The Blog

Time to Kick Politics Out of Sports

It's high time sportsmen take sports back from the clutch of statesmen. This is how the FIFA scandal should have been seen: not as a parable for capitalism, but as a lesson of what happens when sports become shorthand for politics.

Sepp Palpatine - sposato_al_nemico via Flickr

When Sepp Blatter resigned as FIFA's grey eminence, the world shook. The global north sighed in relief and proclaimed almost hysterically that justice had been served, while the global south mourned the departure of someone seen as a great defender of the "smaller nations". FIFA, still reeling after the shock arrest of fourteen officials in the early hours of May 27, lowered the flag at half-mast and promised systemic reform. However, the event transcended the 'petty' world of sports and became an issue of global significance.

Pundits and experts worldwide rallied to pitch in their two cents. In one piece, the Guardian described Blatter as "the most successful dictator in the world", while another one mused about how FIFA's crisis is "a parable about the future of capitalism". His resignation was met with overblown comparisons to the fall of the Berlin Wall and Saddam Hussein.

Elsewhere on the web, the Huffington Post sought to discern the geopolitical implications of Blatter's fall, while the New York Times published an expose on how the Cayman Islands became a major power within the organisation, receiving dollops of cash to build sports infrastructure it doesn't need. Was FIFA cozying up to this financial paradise out of financial interests? When academia finally threw in the gauntlet and stepped in the FIFA fray, scholars pondered about the true meaning of democracy, the role of global banking, and the power of the U.S. as global hegemon looking for significance.

Moral posturing and political grandstanding accompanied the events from their inception. David Cameron threw the entire weight of 10 Downing Street behind the scandal and called for Blatter's resignation, before taking the ludicrous step of putting sports corruption on the agenda of the G7 meeting in Germany - as if Iran, Russia, terrorism, China, the TTIP, and the environment weren't enough to fill the weekend for world leaders.

Further afield, Vladimir Putin saw in the West's pressures the punishment Blatter received for awarding the 2018 World Cup to his country, comparing the disgraced FIFA head to other victims of U.S. persecution, such as Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. Even China, a country not known for its prowess on the green pitch, used the Central Committee's mouthpiece, Xinhua, to pen the following lines: "Although the anti-corruption storm may help the world football governing body accelerate reforms in some way, it is more like a well-designed plan to achieve some geopolitical objectives."

Yet, in the midst of this journalistic frenzy to find cryptic, hidden significances behind the FIFA scandal, in a display of analytical prowess not seen since the heydays of Kremlinology, few have bothered to talk about what FIFA is actually about: football. Or, about what FIFA should be for that matter. Somehow in the scramble to expose the evils of Blatter, the idea of sport for sport's sake became an object of ridicule, an appendix subsumed to grander principles of world politics or moral obligations, a cheap occasion for political leaders to peddle their world views and values.

Now, it's not like sport has ever lacked a political side, but the vehicle through which a country's greatness was expressed used to be athletic performance. It was less about gargantuan opening ceremonies, and more about beating world records and stockpiling gold medals. Soviet Russia in particular raised mass sports to the rank of patriotic duty for the betterment of the race, by putting in place a strict training program that forced millions to run 100 meters within 14 seconds, throw a hand grenade 35 meters, ski ten kilometres and walk one kilometre with a gas mask on. The cold war rivalry between the US and Russia was waged in sports in terms of the number of medals won, not in terms of who spent the most billions in organizing the Olympics.

A couple of weeks ago, I spent a few days on the French coast in the quaint little town of Crouesty, a wonderful port with deep blue waters in the Morbihan département. For its residents, sailing is as ingrained in their individual consciousness as football is for Brits, and the entire life of the region is geared towards nautical sports. Talking to residents, I was overcome with the same disappointment with the over-politicisation of sports.

Morbihan is trying to secure the rights to host the sailing competition, in the event Paris wins the 2024 Summer Olympics. However, as I was told, even if Morbihan prides itself on being among the best sailing ports in France, political machinations have sadly made neighbouring La Rochelle the government's first choice in the previously two failed Olympic bids, as the city is the fiefdom of Segolene Royal, the socialist minister of ecology and former companion of Francois Hollande. Apparently, even something as technical as choosing the best port for a sailing contest is left out of the hands of sportsmen and superseded by the personal interests of politicians.

Indeed, nowadays, the spotlight shines brighter on contractors building Olympic venues, special effects supervisors and enlightened leaders overseeing construction works than on the athletes themselves. Aside from sports buffs, few people know about Ole Einar Bjorndalen's incredible performance at the Sochi Winter Olympics, where he went on to become the most successful Olympian in the history of the games, with 13 gold medals. For most, the Sochi Olympics were written off as yet another monument to Vladimir Putin's delusions of grandeur. And that's a shame, when talented sportsmen are forgotten and when their performances are swept under the carpet and are replaced with political games.

It's high time sportsmen take sports back from the clutch of statesmen. This is how the FIFA scandal should have been seen: not as a parable for capitalism, but as a lesson of what happens when sports become shorthand for politics.