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5 February 1999

Play the game and make the money

Scandals in the Olympic movement; all English football's top men out of jobs. Mihir Boseasks why so

By Mihir Bose

Sport is big business, the one sure way the world’s great consumer companies can reach millions. Only if you understand that will you understand why Glenn Hoddle had to be sacked, why the Olympic movement is plagued by tales of bribery and corruption, why cricket seems in perpetual crisis and why rugby union can scarcely agree on a fixture list.

Three years ago, when the cricket World Cup was held in the Indian sub-continent, the organisers craftily got a bidding war going between Coca-Cola and Pepsi to become the official drinks supplier. So lucrative did this prove that the organisers ended up with a profit of $50 million, enough to equip every Test ground in the sub-continent with floodlights.

This winter, when the basketball star Michael Jordan confirmed his intention to retire, Nike’s share price promptly dipped. Wall Street was worried about how the company could replace this icon to market its products.

Modern sport is the most superb marketing tool. It provides great entertainment, wonderful thrills and, ideally, no moral or political comebacks. It has replaced Hollywood as the great opiate of the masses. Yet nearly all the top sports bodies suffer from a kind of schizophrenia.

At the very top the men who run sport – and they’re nearly all men – are so old that they make the Chinese Politburo look like teenagers. Most of them are small-time businessmen or bureaucrats who came into sport long before it found money. Presented with the riches of modern sports, they behave like delinquent children more interested in trinkets than in the essentials. Yet underneath them are some smart, hard-headed corporate players who know how to squeeze the last dollar from the multi-nationals and the best contracts from the television companies.

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Outwardly, all the sports organisations still mouth the old Corinthian platitudes. Sport, they say, is a great leveller where everybody starts equal and where the unknown can beat the famous, provided they are prepared to work. Money counts for nothing. Even now, so powerful is this appeal that some of the greatest stars in sport, such as Jordan and the tennis star Andre Agassi, can be persuaded to forgo their vast earnings for a few weeks and take part in the Olympics only for the glory of winning a gold medal.

Yet the Olympic movement itself has an insatiable appetite for money, which can be satisfied only by hawking television rights to the highest bidder – the latest television contract will bring the Olympics $3.5 billion – and by attracting a range of sponsors.

If the Olympics were run like a modern corporation this would be celebrated as a great triumph of the marketing men. But because the Olympics must pretend that they still enshrine the best amateur tradition and be loyal to the principles of their founder, Pierre de Coubertin – the man inspired by Thomas Arnold of Rugby – they try and keep up the fiction. So no advertising is allowed inside Olympic stadiums and no competitor allowed to carry advertising on his or her clothing.

The same schizophrenia afflicts our own dear Football Association, which was set up nearly 140 years ago to consecrate the old Corinthian ideals. FA committees are still dominated by people representing the amateur game; they outnumber the professionals by ten to one in the FA hierarchy. Yet 92 per cent of its £60 million-odd yearly income comes from the professional game – the FA Cup and the England internationals. The tension between the amateurs and the professionals has led to the recent chaos which saw both the chief executive and the chairman of the FA losing their jobs. The rise of both men reflected the FA’s amateur traditions; neither could really cope with the demands of the modern commercial organisation.

Hoddle’s nemesis is also, in its way, down to commercial demands. Nobody could have anticipated that a man employed to find the right footballers for England should suddenly decide to find the right religious beliefs for all of us. But that is not the point. Hoddle’s interview with the Times – where he made his now notorious comments about the disabled – was part of a public relations exercise to improve Hoddle’s image and that of the FA.

He bungled it: it requires a particular kind of genius to produce a major disaster from a simple 20-minute telephone interview meant to promote next week’s international friendly against France. So he had to go.

About 20 years ago, nearly all the international sports organisations were run by Anglo-Saxons (most of them rich men in their own right) – like the autocratic American, Avery Brundage, an anti-Semite to boot, who ran the International Olympic Committee; or Lord Exeter, who ran the International Amateur Athletics Federation; or our own Stanley Rous, who rewrote the laws of football and headed Fifa, world football’s governing body. In the mid-1970s, as these Anglo-Saxon stalwarts fell and power passed to the south Europeans and the Latins, a hush-hush meeting of British sports, chaired by Prince Philip, heard how this was all a communist plot. And it was quite true that the Soviet Union and its allies, then very powerful, plotted with the Africans and the Asians to remove the Anglo-Saxons.

But the real power was going elsewhere: to the sports-goods manufacturers such as Adidas, whose creator, Horst Dassler, played a major part in rescuing a bankrupt International Olympic Committee (IOC) and in putting his own men in place in Fifa.

The English and the American press may rail against this but the rest of the world’s press regards it merely as Anglo-Saxon spite for losing power.

Perhaps we should look forward to further scandals leading to the collapse of the IOC. Rupert Murdoch could then step in and take over the Olympic Games, in the way he has taken over rugby league, and televise each Olympic sport on his satellite channels charging, let us say, £10 a game. If that were to happen then it would, in many ways, be the most appropriate solution. The games designed to represent the old Corinthian principles would finally be in hock to the most ruthless exploiter of modern media.

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