June 27, 2004

The Globalization of Sports

As most people who know me could tell you, I'm not exactly a big fan of athletics. Robert Maynard Hutchins wrote words close to my heart when he declared that, "Whenever I feel like exercise, I lie down until the feeling passes;" I know essentially nothing about the rules of team sports, the fortunes (and misfortunes) of athletic teams, or the lives and careers of celebrity athletes.

Nevertheless, it can be fascinating to see what the coverage of athletic events tells us about the world around us. Four years ago, during the last summer Olympics, I felt like U.S. coverage of the events had a weirdly retro feel--as if the Cold War were still alive and well. The clearest-cut example of this trend was the portrayal of the Russian wrestler Aleksandr Karelin as a menacing threat from the east; ominous music blared in the background whenever he appeared on screen, and his Russian-ness was made to seem exotic and threatening. Another TV story described a Russian-born swimmer whose father admitted that their family came to America in search of better athletic facilities (and a greater chance to win); nevertheless, American TV insisted on portraying the swimmer's life as an inspirational tale of escape from Russian tyranny. In so doing, the show missed out on a far bigger and more interesting story that affected the lives of dozens of prominent athletes--the effects of growing worldwide mobility on international athletic events. I like to think of this trend as the globalization of sports.

The new issue of Legal Affairs features a fascinating article on this very topic. In that article, Dana Mulhauser describes the case of Stephen Chomero, the 2003 world champion in the steeplechase, who has been barred from competing in the Olympics:

Last summer, Cherono moved from Kenya to the Middle Eastern nation of Qatar, becoming another on the growing list of top-caliber amateur athletes who are switching citizenships in search of more money and better training facilities. The movement has been most noticeable in track, in which most of the top competitors are African and most of the top training facilities are not. Cherono—now identified on his Qatari passport as Saif Saaeed Shaheen—is joined in his new homeland by fellow former Kenyan Albert Chepkurui, a 5,000-meter runner who goes by the name Abdullah Ahma Hassan. Six other world-class Kenyan runners have changed nationalities since last August, with the other four going to Bahrain and the Netherlands.

The International Olympic Committee began to crack down hard on such moves about a year ago. An Olympic charter rule bars athletes such as Cherono from competing for one country during the three years after they have last competed for another. The only way around the rule is through a special waiver process requiring the approval of the new and old countries, the international track federation, and the IOC itself.

Previously, the IOC was deferential to waiver requests when both countries agreed. Yueling Chen, who in 1992 became the first Asian woman to win a gold medal in track, competed for the U.S. team in the 2000 Sydney games with Chinese and IOC approval. But now the IOC has made clear that it is reluctant to grant any waivers, certainly not when an athlete's prime motivation is financial. In the cases of Cherono and Chepkurui, the two runners managed to gain the approval of the track federation, of Qatar, and of Kenya (reportedly thanks to a healthy bribe from Qatar in the form of a sparkling new track facility). But the IOC blanched at approving the transfer, so the two athletes will have to watch the race from one of the few places hotter than Athens in August: Doha, Qatar.

On the one hand, this story shows the changes that have taken place in the world economy over the past few decades. At the same time, however, the story raises a lot of fascinating questions about the Olympics themselves. Who are the real competitors in the Olympics--the world's best individual athletes, or the countries they call home? How much should the world's most prominent series of athletic events consider the impact of its eligibility decisions on the quality of competition? How can we best understand international athletics in a time when international boundaries are becoming less important?

There are a lot of problems with U.S. coverage of the Olympics--foremost among them the preponderance of silly sob stories and the manufacturing of an artificial sense of drama. (Perhaps the war on terror will play a larger role in Olympic coverage this year, though the relative obscurity of Arabic athletes will probably decrease that story-line's prominence.) When the Olympics return to television later this year, I'll be interested in seeing whether American TV moves beyond its old Cold War storyline and recognizes the emergence of new stories for a new age.

Posted by Ed at June 27, 2004 08:41 PM

I suppose you could compare this to the CIA. As late as 2001, it was struggling to figure out how to operate without falling back on Cold War assumptions and processes.

I imagine that the American coverage of the Olympics is going to be heavily influenced by the spectre of terrorism.

Posted by: Taleswapper at June 28, 2004 07:32 AM
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