By John Williams, Senior Lecturer, Department of Sociology.
On the face of it, it must have seemed like a match made in heaven. Ambitious, apparently prosperous Brazil, seemingly immune from world economic downturn, cements its rising international status by hosting not just one, but the two great sporting mega events of the global age. The enlarged Fifa football World Cup (a ridiculous 32 nations) will lumber into South America in 2014, followed soon after by the Big Daddy of all world events, the bloated multi-sport Olympic Games, in 2016. We all know that Brazilians love sport (and the samba), and that they especially love football. So what could possibly go wrong? You might well ask.
Politics and sport have always been rather uncomfortable bedfellows of course. Back in the 1930s, when rising nationalist powers were beginning to learn the propaganda value of international sporting contact and success, both football and the Olympic movement struggled to maintain a reasonable distance between amicable sporting relations and the political uses of sport. In 1935, for example, The FA in England hosted Germany at White Hart Lane, despite TUC and local Jewish protests. The English won the match, but not the propaganda war. It was the Germans who succeeded in convincing the gullible British, raised on the amateur ideals of sport, that no nation which could play in such a civilised fashion could be so brutish elsewhere. In preparation for the 1936 Olympic Games held in Germany, and faced with the threat of an international boycott, the Nazis cleansed the country of all anti-Jewish and anti-black notices. At least, it was argued, international sporting competitors did not have to face these overt symbols of prejudice – and US athlete Jessie Owens later did his very best to publicly subvert ideologies of Aryan superiority, much to Hitler’s discomfort.
Since then, international sport has struggled with questions of civil rights and sporting competition, provoking ritualised protests and boycotts around apartheid policies and political dictatorships. The World Cup finals in Mexico (1970) and Argentina (1978) were both sites for local organised protest against unpopular and repressive governments, for example. These disturbances occurred mainly away from stadia and largely out of sight of the global media and were put down pretty harshly. Fifa turned a rather cursory, ‘none of our business’ blind eye to such local problems and got on with the task of keeping sponsors and other commercial interests on board. Their business is international sport, not domestic politics, don’t you see.
But the latest protests against governments and mega-events this last week in Brazil may not be quite so easy for Fifa and the International Olympic Committee to dismiss. For one thing, the sheer scale of them shows that these are no opportunist demonstrations organised by hardened political opponents of ugly regimes. These are clearly popular local protests involving not just the abject poor or ideologically driven foot soldiers, but reasonably affluent students and people in work drawn from lower-middle class backgrounds. These are people who seem sceptical of government and politics where corruption is rife, and who feel their own modest aspirations remain unmet. The use of new media and the inspiration of examples from abroad – the Arab spring and the Istanbul uprisings – seems to have produced a new ‘instant’ form of large scale protest around the world which can help mobilise hundreds of thousands of fellow travellers within a few hours.
The focus of these mass complaints might actually be quite diffuse – various concerns about education, transport and poor infrastructure seems to have sparked things off in Brazil – but what is new is the way in which they also seek to challenge the rights of national governments to fund these inordinately expensive, high-end, glossy global sports events when so much basic local policy and construction work still needs to be done.
Reports suggest that the ire of the Brazilian protesters has recently turned on Fifa itself, perhaps because of its status as a non-tax paying, sponsor-obsessed, self-appointed ‘nation state’ of international sport, one which typically demands that its host nations construct a plethora of new sports stadia and associated luxuries, irrespective of local needs and long term viability. Indeed, it has been suggested that one of the reasons why England performed so badly in its own latest attempts to secure hosting rights for the World Cup finals was that too many of its major stadia were already built. This meant simply not enough prestigious spending bling for Fifa’s media and commercial ambitions – so oligarch-rich Russia and (improbably) Qatar got the nod.
The Brazilian protests may yet fizzle out, lacking the kind of ideological coherence necessary to sustain a longer term campaign for more responsive domestic government. But by turning the spotlight on international governing bodies of sport they have also already raised important questions for these global times about who such sporting mega-events are really for? Few poorer Brazilian fans will be able to attend World Cup matches in 2014: they are priced largely as events for local affluents and international tourists. Local businesses are also often unable to benefit from making lucrative connections with the mega-events which are hosted on their doorstep because of the ways in which the commercial rights of trans-global sponsors are so slavishly protected.
For Fifa’s part, it will protest that its events do have a positive local impact on well-being and that it raises money from staging its finals to redistribute income to smaller football nations and to fund its various social initiatives in Africa and other parts of the developing world. These are reasonable points, but the sums don’t always add up here. And, in any case, this kind of defence is likely to cut little ice with those protesters who wonder how the Brazilian state can happily commit, at Fifa’s and the IOC’s bidding and in near open-ended fashion, to hosting global sport aimed at corporate customers and the relatively wealthy, whilst baulking at providing decent bus and train services for the rest of the Brazilian population.
Perhaps this week’s protesters have hit on a nerve for these austerity times when so many people are struggling with local concerns for a decent life for themselves and their family. Maybe, global mega-event sport with its huge entourage of commercial sponsors, its unelected and unaccountable international power-brokers, its lack of local responsiveness, and it largely unregulated trans-national corporate ambitions, has finally become just too big for its boots?