Why the Olympics and Other Sports Cause Conflict

And now for a sports roundup: in Angola in early January a gang of shooters sprays the bus carrying the national soccer team of Togo, killing three people in the process, and a local terrorist group announces that as long as the Africa Cup of Nations tournament is played on Angolan soil, fresh homicides will be committed. The member states of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) that have the task of hosting both the Cup of Nations and the soccer World Cup in Cape Town this summer are in disarray as a consequence of the dispute between Angola and Congo over the "security" aspects of these allegedly prestigious sporting events.

On my desk lies an essay by the brilliant South African academic R. W. Johnson, describing the waves of resentment and disruption that are sweeping through the lovely city of Cape Town as the start of the World Cup draws near. Cost overruns and corruption, the closing of schools to make room for a hastily constructed new stadium, violent animosity between taxi drivers and mass-transit workers, constant disputes over the rigging of "draws" for the playoffs, allegations of bribery of referees … Nothing is spared. (Incidentally, isn't there something simultaneously grandiose and pathetic about the words "World Cup"? Not unlike the micro-megalomaniac expression "World Series" for a game that only a handful of countries bother to play.)

My newspaper this morning bears the tidings of another unappealing moment in Indo-Pakistani relations: Pakistani lawmakers have canceled a proposed tour of India after the larger neighbor's Premier League failed to bid for any of the 11 Pakistani cricketers who had offered themselves.

Meanwhile, genial, welcoming, equable Canada, shortly to be the host of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, is now the object of a stream of complaints from British and American sports officials, who say that their athletes are being denied full access to the venue's ski runs, tracks, and skating rinks. Familiarity with these is important in training and rehearsal, but the Canadians are evidently determined to protect their home-turf advantage. According to one report in The New York Times, the Whistler downhill skiing course was the setting for an astonishing scene, as "several medal contenders were left watching over a fence as the Canadian team trained. 'Everybody was pushing to get on that downhill,' said Max Gartner, Alpine Canada's chief athletic officer. 'That's an advantage we cannot give away.' " Nah nah nah nah nah: it's our mountain and you can't ski on it, so there, or not until we've had the best of it. "We're the only country to host two Olympic Games [Montreal in 1976 and Calgary in 1988] and never have won a gold medal at our Games," whined Cathy Priestner Allinger, an executive vice president of the Vancouver Organizing Committee. "It's not a record we're proud of." But elbowing guests out of your way at your own party—of that you can be proud.

I didn't have to read far to find the comment I knew would be made about this spiteful, petty conduct. A hurt-sounding Ron Rossi, who is executive director of something snow-oriented called USA Luge, spoke in wounded tones about a supposed "gentlemen's agreement" extending back to Lake Placid in 1980, and said of the underhanded Canadian tactic: "I think it shows a lack of sportsmanship."

On the contrary, Mr. Rossi, what we are seeing is the very essence of sportsmanship. Whether it's the exacerbation of national rivalries that you want—as in Africa this year—or the exhibition of the most depressing traits of the human personality (guns in locker rooms, golf clubs wielded in the home, dogs maimed and tortured at stars' homes to make them fight, dope and steroids everywhere), you need only look to the wide world of sports for the most rank and vivid examples. As George Orwell wrote in his 1945 essay "The Sporting Spirit," after yet another outbreak of combined mayhem and chauvinism on the international soccer field, "sport is an unfailing cause of ill-will." As he went on to say:

Putting it a bit strongly, you say. But what about the border war between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969, when the violence set off by a disputed soccer match escalated to the point of aerial bombardment? In Khartoum recently, a soccer game between Egypt and Algeria led to widespread violence, a sharp exchange of diplomatic notes, a speech about affronted national honor from President Hosni Mubarak, hysterical hatred pumped out on state media, and an all-round deterioration of what you might call civility. And this between two members of the Arab League! Incidentally, that observation takes care of the excuse that is sometimes offered: that if rival countries confine their contests to the sporting field, they allow the quarrel between them to be settled vicariously. Before the match in Khartoum, Egypt and Algeria had no diplomatic quarrel. After the game, perfectly serious people in Cairo were saying the atmosphere resembled that following the country's defeat in the June 1967 war … In the India-Pakistan case the position is almost the reverse: relations between the two countries have been poisonous enough for decades, but there is no doubt that the cricket snub has almost effortlessly made a very bad situation even worse.

Yes, yes, I know about Invictus and am a slight friend and strong admirer of the author of the original book. But it was the use of rugby and other sporting cults to reinforce and exemplify apartheid that had been the problem in the first place. And no clear-eyed observer of the South African scene thinks that the Invictus moment was any more than a brief pause in the steady decline of friendship between the country's ethnic groups: a decline that has much to do with sporting rivalries and the idiotic loyalties and customs on which such allegiances depend. So here's something so toxic that it's even Mandela-proof. (I suppose that the people who so willingly describe themselves as "fans" are aware of the etymology of the term but consider it to be no insult.)

I'm not done. Our own political discourse, already emaciated enough, has been further degraded by the continuous importation of sports "metaphors": lame and vapid and cheery expressions like "bottom of the ninth," "goal line," and who knows what other tripe. Hard enough on the eyes and ears as this is—and there are some cartoonists who can't seem to draw without it—it also increases the deplorable tendency to look at the party system as a matter of team loyalty, which is the most trivial and parochial form that attachment can take. Meanwhile, the sponsorship racket means that a string of thugs and mediocrities is regularly marketed and presented for "role modeling" purposes, and it's considered normal for serious programming to be postponed or even interrupted if some dull game goes into (the very words are like a knell) overtime.

I can't count the number of times that I have picked up the newspaper at a time of crisis and found whole swaths of the front page given over either to the already known result of some other dull game or to the moral or criminal depredations of some overpaid steroid swallower. Listen: the paper has a whole separate section devoted to people who want to degrade the act of reading by staring enthusiastically at the outcomes of sporting events that occurred the previous day. These avid consumers also have tons of dedicated channels and publications that are lovingly contoured to their special needs. All I ask is that they keep out of the grown-up parts of the paper.

Or picture this: I take a seat in a bar or restaurant and suddenly leap to my feet, face contorted with delight or woe, yelling and gesticulating and looking as if I am fighting bees. I would expect the maitre d' to say a quietening word at the least, mentioning the presence of other people. But then all I need do is utter some dumb incantation—"Steelers," say, or even "Cubs," for crumb's sake—and everybody decides I am a special case who deserves to be treated in a soothing manner. Or else given a wide berth: ever been caught up in a fight over a match that you didn't even know was being played? Or seen the pathetic faces of men, and even some women, trying to keep up with the pack by professing devoted loyalty to some other pack on the screen? If you want a decent sports metaphor that applies as well to the herd of fans as it does to the players, try picking one from the most recent scandal. All those concerned look—and talk—as if they were suffering from a concussion.

Wait! Have you ever had a discussion about higher education that wasn't polluted with babble about the college team and the amazingly lavish on-campus facilities for the cult of athletic warfare? Noticed how the sign of a bad high school getting toward its Columbine moment is that the jocks are in the saddle? Worried when retired generals appear on the screen and talk stupidly about "touchdowns" in Afghanistan? By a sort of Gresham's law, the emphasis on sports has a steadily reducing effect on the lowest common denominator, in its own field and in every other one that allows itself to be infected by it.

Though I didn't think the story belonged in the news section at all, I did learn today that there's not enough snow for this bloatedly funded spitefest in Vancouver and so they'll be choppering some white stuff in from the north. That at least might be momentarily interesting to watch (Haitians in particular would, I bet, be riveted to see it). Meanwhile, with millions of other don't-care people, I won't be able to escape the pulverizing tedium of the events themselves. Global warming never seemed a more inviting prospect. Let it not snow, let it not snow, let it not snow.

Hitchens is a NEWSWEEK contributor and a columnist for Vanity Fair.