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Issue #1477      20 October 2010

Culture & Life

Remnants of an empire

So, did you spend the last couple of weeks sitting up late to watch the Commonwealth Games? Otherwise known as “the fragments of the British Empire games”.

Nadia Williams of England competes in the women's triple jump.

Most fragmented of all, of course, was Britain itself, which was split up into tiny statelets so the Brits could compete under a bunch of aliases. If the Isle of Man can take part in an international sporting festival in its own right, why can’t it join the UN?

And if the component parts of Britain can compete as separate countries, why shouldn’t the separate states of Australia – or the provinces of Canada?

As the Indian economy develops – and despite the burden of a few hundred years of British colonial rule, India’s economy will develop – the many states of that country will also build up their sporting facilities and prowess. Their cricketers put the cleaner through us now. What will happen when their swimmers and their track and field athletes receive training and coaching at the same level as ours?

All those commentators who couldn’t stop crowing about Australia’s “domination” of the Games will be in for a real shock.

Major international sporting events are now so expensive to mount, with the massive numbers of people to be accommodated and fed, and with such high class facilities needed for successful competition, that only the sale of television rights makes these events viable.

And the significance of sporting events is not lost on the commercial television industry. Capitalism is anything but stupid. The incredible usefulness of television for misinforming and “guiding” public opinion made it essential to the bourgeoisie in the twin fields of politics and advertising.

As we have said before, commercial television is not about providing information or even entertainment. It is about gathering definable groups of people together to look at their television screens so that advertisements can be screened targeted at those people specifically.

Television networks make their money selling those audiences to advertisers. The bigger the audience, the bigger the fee. At the same time, the ruling class has long been aware of the benefits that can accrue when the populace are given entertainments to take their minds off their own circumstances.

The ancient Romans diverted the masses with spectacle in the arena: lions vs christians, gladiatorial combat between slaves, chariot races, and more. At each successive stage of society’s development, the ruling class has continued to use this technique, from public executions to horse races.

Television makes it possible to divert huge numbers of people simultaneously. In fact, to do it globally. For the bourgeoisie, truly a gift from the gods.

Ever since commercial interests came to dominate television globally, they have done their best to make international sporting events their property. Only this year, the duration of matches in table tennis has been halved, and the diameter of the balls increased, to make the games more acceptable on television (shorter games means more ad breaks without interrupting a rally).

Unfortunately, one unfortunate aspect of the dominance of commercial television on sporting events was very evident during the Commonwealth Games telecast: rampant, obnoxious jingoism (going far beyond nationalism).

Those responsible for the telecast apparently operated on the assumption that Australians are only interested in events that feature Australians, that we would rather watch an Australian be awarded a medal than watch someone from another country actually setting a world record.

That, of course, reflects the mindset of the television networks: if a sport does not have a substantial following in Australia, a following that would provide a potential target audience for advertisers, then that sport is not worth telecasting.

SBS showed during the last Olympics, when it telecast many of the less popular sports (less popular in Australia, at any rate), what a superior coverage can be achieved by a public telecaster that is not governed by the needs of advertisers and marketing.

It was a sad day for both sport and the public when Murdoch and Packer discovered the commercial potential of sporting events. Attempts by Murdoch to force some sports on to pay TV exclusively were just too greedy and so-called “free TV” was able to successfully campaign against such a retrograde step.

But if locating a particular sport or event on pay-TV alone was thwarted, the commercial TV approach to sport has not been blunted at all. For commercial TV, international sporting events are not about promoting “the glory of sport”, but “the quest for gold”.

We used to be told, “it’s not about winning, it’s about competing”. Not on commercial TV it isn’t.

There is a line in the Olympic Hymn that declares “Oh sport, you are peace”, a reference to hope of the founders of the modern Olympics that such international sporting competitions would help to foster world peace.

Commercial TV will have none of that pussyfooting around: sporting events are “clashes”, winning is everything, it is likened to a battle, TV promotion often includes graphics of explosions. Competitors no longer start to get in form for a race: they “start their campaign”, and their campaign is always “for gold”.

The TV audience is told so often that an Australian team or athlete is “determined to win gold” that if they “only” win silver (god forbid they should have to settle for bronze), both they and their supporters are devastated.

However, it would be unrealistic to urge restraint on commercial TV’s commentators, or call for the commercial TV networks to show responsibility and not to set up athletes with excessive praise and unwarranted expectations, leading to inevitable “failure”, when in fact the only failure was on the part of the TV coverage.

Removing sporting events from the control of TV networks and their profit-oriented personnel is a necessary step before sport can properly flourish once again. Adequate government funding would be required to replace the commercial funding, but that will require a new type of government, one that puts the people’s interests before corporate ones. 

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