performances. It is indebted to the English for this characteristic which raised it from the level of pure enjoyment and differentiated it from its more pedagogical side, gymnastics. They were the first industrial people in the new world and they also provided sport with its technical refinements. It was in England that athletic performances were first measured. It was for this purpose that they invented the stop-watch in the year 1737 and simultaneously with this precision in the making of comparisons.

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Sporting Superstars: Pele & Muhammad Ali

A basic need for outdoor exercise to conserve national health and the sponsorship of social leaders thus served in large measure to break down the barriers that had formerly stood in the way of the development of organized sports. Games which could appeal to every one had at last been invented or developed. In the 1960s there emerged two sportsmen – both black men from unpromising backgrounds – who each won vast fortunes and became amongst the best known faces and names in the world. The two of them challenged many conventional assumptions about the place of the sportsman in modern society.

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Sporting Superstars: Pele and Muhammad Ali

Peli - Brasilian Football Player

A basic need for outdoor exercise to conserve national health and the sponsorship of social leaders thus served in large measure to break down the barriers that had formerly stood in the way of the development of organized sports. Games which could appeal to every one had at last been invented or developed. In the 1960s there emerged two sportsmen – both black men from unpromising backgrounds – who each won vast fortunes and became amongst the best known faces and names in the world. The two of them challenged many conventional assumptions about the place of the sportsman in modern society.

Born in 1940 in the small town of Tres Coraçoes in the state of Minas Gerais in Brazil, Edson Arantes do Nascimento (Pele) began playing professional soccer for the Santos club at the age of 16. Two years later he attended his first World Cup Finals in Sweden. Soccer is the most widely played football game in the world although Americans have always shown a marked lack of enthusiasm for it. It is popular throughout the South America, and matches are played in enormous atmosphere.

In a career spanning 20 years and over 1300 games, Pele established unparalleled scoring records. Late in a career which had witnessed three World Cup Final victories for his native Brazil, he became the focus for the expansion of the game in North America.

His pre-eminence as a sporting legend made him a powerful symbol of the possibilities of sport as an avenue to social mobility in the 1970s. He was the highest – salaried team athlete in history and probably the richest.

Pele’s success attracted attention to Brazil itself, and his team. He showed that a Third World country could compete against and challenge economically “advanced” nations.

Muhammad Ali - World Heavyweight Champion

Muhammad Ali and Heavyweight Championships

In 1960, two years after Pele had appeared in his first World Cup Final, Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr.) won the Olympic light heavyweight boxing gold medal at Rome, at the age of 18. To many Blacks, however, Muhammad Ali is much more than a boxing legend. To them, he is the man who spoke out against racism and who risked everything, including his freedom, when he refused to be drafted into the Army during “the White folks'” Vietnam War. That single act of defiance (for which he paid dearly by being banished from the ring during his prime fighting years) elevated him to a permanent symbol of Black manhood, Black courage and Black pride.

In twenty years, Ali rose from the obscurity of Louisville, Kentucky, to global prominence. As a sporting role model for young blacks he explicitly confronted racial stereotypes. Sonny Lizton lost to Cassius Clay in 1964 and was defeated by the same boxer, now Muhammad Ali, in a 1965 rematch. Both fights were controversial. In the first bout, Liston failed to answer the bell in the seventh round; in the second match, Ali felled Liston with a punch ringside observers said did not land. After his loss to Ali he fought mostly undistinguished opponents, losing a North American Boxing Federation title fight to Leotis Martin by a knockout in 1969. He won fifty of fifty-four professional bouts, thirty-nine by knockout. His career was marred, however, by his criminal record and alleged connections with organized crime. Sadly, he died of a drug overdose.

His audacity in promoting his own ability, his successful challenge for the world heavyweight championship in 1964, his conversion to Islam, his stand against the Vietnam War and the regaining of “his” world title all thrust him into the center of world sport.

In the 20th century American boxers have monopolized the world heavyweight championship. The pre-eminence of black champions since 1956 has fueled racist sentiments. Ali himself saw boxing as “the fastest way for a black person to make it in this country”. As his career developed, many people prepared to pay vast sums to see him beaten.

In 1966, Ali claimed conscientious objector status because of his Black Muslim beliefs. He was convicted of draft evasion, stripped of his wrld titles and had his boxing licence revoked. In 1970, the United States Supreme Court unanimously reversed the conviction and Ali was allowed to fight again. In 1971 he fought Joe Frazier for the world heavyweight title and lost in 15 rounds. Three years later he defeated George Forman in Kinshasa, Zaire, to regain the world title and in the process earned $5.450.000. In the six years after his return to boxing, Ali earned an estimated $26 million; but shortly after his retirement he was diagnosed as having suffered brain damage from his boxing career.

Judging by his durable popularity, there’s a good chance that Ali will eventually get his wish. If not, he’ll probably settle for being remembered simply as The Greatest. As he once put it himself, “If you’re as great as I am, it’s hard to be humble.” Who can’t sympathize with that?

Next Page: The Folk Revival

Sports and the Media

Olga Korbut, Soviet Gaymnast in 1972 Munich Olympics

Modern sport is characterized by its precise attempts to achieve outstanding performances. It is indebted to the English for this characteristic which raised it from the level of pure enjoyment and differentiated it from its more pedagogical side, gymnastics. They were the first industrial people in the new world and they also provided sport with its technical refinements. It was in England that athletic performances were first measured. It was for this purpose that they invented the stop-watch in the year 1737 and simultaneously with this precision in the making of comparisons.

In ancient Greece, sport was a means of encouraging the harmonious development of the bodies and minds of individuals ; the Roman arenas turned sport into a big show. In the Middle Ages, sport was practised by the nobles who organised tournaments to exercise themselves in the martial arts, while today it is often claimed that the sports movement can only be really understood in its relationship to industrial development. It is undoubtedly not by chance that the sports developments of this century very often originated in Great Britain, cradle of the industrial revolution, that sport is more widespread in the industrialised countries, especially the big urban centres, and that the athletes of these countries hold almost all the world records.

Originally, sport is any form of physical activity that is performed for pleasure and the love of effort. Those who practise sport however also seek a moral or material reward. The wish to be able to defend oneself and to keep fit can also be a reason for practising sport.

As an increasing number of countries came to participate in international competition, sport became a global phenomenon in another sense.Satellite television, new developments in electronic technology and rapid and relatively inexpensive travel made televised sport as a form of popular entertainment accessible throughout the world. As late as 1960 American network television was not yet providing full weekend sports coverage, and CBS bought the American television rights to the Rome Olympics for a mere $500.000. Network interest had, however, already improved the fortunes of American football, turning it from baseball’s poor relation into the dominant American media sport.

In Europe, as in America, established national sports and large-scale international competitions were the first beneficiaries of television, but rivalry between television networks increased the variety of broadcast events. Sports organizations that had initially resisted television coverage out of fears of lost ticket sales came to recognize the potential revenue in television rights. By the mid 1960s CBS was paying the National Football League $14 million a year for exclusive television coverage, and was pioneering a further development of television’s relations with sport by buying its own baseball team, the New York Yankees.

Television came increasingly to select people’s experiences of local, national and international competitions. The development of video technology facilitated the presentation of sport as entertainment by the selection of key moments to be replayed. This also made possible the instant “action replay” and allowing studio experts to analyze the play and criticize the judges, superseding the old style of commentary which had attempted only to inform about the run of play and to convey some the the excitement of the event.

In 1964 color cameras were used to transmit live pictures of the Olympic Games in Tokyo via satellite to audiences around the world. People in Europe, North and South America, Asia and Africa saw the imaginative flair and efficiency of the first Olympic Games to be held in Asia. Champions from other countries became household names. Sport became a prime subject for the world communications of McLuhan’s “global village” to watch, to witness, and to argue over.

Next Page: Sporting Superstars – Pele and Muhammad Ali

Munich 1972 and the Olympic Boycotts

Munich 1972 and the Olympic Boycotts

In September of 1972 an unprecedented terrorist attack unfolded live before 900 million television viewers across the globe and ushered in a brave new world of unpredictable violence.

It was the second week of the Summer Olympics, and in Munich, West Germany, the games that had been dubbed “The Olympics of Peace and Joy” were off to a rousing start with swimmer Mark Spitz and gymnast Olga Korbut wowing the crowds. Suddenly, without warning, an extremist Palestinian group known as Black September invaded the Olympic Village, killing two members of the Israeli Olympic team and capturing nine as hostages. The tense stand-off and tragic massacre that ensued played out with stunning immediacy on television before an international populace and ended 21 hours later when anchorman Jim McKay spoke the haunting words, “They’re all gone.”

The suggestion that, since sport is self-evidently political, the political terms of engagement must be acceptable before agreeing to the rules of competition emerged most strongly in the 1960s over the issue of apartheid and southern Africa.

The anti-apartheid sports movement, which sought to prevent all sporting contact with South Africa, gained momentum after African countries founded the Supreme Council for Sport in Africa (SCSA) in 1966. In the same year Afro-American athletes and civil-rights activists pressured the US Olympic Committee to oppose South African participation in the Olympics. By 1968 the boycott movement created widespread opposition to sporting links with South Africa: the new nations of black Africa, the Caribbean, Islamic and Communist countries threatened to boycott the Games.

In 1970 South Africa was banned from the Olympic movement. Avery Brundage, president of the IOC, reluctantly acknowledged, “We have to face the facts of life – political powers have more to say than we do.” He believed that conceding to one demand that breached the fiction of sport’s separation from politics would only lead to increasing politicization. His fear was realized four days before the opening ceremony of the 1972 Olympics, when 27 African nations, some other countries outside Africa and some American black athletes threatened to pull out of the Games if Rhodesia, with a similar racial policy to that of South Africa, was allowed to compete.

Brundage described this pressure as “naked political blackmail”, but in 1975 Rhodesia was expelled from the Olympic movement, and Zimbabwe was accepted after independence. In 1976 Tanzania, and then a further 19 African countries along with Guyana and Iraq pulled out of the Games because the IOC refused to ban New Zealand athletes. The New Zealand All Blacks Rugby team had toured South Africa at the time of the Soweto riots, and the New Zealand government had ignored an appeal from SCSA to cancel the tour. This “third party boycott” introduced a new dimension: it was in opposition to a country collaborating with apartheid sport.

Security Lack at the Olympic Village

Wearing sweat suits, eight men simply climbed over a 6-ft. barrier around the village at 4:10 a.m. Armed with AK-47s, they rounded up 11 Israeli athletes, coaches and a referee, shooting two dead early on. The terrorists demanded the release of 234 prisoners from Israeli jails. Negotiations were ruled out by the Israelis, but the Germans began fake ones to buy time. In the afternoon, the Black September commander, distinctive in his white hat, insisted that his team and the hostages be flown to Cairo.

More than once, a different interpretation of politics has tragically intruded into Olympic sports. At Munich in 1972 17 people, 11 of them Israeli athletes, were killed when Palestinian Black September guerrillas took hostages at the Olympic village. Linking this with the boycotts, Brundage insisted, “The Games must go on… The IOC has suffered two savage attacks within the past few days – one on the Rhodesian situation, in which political blackmail was used, and now this.”

Next Page: Sports and the Media

The Politicization of Sports

The Politicization of Sports

With the nation state the primary unit of international sport, nationalism provided the most conspicuous form of political interference. Sophisticated ceremonial, ritual displays of nationalism, pageantry, medals and tables of results became intrinsic to all big international competitions, and the media exploited the volatile nature of sport to promote feelings of patriotism and rivalry, often carrying racist overtones. Competition was treated as a drama of national emotions, survival, and political and ideological superiority.

The Olympics were the most political event; propaganda, protests, boycotts and terrorism became commonplace. Western powerbrokers in international sports federations such as the International sports federations such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) sought to maintain their control over the definitions under which sport and politics interact, as socialist and Third World countries, with little reason to accept the ideology of competitive individualism that Western nations attached to the forms of modern sport, increasingly participated and constantly challenged the bland assertions of Western terms of reference.

The patronizing praise bestowed by European and American commentators on athletes such as Kipjoge Keino for gaining Kenya’s first Olympic gold medal in 1972, served to reinforce the neo-colonialist attitude of the West toward Third World countries. At the same time it served as evidence that sport is meritocratic, that individuals with supreme ability will surface, regardless of obstacles.

Countries with limited economic resources copied many of the characteristics of sport that evolved in the developed world. Controversy arose about the morality of nations burdened with poverty and debt investing in a sporting elite, or even in a sports policy and program. Western cultural influence, whether in media, food, music or sport, tended to benefit Third World elites, and at the same time the promotion of imported sport from the developed world turned people away from their own traditional sports and games.

When countries other than those Western industrial powers that had been in charge of international sport since the early years of the 20th century sought to redefine the relationship between sport, ideology and power, the contradictions became inescapable. A “socialist inspired” answer, based on the philosophy that sport in the developing world should be an expression of new-found independence and “an instrument of emancipation from imperialist fetters”, was symbolized by the first and only Games of the New Emerging Forces (GANEFO) in 1963.

This competition stimulated more conflict with the sporting establishment: GANEFO records were not recognized and GANEFO athletes were banned from Olympic competition. From that time the Eastern bloc and Third World countries sought more representation in existing international organizations. In 1963 Sir Adetoklunbo Ademola of Nigeria became the first black African member of the IOC. By voting with members of developing countries, the Eastern bloc started to threaten the grip of the Western world on international sport.

Next Page: Munich 1972 and the Olympic Boycotts