Monday, June 30, 2008

Offside: Why Soccer has not Caught on in the U.S.

In honor of the Euro '08 soccer championship, I decided to read a book by Andrei S. Markovits and Steven L. Hellerman that a colleague recommended. It is entitled Offside: Soccer & American Exceptionalism. Markovits and Hellerman attempt to answer the following question: Why is soccer the most popular sport everywhere... everywhere, that is, except in America?

First of all, when they say it is the most "popular" sport, they are speaking in terms of sports culture, not necessarily practice. In fact, more people play soccer in the U.S. than baseball or tennis (and their numbers are from 1997--the gap has surely widened since then in favor of soccer), but it is not a sport frequently discussed around the water cooler or historicized in sports pages. Listening to Sports Center's coverage of this year's Euro, soccer is rather something to joke about. In Europe, South and Central America, Africa, even Asia, it is by far and away the most discussed, most seriously examined and appreciated sport.

Some of the reasons for this "exceptionalism" are historical. Markovits and Hellerman contend (rightly, I believe), that if a sport was not introduced in a society during the period of mass-market emergence (1870-1930), it can not effectively be introduced on a large scale without a cataclysmic socio-political shift in the country. This is partly true because sporting hegemonies build up vast self-reflexive historical networks that validate themselves as points of reference. Who was better: Barry Sanders, James Brown or Red Grange? Which team was better? The Cincinnati Reds of the 70s or the New York Yankees of the 50s? Statistics, records, championships, anecdotes, all form part of a culturally shared memory. Americans simply do not have this kind of history with soccer and it is difficult for the sport to gain traction without commonly shared historical points of reference.

A second reason for America's aversion for the game, they contend, is that by the time soccer became an institutional global force, baseball had already claimed the allegiance of the American working class. Soccer was viewed as a sport from the "old country" and its fans and players were considered foreigners, unwilling to conform to the American melting pot. Recent immigrants, to prove their patriotism, gave up soccer in favor of baseball.

Finally, the authors point out that soccer suffered from a number of institutional problems, not the least of which being that the governing body was European and would not allow American leagues to alter the format of the sport to suit their fans.

One important point the authors fail to sufficiently discuss is simple geography. Soccer depended (and continues to depend) on nationalism for its success in Europe. Casual fans--even non-fans--are attentive watchers when their national team plays. During the key period for the creation of hegemonic sports, America remained largely isolated from other countries and required a sport that was built around regional/urban rivalries. Soccer became popular in Europe in the early 20th century when nationalism was building to the fever pitch that would induce World War I. The soccer model worked for Europeans given that their countries are smaller and close together and given that their national identities may have been more under threat than that of the United States (making them more likely to embrace a national team). This institutional plan was not compatible with the realities of early 20th-century America.

To help explain why soccer failed to take root, Markovits and Hellerman contrast soccer's failed attempts with the development of the "Big Three and One-Half" in the U.S. (baseball, football, basketball, and hockey). They provide excellent historical analyses of these sports, explaining their rise in popularity and offering reasons for their continued appeal.

They also examine the press coverage and viewership of the 1994 World Cup held in the U.S. as well as the American media attention given to the 1998 World Cup (held in France).

In addition, they address questions of how sports cultures are created and maintained. They study issues of professionalization, the creation of a "sacred" sports space, American adaptations of European sports, and the reasons Americans are generally not as good at soccer as their foreign counterparts

Illuminating and well-written, I recommend the book. Especially to all my passport-holding, euro-loving, snail-eating, socialist friends.....

Friday, June 27, 2008

Calling for Cheaters

Seriously, I'm looking for cheaters.

No, really. I'm beginning a project on cheaters and need your help.

Can you think of any athletic cheaters from movies, literature, or art... or from the professional or collegiate playing field? Cheaters in the middle ages? Cheaters from antiquity? Cheaters from the nineteenth century? Cheaters from last week? Cheaters from Europe, the U.S. or Micronesia? Stupid cheaters? Smart ones? Amusing ones? Fictional or real, well-known or obscure, I'm interested.

Please leave a comment and tell me about some of your favorite (or least favorite) cheaters.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Horses on the Juice

Rick Dutrow Jr., the trainer for Big Brown (and many other horses), has been suspended for 15 days because one of his horses was found to have TWO TIMES the limit of a "medication with steroidal properties" in its blood.

A 15 day suspension? Wow, these guys really are serious about cleaning up the sport...

According to this guy has been "fined or suspended at least once every year since 2000 for doping issues." He has administered more juice than has been dosed out in the entire Tour de France. And they're giving him 15 days?

He should be banned for life... that is, if horse racing execs care about the integrity of their sport.

But apparently they don't.

Sport as Socializer: Baseball

To begin the conversation, here are a few thoughts on baseball.

First, we tend to think of baseball as a completely American invention. Of course it's not. David Block's Baseball Before We Knew It details a number of the game's European ancestors. But American promoters of the game insisted it was purely American. They went so far as to create an American inventor of the game (Abner Doubleday) based on the testimony of Abner Graves, who once wrote, "I would rather have Uncle Sam declare war on England and clean her up rather than have one of her citizens beat us out of Base Ball" (cited in Block 60). Baseball execs (notably Albert Spalding) wanted most of all to prove baseball was NOT European, so they believed any legend they could get their hands on without bothering to check the story's authenticity.

Baseball, then, was cast as an American game, as anti-European. As such, baseball served as a means to transform European immigrants into Americans and teach them the values of this frontier nation. Team play is important (when fielding), but individual merit is even more valuable (pitcher v. batter) and ultimately serves the team best. If you can get away with it, do it: "steal" a base; go in spikes up to break up a double play; scratch up or slime up the ball any way you can as a pitcher; argue the ball was fair even if you know it was foul, pitch curve balls, change-ups, or sinkers to deceive the batter, etc. (I wonder if the "steroid era" can be tied back to this fundamental principle of the game?)

Baseball also tapped into a nostalgic longing for a pastoral ideal. Many people left their farming communities to seek employment in urban factories. The baseball field is a patch of farmland in the middle of the city where the ultimate objective is to get "home." Baseball was seen by Walt Whitman as a tonic to the unhealthy, confined conditions of industrial city dwelling.

The umpire is involved on every single pitch. But he is masked, suggesting that he is the one not to be trusted. Trying to deceive him, distract him or make him look foolish is part of the game. The true heroes are the men working: their faces are visible allowing the spectator to see their emotion and personality, they face danger (from a ninety-mile per hour fast ball or a ball batted right back to the pitcher) with each pitch. Once on the bases they are safe, but only momentarily. Safety is only found at home, and to get there the player must get past the masked umpire and the heavily protected catcher, who stands like so many guards preventing the little guy from entering the club, the store, the office... So knock him over if you must.

Food for thought to begin the discussion.

Baseball, of course, means different things to the Japanese and to the Cubans who play it. And it has clearly changed with society over the years, becoming more structured (from little league to Major League Baseball), more concerned with profits, etc.

How else does baseball serve as a socializing agent today? How else did it in the past?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Sport as Socializing Agent

I would like to begin a conversation on sports acting as socializing activities. Scott and I have talked around this issue some in other posts and comments. The general theory is that sports serve the interests of society by teaching practitioners and spectators behaviors needed or prized in a given time and place. This means that the same sport may socialize practitioners and spectators differently when the historical and social contexts change.

Speaking generally, Victorian era British sports, for example, emphasize social etiquette and restraint. American sports, on the other hand, tend to blatantly defy British decorum and, in the case of baseball, attempt to erase European genealogy. Instead, craftiness (cheating?) and a dogged determination to win are prized. "Stealing," is even permissible.

I attended a "Philosphy of Sport" conference in England in 2004. Most of the attendees were European and I surprised some when I mentioned that in America, soccer is largely a sport for the upper middle class, played in wealthy suburbs. In Europe, it is a decidedly working class sport, and the matches often attract many disenfranchised, unemployed young men looking to take their anger out on the opposing team or its fans.

I offer these two general examples merely as primers. Over the next few weeks, I invite you to join me in analyzing the socializing effects of a number of sports and games: golf (yes, there is more to be said), tennis, soccer, baseball, fencing, trictrac, football, basketball, and maybe racquetball, rodeo, hockey, and others you might suggest.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Why "We" Like Tiger

What is the secret to Tiger Woods' vast appeal?

Is it because Americans love a winner, and he has won more than anyone his age in the history of golf? Is it because, as David Brooks argues, we admire his ability to focus on one thing in an increasingly distracted, multi-tasked world?


But it may primarily be because--more than any other golfer--he has unrepentantly made golf his work and his obsession and has thereby brought golf out of the realm of upper class leisure and turned it into a sport for the masses.

Sports earned their mass appeal during an era (late 1800s - early 1900s) that saw the definition of the modern work week and a need for organized leisure for the working class. People were gaga about baseball and football, in part, because the athletes were like them: workers who, especially in the case of football, punched a clock (football players even get and morning and afternoon breaks and a "half-time" for lunch!). Americans took aristocratic British games and made them popular and uniquely American: cricket to baseball (excuses to Mr. Doubleday), rugby to football.

Golf never made this transition. The sport remained a leisure activity for the upper class.

Begin by considering what golfers wear. Most athletes wear some sort of uniform appropriate to their sport: shorts, jerseys, headbands, helmets, etc. One glance and you know they are going to their work. Golfers look like they're heading for a weekend retreat at the Hamptons with the family.

Unlike working class sports, in golf, the player is trusted to call his own penalties. Working, professional athletes cannot be trusted and must have a foreman/arbiter keep them in line.In good Victorian fashion, golfers never touch their opponents except to shake hands at the end of the round. In working class sports, physical contact may be regulated but it is certainly present. Finally, golfers hire someone else, a caddy, to do their heavy lifting for them. Even the USGA, with its emphasis on amateurism, seems determined to maintain an aura of wealthy elitism.

In addition to pants, caddies, and crowd shushers, the PGA expects its pros to be keep up the country club image on and off the field. John Daly, despite two wins in majors, has never played on a Ryder Cup team. And his lifestyle has garnered all sorts of media attention. In most other big sports, his antics would make him just another player.

So golf is first and foremost a sport of upper class decorum.

At least it was. Enter Tiger Woods.

Woods turned pro at age 20 and began winning tournaments almost immediately. He has never hid his desire to be the best golfer ever. He approaches the game with workmanlike seriousness, even desperation, determined to win. And win he does: he wins big, wins ugly, wins with grit or with grace. He finds a way. About the time he came into the pros, the "YOUTHEMAN / GETINTHEHOLE" crowd appeared in the galleries. The genteel fans were replaced by raucous ones who loved that Tiger eschewed the aristocratic detachment and nonchalance of the past and began pumping his fists and staring intently at his putts, willing them into the cup. In addition, Tiger obviously lifts weights and trains incredibly hard away from the course. His is not a life of leisure. Even his name suggests a working class upbringing. He is no Davis Love III. He has something to prove.

And last week he did it on a torn ACL with two stress fractures in his leg.

Other players have made steps to move golf in this direction. But none have equaled Tiger's reach and popular appeal.

Yes, Tiger is an impressive athlete, he is incredibly focused and he is a winner. But Tiger has brought golf into the limelight because he is unabashedly professional, because he has impressively broken through the genteel traditions of a gentleman's game to connect with the masses. And he has done it not by laughing and chatting, but by working. Hard.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

What Major League Baseball Can Learn From The Orem Wiffle Ball League

Baseball may be more susceptible to the problem of game fixing than basketball (see previous post). One umpire behind home plate can alter the complexion of a game and even change its outcome entirely. This is because the strike zone is the very heart of baseball. Instead of strike three, suppose an umpire erroneously calls ball three. The next pitch is hit over the fence for a two run home run and the offense wins the game.

Umpires are surprisingly accurate. But if you watch's "Gameday" pitch-by-pitch sequences, you will find that they do miss some calls. Sometimes very important ones (most agree they miss around 5% of the time). Over the course of 250 pitches in a game and a 162 game season (= over 2,000 blown calls per team), the umpires' strike calling can have a profound impact on teams' records.

A few years ago I organized a Wiffle Ball league here in Orem, Utah. And while we occasionally argued about whether a ball was fair or foul, about whether the ball bounced off the shed or went over it on the fly, about whether a ball hitting my wife in our garden should be considered dead or not, we never argued about balls and strikes. Why not? I cut a rectangular hole in a piece of wood and put it behind the plate. If a ball flew into it, it was a strike. If it didn't, it was a ball. Never a doubt.

MLB has the technology to do the same thing. QuesTec is currently only used to evaluate umpires' performances in certain ballparks, but could easily be expanded and implemented as a matter of course. Why not redesign the scoreboard so that results (balls or strikes) are immediately displayed on a screen behind the plate and in the outfield? Is the umpire's union really that strong? Do we really want them determining who wins and loses?

I know, I know... some will argue that this would take the human element out of baseball or that it would change the very fabric of the game (as if any change to the old-ball-game will somehow dishonor our ancestors). To the first point, I would rather the human interest come from the players than from the umpires; and managers will still have plenty of things to gripe about and reasons to throw bases without having to argue balls and strikes. As for the QuesTec system fundamentally altering the game, the game has already been fundamentally altered a number of times. The introduction of new balls each inning led to an increase in home runs and to Babe Ruth (and the end of the so-called "dead ball era"). The introduction of relief pitchers made the games last four hours (and may have lowered ERAs, though I doubt it). The mound has been raised and lowered to increase or decrease offense on several occasions. Better gloves, better bats, better weight training, (better steroids), etc. have also fundamentally altered the game. It is time to introduce a little more new technology, make the game more objective, and put the outcome more in the hands of the players.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Zidane's Goal in the UEFA Champions League Final

It appears some took my previous post praising Zidane to heart. Here is a video with the call of Zidane's goal in the UEFA Champions League final--in Spanish. An example of a good thing taken too far:

After all the "no ways" and "goal, goal, goal, goals," here's a truncated translation of what the announcer says next (minus the repetitions):
Madrid is ahead!
For some he is the best player in the world!
For some he is Zinedine Zidane!
For some he is number 5!
For some he is the King of the pitch! (literally the Marquis of the grass.)
The greatest!
Long live the mother who gave you birth!
Zinedine Zidane!
Super Goal!
It gave me goosebumps!
It is spectacular! Amazing!
I take my hat off to you.
Long live the mother who gave you birth!

Here's another clip; still hyperbolic, but at least sane:

(Since France lost in the Euro, I've resorted to living in the past.)

Monday, June 16, 2008

Why the NBA Is Like Figure Skating

Many readers, I suspect, assume that in this post I will compare the scandal surrounding the referees' fixing of the NBA playoffs in 2002 with the fixing of the pairs' ice skating competition at the Salt Lake City Olympics of the same year.

That would be too easy.

The connection I see between these two sports stems instead from an inherent problem with the high amount of involvement by referees or judges. In other words, officials exercise too much subjective control over the outcomes of both figure skating and basketball.

At the heart of the matter is the amount of subjectivity built into the rules themselves.

Consider this rule governing blocking/charging fouls: "The mere fact that contact occurs on these type of plays, or any other similar play, does not necessarily mean that a personal foul has been committed. The officials must decide whether the contact is negligible and/or incidental, judging each situation separately" (from In other words, the ref wields an inordinate amount of subjective power over foul calling and, by extension, wins and losses.

In figure skating, the simple existence of points for "Choreography" and "Interpretation" (formerly "Presentation") and the fact that both music selection and costume weigh in the outcome, suggests a similar high degree of subjectivity.

We can imagine a spectrum where on one end stand sports such as figure skating (where external officials have large amounts of subjective control over the outcome of the contest), and on the other sports like golf or track and field (where officials rarely intervene and play almost no role in the outcome).

Basketball, unfortunately, leans toward figure skating on this scale, meaning outcomes of games are more susceptible to being decided not by athletes but by referees (particularly those with an ax to grind or a bookie to pay off). I would put other sports like rugby and even baseball near basketball on the spectrum. (More on baseball in an upcoming post.)

Soccer has attempted to mitigate the influence of referees by asking a single official to evaluate actions on a very large field. The NFL and tennis have introduced video replay in an attempt to limit the role played by refs.

Theorizing: Perhaps the amount of control officials possess tells us something about cultural power structures at the time a given game became popular. Sports where officials exercise more control would have flourished in societies where respect for authority was needed or valued. Sports with less involvement by an umpire or referee would have sprung from cultural structures where individual initiative was more prized.

There is always some external force, particularly in team sports, that comes into play and that influences who wins and who loses. I would simply prefer to watch a sport where that external force is chance rather than gods in striped shirts.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Yellow Lab Coats?

Dear Tour de France organizers,

I have an idea to end the doping culture in professional cycling. I believe it may save your sport.

In the wake of Floyd Landis' fall from grace in 2006 and the Rasmussen, Mayo, Vinokourov debacle of 2007, please consider the following as a means to restore public trust and to assure that everyone is racing by the same set of rules.

Since many of the best results in recent years have been achieved through the hard work of shady doctors and dubious labs, I suggest we bring them out of the shadows. When the Tour begins in Brittany this year, instead of cyclists, invite the doctors themselves take the starting line. Since they are largely responsible for who wins, get rid of those disruptive middle men on the bikes. Who needs them anyway? We want to see the real competitors go at it.

Instead of jerseys, though, our racing doctors would of course wear lab coats. And they could find sponsorships in the pharmaceutical world. Think about it! No more hypocrisy: "Dopage obligatoire!"

I have heard an unconfirmed report that this year's favorite, Dr. Ferrari, may have already signed with Team Pfizer.

Un ami du Tour

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

In Praise of Zidane

In a previous post I linked sports with nationalism, sporting dynasties with political empires. Turns out, if you've been watching ESPN lately, their advertising department is even less subtle than I am. ESPN is carrying the Euro '08 soccer tournament and has an ad that runs: "This is not eleven versus eleven... this is nation versus nation."

Don't get me wrong, it's effective. I cry like a baby every time I watch it. It also supports the point I made below: nationalism sells. And it's manipulative. And even a cynic like me gets swept up in it during the World Cup and the Euro.

Which brings me to why I am a huge fan of Zinedine Zidane.

Over his long professional career (1988 to 2006) Zizou proved himself one of the all-time greats. He was the FIFA World Player of the Year three times, led Real Madrid to the Champions League title, led the French national team to World Cup and European championships, won the Golden Ball in 2006, etc., etc. Every important trophy has his fingerprints all over it.

If you watched France's match against Romania on Monday, you saw how much they missed their old captain's creativity and the cohesion he brought to their attack.

But in his final match, playing in the World Cup Final with the hopes of a nation on his shoulders and the president of France watching from the stands, he did the unthinkable. In overtime--after just missing a header that would have won the match--he head butted an opposing defender in the chest and was rightfully ejected from the game.

I was in Paris watching the game: groans of disbelief could be heard all over the city. Without Zidane, France went on to lose on penalty kicks.

Italy won. Big deal.

The only thing anyone remembers from that match was Zidane's flagrant and violent head butt, his famous coup de boule.

He left the match and the sport on that heroic gesture, a gesture that transcended the World Cup and all of sport.

The next morning, French newspaper Libération called Zidane's head butt the final step in the "decoubertinization" of sport. The lofty ideals of the modern Olympics' founder had fallen to earth with Materazzi.

The head butt heard 'round the world still stands as an insult to the entire establishment, a bras d'honneur [the French equivalent of the middle finger] to FIFA, to soccer fans, and to corporate sponsors. It was an act of liberation, of individual triumph over all the nationalistic fervor and idyllic symbolism that had been thrust onto a sport and carried by one man.

Zidane's final dance of defiance was quite simply sublime.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Dyansties Part III: Individual Sports

What I wrote below about dynasties in teams sports does not necessarily hold true for individuals sports. Dynasties in sports like tennis, golf or cycling can hurt or help depending on the character of the particular athlete doing the winning.

Watching Roger Federer take on Rafael Nadal in the finals of the French Open, I found myself rooting for Federer. It wasn't just because he was the underdog on clay to Nadal. I always root for Federer, even when he's favored to win his sixth Wimbeldon in a row. I like the way he plays, I like that he has a one handed back-hand, I like the way he carries himself on the court. Plus, I like that he could be the best player of all-time and that I've been able to watch his career unfold.

I haven't seen the ATP take steps to stop Federer or to aid him, and I don't think they can or will. Nadal might, but the tennis execs probably won't.

On the other hand, the PGA seems to have done everything they can to help Tiger Woods win or at least be in contention on Sundays, since he clearly does draw a huge number of fans to their television sets. Many tournaments, including The Masters (played at Augusta National) have lengthened their courses tee to green. They usually claim that the change will make the golf course more competitive. In reality, it makes it so the longest hitters (Tiger) have the best chance of being in the hunt.

Even though Armstrong was reviled early on by the press in Europe, his dynastic hold on the Tour de France certainly helped the sport grow in notoriety in the United States. But Tour organizers did not change the layout of the race to suit or hinder him. He was simply built for the Tour's particular format. I do think his win streak had a negative impact overall on the sport, however. Whether or not he was clean (and the amount of energy he put out leaves me among the doubters[1]), in order to challenge him, other riders turned to less than legal methods of preparation. This contributed to a doping culture that led to the numerous expulsions of the last two Tours.

In individual sports, whether or not the dynasty is a net positive for the sport is largely dependent on the personality and integrity of the champion.

So during Wimbeldon this year I'll be rooting for Roger Federer. And during golf's U.S. Open, I'll be rooting for Soren Hansen.

(1) Professor Antoine Vayer has published research demonstrating that the wattage produced by cyclists (including Armstrong) in some of the most strenuous climbs of the Tour is simply inhuman--without the aid of illegal help, at least. One example of his research can be found here:

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Coubertin's Boycott

(For current posts, click here.)

Having been on the front row for the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002, I thought we had taken the games to their exploitative limit. SLC's quickly forgotten bribery scandal did nothing to deter every party with a stake in the games from commercializing, proselytizing, and politicizing. Corporate dollars poured in, the LDS Church closed down nearby Brigham Young University to allow eager students to put a genteel and mainstream face on the home of the Mormons, politicians took advantage of the games to remind us to be afraid of terrorists, and Mitt Romney used them as a step toward his ill-fated run for the White House.

Where did the Olympics go wrong? I asked myself. Where had we lost the idealism of a sound mind in a sound body and international harmony?

It turns out, of course, that those ideals never were anything more than window-dressing used to promote other interests surrounding the games. The 2nd Olympiad, held in conjunction with the 1900 World's Fair in Paris, offers a case in point.

During those Olympics, the Baron Pierre de Coubertin attempted to boycott the very games he had founded just four years before. He was outraged at local organizers who were exploiting his Olympics to further their own political and economic agendas.

Fair officials wanted to present France as a modern technological and economic power and felt the Olympics (an ancient ceremony) gave the impression of a country mired in the past. To keep the anachronistic Coubertin in line, local organizers handed out nearly a million francs in prizes to professional participants in sports ranging from fishing to tug-of-war. They used the games as a means to demonstrate both France's military might--during the 1900 Olympics, of the 57,000 participants, more than 21,000 participated in shooting and military events--and its national superiority--France, thanks to the sheer number of participants, won 259 medals, more than all other countries combined (1).

Coubertin, who had set up a rival committee to protest what he saw as a "vulgar fair" (2), eventually had to back down when politicians and members of his own association, desirous to present a united France to the world, abandoned him.

Despite Coubertin's subsequent efforts, the Olympics have served the interests of host countries and corporations since these second Olympics in Paris. The so-called Nazi games of 1936 and the cold-war boycotts of 1980 and 1984 along with the "Coca-Cola" games in Atlanta are the most obvious examples. And when the IOC began allowing professional athletes to participate in the Olympics in the 1980s, it paved the way for international businesses to officially appropriate the athletes as spokespeople and endorsers. The "shoe deal" came to replace Coubertin's laurel wreath as the ultimate prize for athletic excellence.

What is troubling about the Beijing games is the new turn in how corporations and nations are using the Olympics to hide both their own questionable economic deals and their failures in the diplomatic arena.

Chris Renner, president of the sports marketing firm Helios Partners China, told the BBC Radio World Service in March that, despite the situation in Tibet and laws squelching freedom of expression, sponsors would stay. "Many of the sponsors involved, such as Coca-Cola and McDonalds, have gone through a number of these games, and the reason they have become associated with the games is obviously what the five rings represent which is about the world coming together in . . . friendship, inclusiveness and all that" (3).

Clearly, China was not selected to host the games because it promotes the high moral standards represented by Olympic symbols and slogans. Instead, by selecting China, the International Olympic Committee has provided multinational corporations the moral justification to continue doing business in a country where human rights take a back seat to the Communist party and global financial interests. Holding the Olympics in Beijing also allows the western, consuming public to feel good about buying one dollar spatulas and two dollar watches.

Like corporations, politicians are using the 2008 Olympics to hide their own failure to promote human rights in China and to stem violence in Tibet. When diplomacy withers in the face of economic interests, it becomes all to easy to point the finger somewhere else, threaten to boycott opening ceremonies, and suggest the IOC should succeed where governments have failed.

Obviously, Jacques Rogge, current IOC chairman and Coubertin's successor, should do more by acknowledging that the selection of China was premature and by publicly condemning the repressive actions of this year's host country as Coubertin did in 1900. But participating nations need to shoulder their share of the blame. Instead of making the IOC solely responsible to clean up China, they should be more active in requiring environmental and humanitarian conditions be met in order for western corporations to do business in China. Instead of threatening to boycott the games (even Coubertin couldn't make it work), they should legislate against Chinese and American companies that engage in unethical business practices.

But the Olympics have become such a large international spectacle that they have also become too easy to target as the international scapegoat. Unless politicians and CEOs are held accountable for their failings with China, the five interlocking rings will go on masking commercial and political interests as they have done now since the beginning.

(1) This tally includes top three finishers in all the events of 1900. Results are from André Drevon's book Les Jeux olympiques oubliés: Paris 1900, p. 181.
(2) Cited in Coubertin's book Mémoires olympiques, 1996, p. 49.
(3) Broadcast 27 Mar. 2008, archived online here:

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Team Sport Dynasties: Part Two

Leagues benefit from dynasties in the same way a nation benefits from war.

For both countries and clubs, ardent supporters make their voices heard en masse--fans in the stadiums and patriots at Lee Greenwood concerts; and they spend their money en masse--fans buy pennants and jerseys, citizens buy flags pins and magnetic "support our troops" ribbons.

On the flip side, all those who are not gaga for the current champions unite in their hatred of the hegemonic power. "Yankee go home!" is chanted in ball parks and in the Middle East.

Proof of this can be found in the fact that USC football, the NY Yankees, LA Lakers, and (insert dynastic behemoth here), usually draw a lot of fans even when on the road. This may be explained in part by the broad reach of their fan base, but if local observation can be generalized (in the Mountian West Conference BYU football has won the last two titles), most of the fans come out hoping their team will beat the brains out of the champs.

Dynasty Versus Parity

With last night's win by the Detroit Red Wings (their fourth in the eleven years), Lord Stanley's Cup will return to "Hockeytown." "Dynasties are good for the sport," I have heard sportscasters proclaim. Of course, I've also often heart the opposite: "Parity is good for the sport."

So which is it?

It depends, of course, on which team has gone dynastic. If the Yankees or Lakers are piling up championships, dyanasties (read "$") are, indeed, good for the sport. If, however unlikely, the Utah Jazz or Kansas City Royals go on a championship streak, the league will undoubtedly make moves to increase parity.

One of my MA students, Carlos Amado, who is researching European soccer leagues for his thesis, told me of an interesting case in point. For many years there were several professional soccer clubs in Paris that split all that city's huge revenue sources. As a result, teams from relatively small cities were able to compete and win championships. The Football Club of Saint-Etienne (population 175,000) won 10 championships between 1957 and 1981. To put an end to this dynasty, the Parisian clubs merged and the new Paris Saint Germain was born. Since then, big market teams from Paris (PSG won their first championship in 1986), Marseille and Lyon have dominated play.

So parity is good when small teams trade off winning, spreading the wealth and bringing in new fans from different places each year. And yes, dynasties are "good for the sport," but only when they happen to teams in the biggest markets.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

NBA Finals: Wake Me Up When They're Over

The NBA Finals are upon us. If only someone cared about this year's teams.

Since there is nothing particularly noteworthy about the current teams (or the current league, for that matter), commentators have decided to make these Finals about the Association's halcyon days of yore. Sports Business Daily dubbed them, "History repeated." And Michael Wilbon intones in the Washington Post that the meeting of the L.A. Lakers and Boston Celtics in the Finals, given their history, "is a godsend for the league and television partner ABC after years of declining interest."

Since Dennis Rodman retired, the most exciting thing to happen in the NBA was the around the clock vigil kept on Shaquille O'Neal's toe back in 2001. In a sport with only five starters, and where only Rip Hamilton is hidden by protective headgear, personality is everything. And the current NBA's personality, with stars as bland as Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett, is the sports world's equivalent of Ambien-CR.

Granted, Kobe Bryant occasionally provides a spark, but even he lacks the quirky uniqueness that drew urban fans to the NBA in the league's early days. Michael Jordan--with his penchant for gambling and cigars coupled with his lack of fidelity to basketball (remember his affair with baseball?)--made him the NBA's Bill Clinton, maybe even its JFK. Kobe, on the other hand, repented of his transgressions and came back into the fold, a new man. He brought the NBA into the era of George W. Bush.

Fans are so desperate for a controversial player like Bill Lambeer or a shoot-from-the-hip coach like Red Auerebach that, since they can't find it on the court, they pay to see it at the movies. Will Ferrell's character Jackie Moon taps into this longing for a game with personality. But in arenas today, instead of Semi-Pro we get Hoosiers... without the upset.

If "history repeated" is such a boon, it is because today's antiseptic NBA has no intriguing narratives, no character (unless the ubiquitous tattoos, by themselves, equal originality). Rather than giving us players we fallen fans can relate to and cheer for, it provides players forced through a corporate mold, signed primarily to hawk more jerseys and sell more Redbull. It may appeal to soccer moms but, like so many modern American sports, it has lost touch with its raucous beginnings and now reflects America's corporate consumer culture. It is Disneyland on the hard court.

While these Finals may help increase sales, they will do little to resurrect any of the NBA's great story lines or to pump life back into a colorless sport.