Sport and social change

LOGO-2014On the evening of 14 November 2014 the representative of the federal government of Mexico officially declared open the 22nd edition of the Central American and Caribbean (CAC) Games in the city and State of Vera Cruz.
The opening ceremony of the CAC Games 2014, perhaps the best of all time in the history of the Games dating back to the first edition in Mexico in 1926, had as one of its main theme, peace.
The decision on the part of the organisers to have peace as one of its primary themes at the opening ceremony came as no surprise given the wanton murders that have been committed in several States in the country in recent years.
Perhaps nothing has been more heart rending than the recent disappearance of 43 students who engaged in a protest a few weeks ago and who many seem to think have been killed. A mayor and his wife appear to be implicated in the disappearance of the students.
At the core of this week’s Column is the extent to which sport can play a role in effecting peace and transforming our respective societies into safe havens for the citizenry.
Researchers have shown that in Ancient Greece sport was seen as an important vehicle for bringing peoples together. The concept of a truce during the Ancient Olympic Competitions has been revitalised and transformed in the modern era.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) established the modern Olympic Movement in 1894 and held the first edition of the modern Olympic Games in Athens, Greece in 1896. For several years the IOC has been prevailing on the United Nations to adopt the Olympic Truce and have its members sign on globally. This has been achieved to some extent.
The IOC, in its principles, outlines what many consider ideals in respect of the value of sport in helping to create a more peaceful world.
The IOC’s Fundamental Principles states among other things:
Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.

  1. The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.

The United Nations (UN), recognising the value of physical education and sport, has established the United Nations Office on Sport for Development and Peace (UNOSDP) with a mandate to promote sport as an innovative and efficient tool in advancing the United Nations’ goals, missions and values.
The UNOSDP utilizes advocacy, partnership facilitation, policy work, project support and diplomacy … maximize the contribution of sport and physical activity to help create a safer, more secure, more sustainable, more equitable future.
Together therefore the IOC and the United Nations have been selling to the world the ideal that physical activity and sport can facilitate changes to the existing social order at the national, regional and international levels and that somehow we should all work towards the realisation of this.
But is it possible?
Do sport and physical activity really facilitate such changes in societies around the world or is it that we are all just being idealistic?
Corruption in sport
Close examination of the practice of sport reveals what many would wish to see as the dark underbelly of this highly touted activity. To many however it may well be that what we so often see are the harsh reality but which we would wish to be otherwise so much so that we create the ideals and market them to an unsuspecting world.
The scandals in sport have left us wondering about the world we have created.
The international Olympic Movement was rocked by the revelations that eventually led to what was called the Salt Lake City Scandal. The reality that emerged in the Kissinger-led report as that bribery and corruption had until Salt Lake been acceptable within the Olympic fraternity because there were no regulations that addressed it.
It did not occur to the perpetrators of the unsavoury practices that the very ideals they promulgated globally were inclusive of the concept of ethics and good governance, issues that now dominate the global sport landscape.
The Salt Lake City Winter Olympics took place in 2002. The revelations emerged in 1999 but the Games were still held in the same city.
Over the past couple of years we have been reading about even more startling revelations in the hallowed halls of the world football governing body, FIFA, inclusive of no lesser personage than the Caribbean’s Austin ‘Jack’ Warner.
For all intents and purposes the FIFA revelations are still hot news following the publication of the investigative report conducted by the governing body itself.
The world has been amazed at the revelations of the seemingly widespread use of performance-enhancing substances in a widening group of sports.
The media helped in transforming Lance Armstrong into some kind of sporting superhero but quickly heaped coals on his head when the truth emerged. Prior to the revelations the media did not seem interested in being investigative. The story of overcoming prostrate cancer and regaining cycling supremacy was too good to be undermined by objective analysis despite the claims of Floyd Landis and others. The media helped make the latter into jealous villains.
We have witnessed the unmasking of Marion Jones, Justin Gatlin, Tyson Gay, a host of Baseball stars in the US. There are many who believe that things may well be just as bad in the NBA and the NFL in the USA.
Ben Johnson’s case that reverberated around the world for several years now looks so ordinary given that the eventual recipient of the gold medal in 1988, Carl Lewis, is alleged to have indicated that the use of performance-enhancing drugs at the time was consistent with the norm.
There has long been a sense that match-fixing was a relatively common practice in sport. Now we have cases in several sports leaving the global sports enthusiasts in a serious quandary.
One can therefore argue that if the international sporting bodies have themselves exhibited corruption at the highest levels how is it possible for them to be guardians of the sport. Of even greater importance is whether these organisations possess the moral authority to stand at the international level and call for good governance.
It may well be a major challenge to ask to what extent can we accept international sport as a vehicle for peace globally without surrendering many of the ideals we have come to develop as individual human beings.
The global appeal of competition in sport has led the media to buy in. The latter pay billions for the television rights to major sporting events and in turn the income fuels the so-called developmental thrust of the respective international sporting organisations. In this sense the media have become patsies in the process marketing lies in order to create sporting heroes and heroines for their own income-generating ends. In the process they have abandoned their own objectivity in favour of the almighty dollar.
The appeal of sport is such that one is left wondering whether the excitement it generates, however violent as in Ice Hockey in North America, Kick Boxing, Wrestling, or however corrupt and drug-driven as mentioned earlier, does not ultimately engender more adherents leaving successive generations with the belief that nothing is really wrong.
One wonders whether we have not reached a stage as a global society where morality and ethics are nothing but empty words the meaning of which bears no relationship to what should obtain for us as human beings.
Human endeavor is to be allowed to achieve new heights whether or not the means used to do so are legal, legitimate or downright otherwise unacceptable.
Indeed we may well be left wondering what is acceptable behavior today, as much in sport as in the rest of our day-to-day existence.