“Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.”
– George Orwell
“And so it was decreed that, each year, the various districts of Panem would offer up, in tribute, one young man and woman to fight to the death in a pageant of honor, courage and sacrifice. The lone victor, bathed in riches, would serve as a reminder of our generosity and our forgiveness. This is how we remember our past. This is how we safeguard our future.”
– President Snow, The Hunger Games
In his essay The Sporting Spirit George Orwell explains that international soccer and the Olympic Games parlay huge sums of money into sporting spectacles that exacerbate global hatreds. This is true, but there are much deeper and malevolent motivations behind the grandiose insignias of the International Federation of Association Football and the International Olympic Committee.
FIFA, the IOC and NCAA: The Hunger Games
The recent FIFA earthquake that continues to rattle the sporting world was hardly shocking. Any seismologist can predict that a tectonic plate shift will happen soon, somewhere. Any sports fan could tell you that FIFA is the filthiest sporting organization on the planet. (The latest revelation is that FIFA Vice President Jack Warner probably pilfered $750,000 from Haiti’s earthquake relief fund.) FIFA now stands proudly on the medal stand of mendacity with its gold medal wagging about Sepp Blatter’s gelatinous neck. The IOC takes home the silver, and the NCAA stands off to the side wearing the bronze.
What is the common bond that glues these “winners” together? First, and foremost, these organizations represent the worst characteristics that linger in the legacy of Western colonialism. In past centuries there were no excuses offered for the exploitation of human beings. Today, the marionette masters from Western Europe and North America make their puppets run, jump, throw, and kick to the tune of billions. The more the merrier. The more diverse, the more acceptable. The bottom line is that rich, old men make lots of money from the labor of the young and vulnerable.
Gambling is rampant and drives interest for FIFA, the IOC, and the NCAA. In 2013 the BBC quoted an estimate that legal and illegal gambling on soccer ranged from $700 billion to $1 trillion per year. Legal London bookmakers handled anywhere from $75 million to $150 million worth of bets during the 2012 Olympics. The NCAA generates $60-$70 billion in gambling with its autumnal football ritual; and its three-week celebration of basketball’s March Madness spurs another $2.5 billion.
In February Fox TV paid FIFA $4.25 billion for rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. In March of 2014 NBC Universal paid the IOC $7.75 billion to cover six Winter and Summer Olympiads through 2032. In 2012 ESPN paid the mysterious College Football Playoff $7.3 billion to cover its national championship for 12 years. Five major NCAA conferences are the chief beneficiaries of ESPN’s largesse.
There is, however, an even more virulent and universal human trait woven into the DNA of FIFA, the IOC, and the NCAA – a cynical and spiteful resentment of youth. The games sponsored by this triumvirate portray nothing less than a milder version of contemporary Hunger Games. In the film two young “tributes” are selected from twelve districts in a televised fight to the death. The fictitious country of Panem is gripped by the ultimate reality television. Gambling and human interest stories spice up the annual festivities in a glorious celebration of state power.
There are very real gladiatorial aspects to international soccer, Olympic competition, and NCAA sports. FIFA nods and winks as African child soccer prodigies are sold to and distributed among European football clubs. The IOC promoted sports Armageddon between the United States and the Soviet Union that created a proxy war of institutionalized doping. Children from every competitive country in the Olympics leave their homes for regimented programs of training and performance enhancing drugs. The NCAA is rife with PED scandals; but nothing glorifies its gladiator ethos more than its version of American football. Young men bash each other’s brains out for the proverbial price of an education. Meanwhile, study after study proves the deleterious effects of football induced head trauma.
In The Hunger Games a fawning and breathless TV audience relishes every minute of the “pregame” human interest stories. The wealthy Capitol dwellers woo at the love interest while they gasp and howl at the murderous survival stories being played out before their eyes. During the Summer and Winter Olympiads Americans in their living rooms are brought to tears by the maudlin production of backstories. Sports are practically manufactured and viewed on tape delay to accommodate the time zone differences. Athletes like Tonya Harding, Oscar Pistorius, and Hope Solo break the mold as they morph their criminality into the scrappy underdog narrative. All of it is converted into a revolting national water cooler conversation.
The athletes on display in the World Cup, the Olympics, and in NCAA sports – with very few exceptions – receive very little compensation for their performances in proportion to the money they generate. The flow of cash is one aspect of exploitation that makes FIFA, the IOC, and the NCAA reprehensible; but it is the degradation of youth that becomes the real crime. The façade of humanity only makes it worse.
FIFA’s motto is, “For the game. For the World.” The Olympic creed says, “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” Mark Emmert, the President of the NCAA says, “Our mission is to be an integral part of higher education and to focus on the development of our student-athletes.”
The corruption, the exploitation, and the provincialism are all ugly aspects of sport promulgated by FIFA, the IOC, and the NCAA; but nothing is more venal than punishing the young for their innocence, vigor, and beauty. If money and culture were stripped from these organizations their only motivation would be spite. The old will never be young again. Orwell was only partly correct. Yes serious sport is “war without the bullets,” but it is also the timeless and worldly battle between the cynicism of the old versus the hope of the young.
“Hope. It is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous.” – President Snow, The Hunger Games