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.

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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.”

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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

Sports Behind the Iron Curtain

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.

After World War II, sport assumed a focal position in Soviet foreign policy, as a way of injecting a spirit of nationalism at home and gaining international prestige abroad. The Soviet Union emerged as a world sporting power after the 1952 Olympics, the last year in which the United States won more gold medals than the Soviet Union.

The Soviet presence, and their unequivocal acknowledgement of the political nature of sport, exposed the contradictions between the idealist philosophy of the Olympic Charter and the postwar actuality of intense sports competition being used as a weapon of international propaganda. The Olympics, in particular, embodied the ColdWar ideological struggle between the Eastern and Western were blocs. By the late 1950s, a number of writers were lamenting the way sport had become “war without weapons”.

The Soviets used sport explicitly as a vehicle to nurture solidarity with Third World nations, providing sports buildings and equipment, free of charge, and sending experts to train gifted athletes and arrange tours, displays and teaching. The Soviet Union provided sport aid to Eastern Europe and Cuba, developing a system of mutual assistance, with friendly sports meetings, athletic scholarships, and exchanges of coaches, advisors and specialized knowledge. By comparison, Western countries persisted in a haphazard and more traditionally amateur approach to sport, Western athletes had to negotiate for opportunities and compete for finance.

The conspicuous achievements of Eastern-bloc athletes fueled controversy about the pursuit of excellence and the degree to which sociallist sports systems embodied the political interests of their governments or the individual interests of the citizens who comprise those societies. The 1950s started a process re-appraisal of Western sports policies, moving towards an increase in state intervention, with the recognition that efficient mass systems of sport must be established to maximize available talent.

The Soviet insistence on free access for all to sport as the basis of a fundamentally non-elitist system was, however, much less rigorously followed. In 1953 evidence about the fitness levels of American schoolchildren provoked Cold War anxieties about the physical condition of young people. In a 1960 article “The Soft American” in Sports Illustrated President-elect Kenndy proposed a national fitness system to invigorate the American nation in order to meet the Soviet challenge.

The USSR’s success in using sport as a vehicle for social progress was particularly attractive to Third World countries, although lack of facilities prevented them providing comprehensive sports systems. With indigenous games traditions eroded by colonial contact, Third World nations struggling for self-identity saw modern sport as an excellent opportunity to foster patriotism through the celebration of national heroes.

After the emergence into international sport of Asian and African countries, sport became a global idiom, uniting people from disparate cultures. Associations and competitions specifically for Third World countries were inaugurated to extend opportunities to Third World athletes, but all new moves – the Asian Games, the Pan American Games, the Mediterranean Games – engendered political controversy.

Ironically, the more obviously politicized sport became, the more vehement were the refusals of Olympic purists to acknowledge this. In 1956, six nations withdrew from the Melbourne Olympics, for reasons connected either to the conflict in Suez or the invasion of Hungary earlier in the year.

Next Page: The Politicization of Sports

The Networks and the New Wave

The Networks and the New Wave

Hollywood Faces Disaster

By 1960 television had “liberated” cinema by taking over its function as mass entertainment. Without a clear idea of what its post-television role should be or how to satisfy its increasingly disparate audience, Hollywood was in limbo for much of the next decade. The old studio moguls were either dead, in retirement, or battling to maintain a tenuous control over their companies. With them had gone confidence about production.

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The New Youth Audience in the Sixties

Dennis Hopper, actor, director, photographer and art collector, began his film career in the mid-1950s when he started acting as a teenager with a small role in “Rebel Without a Cause,” followed by “Giant.” He has starred in more than 150 films and appeared in over 140 television shows.

In 1969, he scored his greatest success on screen with a starring role in “Easy Rider,” a film he directed and co-wrote with Peter Fonda and Terry Southern. The film received two Academy Award nominations — one for a then-unknown Jack Nicholson for Best Supporting Actor and one for Hopper, Fonda, and Southern for Best Original Screenplay.

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Art Cinema and the New Wave

In France, a New Wave of filmmakers, many of them former critics, emerged in 1959 when François Truffaut’s 400 Blows won the Best Direction prize at the Cannes Film Festival. As critics on the magazine Cahiers du Cinema, Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette and Jean-Luc Godard had attacked the dominant tradition in French film of respectful adaptations of “quality” novels, and asserted that the true creators of cinema were its directors. As directors, they experimented with subject matter and technique, producing films dealing with more complex and daring themes than the conventional sentimentalities of Hollywood.

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Television in the Sixties

On September 23, 1961, NBC introduced its new series, “Saturday Night at the Movies,” featuring Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable in “How to Marry a Millionaire.” This broadcast was an astounding success and pointed to Hollywood’s growing inclination to release its post-1948 movies to television. Seven more series representing all three networks and every night of the week appeared over the next five years.

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Vietnam: Bringing the War Home

As the Vietnam War shook the country’s faith in their government, it also influenced writers, philosophers and theologians to question the metaphysical implications of these events. Vietnam, the first rock’n’ roll war, was also the first television war, with combat footage on the nightly news.

Johnson tried assiduously to manage television coverage of the war, pundits debated endlessly about whether television had “brought the war home” or had trivialized it as just another interruption in the stream of commercials, and whether the scenes of carnage and the reports of American atrocities had numbed its audience or had increased anti-war sentiment or street violence.

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Radio Luxembourg and 60’s “Pirate Stations”

Through this apparent decline was due in part to a moral and/or cultural backlash, it had much to do with ingrained aspects of national life and character. One of these was a readiness to live with maiden “Auntie” BBC’s paternalism. British record companies were content – if not enthusiastic – to sell rock `n’ roll, but BBC resistance severely restricted airplay.

The only alternative – the commercial radio station Radio Luxembourg, broadcast from mainland Europe – was very popular with teenagers (especially at 11 pm on a Sunday night for the Top 20), but that popularity did not translate itself into wholesale dissatisfaction with the BBC’s music policy until 1964, when a rash of “ pirate stations” broke out, broadcasting unlicensed from ships moored just outside territorial waters. The pirates introduced an American style of disk jockey to an enthusiastic British audience.

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American Television and the Wider World

The very first made-for-TV movie, “See How They Run,” premiered on October 17, 1964, a few months sooner than expected. This Universal production is a crime melodrama that was quickly followed six weeks later by the broadcast of Don Siegel’s next excursion into the telefilm genre, “The Hanged Man.” Like “The Killers” before it, Siegel’s second assignment for NBC-MCA is another remake of a classic film noir, “Ride the Pink Horse.”

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