What do Governments Want from Sport and What do they Get?

Sir John Wolfenden is chiefly famous for chairing the British committee which produced the Report on Homosexual Offenses and Prostitution in 1957. The report developed the principle that sexual activity conducted in private was “not the law’s business,” a principle which was implemented as a series of legislative changes over the next dozen years which became the basis of Britain’s “permissive society.” Relatively few people remember that no sooner was the ink dry on that document than Sir John set about another influential report, Sport and the Community, published in 1960. This recommended a much greater state involvement in sport and the establishment of public “councils for sport.” In short, Sir John was the man instrumental in reversing the Victorian orthodoxy: he got the British state out of sex and into sport.

What Governments Hope to Get out of Sports

But what was Sir John hoping to achieve? The question of what governments want from sport turns out to be a good deal easier to answer than the question of what they get. Ignoring purely internal policies concerned with physical fitness, crime prevention and so on, most governments in the first half of the twentieth century wanted very little from sport. Any benefits they sought generally fell under the heading of “goodwill.” This had two aspects: positively, it meant seeing sport as part of a cultural output which suggested friendly and harmonious international relations. But it also meant mitigating the negative effects of such unsportsmanlike behavior such as dubious cricket tactics and violent and chauvinistic fan behavior.

However, from the middle of the twentieth century the era of (mild) concern with goodwill was increasingly overlaid by the prestige which could be gained from international sporting success. This began with non-democratic governments, initially and briefly Nazi and Fascist. But the sustained pressures were to come from the Soviet Union and its Communist allies. As a result the overwhelming majority of contemporary governments, whether democratic or not, now have programs which set aims and objectives for international sport in order to enhance success and prestige. This is principally to be understood as international prestige for domestic consumption, a matter of “reflected glory” and “seeing ourselves as others see us.” For the larger countries these aims include the securing and successful holding of international “mega-events;” for example, this is now an official objective of British sports policy.

One might assume that an international competition for sporting prestige is a zero sum game, but this is not necessarily the case because different cultures put very different weightings on the variety of sporting achievement. For example, Norwegians value success in the “Nordic” events of the Winter Olympics very highly because they see them at the core of their national character and way of life. (These are principally the cross-country skiing events.) Other populations, even if they care about winter sports at all, are likely to see the “Alpine” events as far more important. Similarly, both Finland and several African countries tend to put track athletics at the pinnacle of sporting achievement, an evaluation which is shared by relatively few people in most developed countries. It may not be possible for everyone to get what they want, but the prestige game is far from being a simple zero sum game.

The Reality: What Governments Actually Get

Since the USSR is the original and exemplar of modern sporting policy it is important to question what they got out of it. The official justification was that it demonstrated the superiority of the Soviet way of life to the West and to non-aligned countries. But in reality it didn’t meet these goals for two reasons. First, the Soviet sports system failed to produce the kind of heroes and megastars which would endear it to sports fans and enable the USSR to compete with the West for glamor. There was nobody remotely like a Pele or a Muhammad Ali. Second, the Soviet concern with the mere quantity of medals meant prominence for shot-putters of dubious gender and waif-like gymnasts often came across as grim and/or grotesque. (Soviet male athletes used to joke with their Western counterparts, saying that the punishment for under-performance was to spend the night with Tamara Press, the great “lady” shot-putter.)

However, the USSR was successful in a more feasible and important objective, the reinforcement of national unity. It didn’t really matter that Soviet athletic success was admired in New Orleans or New Delhi, but it did matter that it was enjoyed in Tbilisi and Kiev. The home market was what really mattered or, rather, the “near abroad,” the fourteen non-Russian republics of the Union. Here it was like those other successes of the command economy, the space program, and the Moscow military parades: it created awe, but also identity. People in the Republic of Georgia, who now feel very hostile to Russia, felt proud when they saw three Soviet athletes on a podium with the hammer and sickle rising behind them. This was a complicated political relationship at the time, not an occupied country. Stalin’s tactic of allowing folk culture to be organized on a local basis, but sport on a “Soviet Motherland” basis was essentially a success. It was not a great enough success to keep the Union intact, but there are plenty of people in the former USSR who miss the Soviet sports system more than they miss anything else about the Union.

At the same time it must be acknowledged that success at the Olympics were a soft target, especially for a command economy. From the point of view of many American or British sports fans, the Olympics is not a major sporting event nor is it a major event in the individual disciplines. Few athletes would conceivably prefer an Olympic gold medal at soccer to a world cup winners’ medal, nor one at tennis to a Wimbledon championship.

It is worth thinking of this in hard cash: $100 million will not buy you a competitive F1 car, nor will it buy you the contract of footballer Cristiano Ronaldo, but the French and British governments have both proved that a sports program costing that sort of sum will raise your medals total considerably. Yet, for all the skepticism that true sports fans might have about the status of the games, they retain a special kind of cultural status. Soccer’s world cup may get the bigger audiences, but it isn’t global in quite the same way. The Games remain the unique expression of the “global village,” a more truly “mega-event” even more than any other.

What is odd about the widespread imitation of Soviet sports policy is that it seems much less rational in a multi-party state than in a one-party state. Governments may set up a sports development program which creates medal winners, but it takes time and your opponents are as likely as you are to benefit from any “feelgood” consequences as you are.

The same is true of the new competitiveness in the allocation of major events to host nations (remembering that the Los Angeles had no competitors as an Olympic venue and Seoul was only up against Nagoya). Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac both attended the IOC meeting in Singapore in 2005 and Blair was supposedly crucial in securing the 2012 games for London but both political leaders have already left office. And the costs and benefits of holding an event are matters of risk. The benefit can be that you get to bask in the favorable light in which others see you: the best examples are said to have been the Sydney Olympics of 2000 and the football World Cup in Germany in 2006.

But there are no clearly measurable benefits in either case and some events may generate an unfavorable press for the hosts. This was generally true of the Atlanta Games in 1996 and it may be Beijing’s problem. China has demonstrated over the years a sort of frustrated desperation to hold the games as one of the marks of respect for its status. But it may be that the will is blind rather than rational and that the whole process of the games will do more to expose China’s problems and failures (pollution and Tibet, for instance) than its achievements.

Conclusion

The question of what governments get from sporting programs is difficult to answer. Sport is one factor – though often a peculiarly symbolic one – in the complicated process of change in how people feel about themselves, their countries and their governments. Spain, where the national soccer team has just won the 2008 European Championship and where individual competitors like Rafael Nadal are also achieving global success surely has a “feelgood factor” as a consequence compared with (say) France whose sporting stardome has been on the wane in recent years. Spain must be slightly easier to govern than it might have been as a consequence. Politicians clearly believe in this effect and we cannot dismiss it: non-quantifiability is not the same as non-existence – except, perhaps, to an economist.

If China is seen to run a “good” Olympics and also comes in the top two places in the medals table, there will surely be sound intuitive reasons for the Chinese government to feel pleased with itself. But the benefits from a “feelgood” performance may not last longer than it takes to win the 100 meter dash.

Lincoln Allison is the author of Amateurism in Sport and editor of The Global Politics of Sport. He is Visiting Professor of the Politics of Sport at the University of Brighton and Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.