The nasty role of competitive sport

Posted on December 18, 2022


First published on Fin24 an d in City Press, South Africa

There can be no normal sport in an abnormal society. This was a slogan that highlighted the gross abnormality of racial discrimination in apartheid sport. But it remains as valid today, in a global society where even more liberal nation states exhibit various levels of political and social hypocrisy as they pose as examples of democracy.

For example: what is normal about a world where enough food is produced to adequately feed everybody and where millions go hungry and many die daily of starvation? The level of hypocrisy also seems to scream out in the fact that, while the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child is the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history, almost 60 million children of primary school age have no schools to go to.

The normal we are supposed to be aiming for is contained in written form in declarations of the United Nations and in documents such as the Mzansi Constitution. These speak of a hoped-for world of respect for human rights, of co-operation and peace, a far cry from what global citizens experience today.

Just how much of an abnormal society we live in right now was underlined for me — and I hope for many others — by the shenanigans surrounding the World Cup in Qatar. This went, I think, well beyond the featured geopolitical protests about Iran and wider human rights: it seemed to illustrate clearly the role played by professional competitive sport as both a reflection of, and an encouragement to, the exploitative abnormality in which we now survive.

At least that tiny sheikhdom, Qatar, on a peninsula of oil rich land, roughly two thirds the size of Gauteng, does not even pretend to be a democracy. However, a lack of democracy, along with evidence of bribery and corruption has never overly bothered the very wealthy international football federation, Fifa.

Money talks and, amid evidence and a swirl of allegations about hundreds of millions of dollars spent to buy the World Cup rights, Qatar won the bid in December 2010. That seemed to qualify as fairly normal behaviour in our abnormal world.

There were several problems with the Qatari bid, however, not the least of which was the fact that the daily desert temperatures during the usual “off season” — June/July — staging of the World Cup can be in excess of 40 degrees. Then there was the matter of suitable stadiums and accommodation for a World Cup influx in a state with fewer than 400,000 citizens.

The summer heat problem was overcome by the simple expedient of moving the timing of the event to November. To build the infrastructure, agents turned to south-east Asia and Africa to recruit hundreds of thousands of workers into a system described by Amnesty International as “modern day slavery”.

This is kefala, which is still in operation in parts of the Middle East and under which workers are virtually owned by their employers, unable to leave or to change jobs without permission. For World Cup workers the rates of pay in what is considered one of the most expensive areas in the region, were also far below what the workers had been led to believe. And the conditions under which they lived and worked were often horrendous.

We will probably never know how many — perhaps 6,000 or more — were injured, suffered heat stroke or died building, maintaining and servicing the 2022 World Cup event. But such concerns saw human rights groups and some trade union organisations put pressure on Fifa and the Qatari government.

As a result there have been several announcements about improved conditions and even the establishment in March last year of a minimum monthly wage equal to R4,720 (QR 1,000). But, according to a report this month by the British Trade Union Congress (TUC), many workers still do not receive this in a country where the average monthly salary is R73,000 (QR15,700) and a shared room in an outlying district will cost at least R6,000 (QR 1,500) a month.

A legitimate fear among human rights groups is that once the World Cup has ended, the focus will shift away from Qatar. Even current protests, along with the TUC report, have already been almost drowned out by the financially fuelled nationalist cacophony triggered by the circus that is the World Cup.

And it is a circus, in the same way mentioned more than 2,000 years ago by the great Roman satirical poet, Juvenal. He noted about the common people: “Give them bread and give them circuses and they will never revolt.” Bread may be in short supply, but we have our circuses in the World Cup, the Olympics and similar events that distract us from reality and encourage tribal (club) and nationalist emotions at the cost of global solidarity.

This was summed up for me in a 1973 statement by Pierre Mazeaud, sports minister of in the French government of Georges Pompidou and, therefore, hardly a radical. He noted: “Anyone who puts a foot on the slippery slope of [professional competitive] sport cannot avoid being regimented, especially by the state which is on the look out for champions to represent it.”

This was one of the reasons, that, some 30 years ago,I argued before a gathering of some 400 trade unionists and human rights activists, that there would be no professional, competitive sport in a future, co-operative — socialist — society. I suffered a torrent of verbal opposition. Only one person supported my position.

Perhaps, post Qatar, there may be a few more?

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