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Issue #1458      9 June 2010

Culture & Life

Mega sport and mega pain

Our bourgeois media are doing a sterling job promoting the FIFA World Cup in South Africa. There can be few people in this country at least who haven’t grasped the fact that it is the latest BIG THING, to be celebrated with awe and joy.

Did you see the TV coverage of the preliminary match (not part of the World Cup) that was held in the new main stadium expressly so that the locals could have a look at the inside of it? One of the news reporters let slip the comment that it was the only chance most of the crowd would have to see it in operation until after the World Cup was over – because, he observed, “most South Africans cannot afford tickets to the World Cup”.

Yep! They can build the stadia and related infrastructure, but as for actually watching the matches? No, they are not for poor people to see live. Watch it on TV, that’s good enough for you.

Wealth discrimination in tickets is not the only blemish on the image of the FIFA World Cup. When it was held in Seoul in 2002, a staggering 48,000 buildings were torn down to make way for it. And they were not the homes of the rich or corporate headquarters that were bulldozed.

As reported on the PRAVDA.Ru website earlier this year, the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, Raquel Rolnik, made some serious comments in a report to the UN on the adverse social consequences of these high-profile mega sporting events.

Costing many millions they can bring in millions more in tourist dollars and raise a country’s investment potential in the eyes of financiers and other capitalists. But at what cost to ordinary people, to the poor especially?

Polishing up a city’s image, removing signs of poverty, physically expelling the homeless from the city’s green spaces (as in Atlanta in 1996 for the Olympics) are not things that impress Ms Rolnik.

Amongst the practices associated with mega-events that cause her concern are “forced evictions, criminalisation of homeless persons … and the dismantling of informal settlements”.

The removal of shantytowns (“informal settlements”) is usually designated as “slum clearance” and represented as a very good thing, and of course it can be – if people are kept together as a community while being moved into good quality affordable housing. But too often these clearances merely mean forced migration to new locations, with no improvement in job prospects or even housing availability.

In the days of the Tsars in Russia, Cossacks rode ahead of a travelling Tsar and Tsarina to whip beggars and other undesirable poor people off the streets of towns and villages so that the Royal sensibilities would not be offended. Some of the modern day window-dressing of towns holding mega sporting events serves the same purpose.

In the somewhat stiff prose of Ms Rolnik’s report: “The importance given to the creation of a new international image for the cities, as an integral part of the preparation for the Games, often implies the removal of signs of poverty and underdevelopment through re-urbanisation projects that prioritise city beautification over the needs of local residents.”

The resulting displacement is not minor. For the aforementioned FIFA World Cup in Seoul, fifteen percent of the population of the city were forcibly removed from their homes. And in preparing Atlanta for the 1996 Olympics, the local authorities did not hesitate to destroy 1,200 social housing units intended for the poor. (No doubt it was considered OK because, being poor, they couldn’t afford tickets anyway.)

Ms Rolnik’s report in March warned that holding the World Cup in South Africa this year could jeopardise plans to build thousands of low-cost homes there. South African authorities on the other hand are hoping that the World Cup will boost the country’s economy and help to finance housing and other needed social projects.

Holding the World Cup in South Africa this year could jeopardise plans to build thousands of low-cost homes.

A correspondent on PRAVDA.Ru raises the interesting proposition, “Why not attach these [mega sporting] events to global socio-economic themes which give people more to think about than whether a penalty should have been awarded or whether a goal was offside?

“Or is that the whole idea in the first place, getting people to swarm in a sea of banality to give them an easy adrenalin fix to stop them worrying over important issues?”

Gee, I don’t know. But one thing we can say with certainty: capitalism takes sporting events, like it takes everything else, as commodities to be exploited. If it can make a profit from them directly, it will; if it can use them to enhance the profit-making potential of something else, it will do that too.

And if they can be used to distract people from giving serious attention to the possible causes of the world’s ills, well, they will use them for that too. Players are “bought” for clubs (often privately owned) with great gobs of money, used as adjuncts of the advertising business to endorse products and encouraged to misbehave on and off the field to add “colour” to the game, thereby enhancing “the product”.

But it is not sport that is at fault here: it is the system that misuses sport for its own dirty ends. Capitalism’s grubby fingers besmirch everything they touch, including such an apparently “non–political” thing as sport, and mega-sporting events in particular.  

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