Sunday, May 9, 2010



Fun, games and money

Sport has become a global business as well as a recreation for billions.

EVEN in China, a century is a long time to wait. In 1908, as the fourth modern Olympic Games took place in London, a magazine called Tianjin Youth posed three questions. When would a Chinese athlete take part in the

games? When would the country send a team? And when would it stage the games?

The answer to the first question turned out to be 1932, when Liu

Changchun, a sprinter, made his way to Los Angeles from his home in

north-eastern China, then under Japanese occupation. He won nothing,

but is remembered as a hero.

China sent teams to the Olympics in 1936, 1948 and 1952, but then

stayed away until the winter games of 1980. Four years after that, when

the summer games returned to Los Angeles, Xu Haifeng, a pistol-shooter,

won China's first gold medal.

Now China has a full set of answers. The greatest sporting show on Earth

is coming to Beijing, and the organizers are leaving nothing to chance.

They have crammed as many lucky number eights into the arrangements

as they sensibly could. The opening ceremony of the 2008 games will

begin at 8.08pm on August 8th.

When the Olympic flame is lit, China will be hoping for a 17-day festival of

sport and international friendship. It sees the games as marking not just

its re-emergence as a global economic force but also as a country that the

rest of the world treats with admiration and respect. Lately China has

come to view the flame as a bright light in a year of calamities, including

heavy snow that caused chaos in January and February and an earthquake

in Sichuan province in May that killed tens of thousands. It has, however,

had less comforting connections with unrest in Tibet.

Beijing is sure to get its festival of sport, with 10,700 competitors from

more than 200 countries playing 28 sports. In September it will also play

host to 4,000 athletes with disabilities, in the Paralympics. There are sure

to be moments that raise the hairs at the back of the neck. With a bit of

good fortune, one such moment could come on the first weekend of

competition, when in a spanking new 18,000-seat basketball arena in west

Beijing China's men are due to take on the mighty United States.

Fortune depends largely on Yao Ming's left foot. Mr Yao is a sporting icon

in China and also a star in America, where he plays for the Houston

Rockets; at 2.29 meters (7'6"), he is the tallest player in the National

Basketball Association (NBA), as well as one of the best. But he suffered a

stress fracture in February and started playing again only in mid-July.

China wants to be a great power in sport as well as in economics and international affairs. Ask Chinese officials whether they care about winning the most gold medals, and they will demur politely: winning, they say, isn't everything. But winning does matter, as it does to Americans, Russians or Germans. Few will be surprised if China tops the medal table this time.

Whether China gets its festival of friendship is another matter. Plenty in

the West think China should not have been given the games at all. Its critics

say it has done too little to elicit better behavior from its nasty friends in

places such as Myanmar and Sudan. They say, too, that China is cruel to

dissidents and minorities at home, not least in Tibet, where unrest erupted

just before the Olympic torch began its relay from Greece to Beijing. The

relay—invigilated by burly Chinese minders—was met by protests in

several cities, which angered the Chinese. The games in Beijing will not

suffer a sporting boycott like those of 1956, 1976, 1980 and 1984. But

some foreign leaders will stay away from the opening ceremony, and

neither China nor the International Olympic Committee (IOC) can do

anything to prevent criticism from abroad. Some athletes, too, may see

the games as an opportunity for making a political protest, even though

that is against Olympic rules. It has happened before.

Festival of commerce

However, the Olympics can also be seen as another sort of festival: of

global business. True believers in the Olympic spirit might balk at this.

There is no prize money on offer: athletes compete only for the glory of

gold, silver and bronze. Most of them are thrilled just to be there. The IOC

insists it is not a profit making body. And Olympic venues are free of the

advertisements that encircle other sporting arenas.

Yet commerce is more certain to be in the air than the Beijing smog.

Olympians ceased to be amateurs long ago. Win a medal, and financial

rewards will follow. Sporting federations will be keener to provide facilities,

and corporate sponsors want to back winners. For companies, the games

are a golden marketing opportunity. Sportswear manufacturers have no

better showcase. For almost anyone selling anything, the Beijing Olympics

are a chance to reach 1.3 billion people in an economy with double-digit

growth, not to mention billions more watching around the world.

The Olympics have 12 main sponsors, from Kodak, which backed the first

modern games in 1896, and Coca-Cola, part of the show since 1928, to

Lenovo, a Chinese computer company that signed up in 2005. For the four

years to 2008, they are paying out a total of $866m in money, goods and

services. In all, more than 60 companies, both Chinese and foreign, are

sponsoring the games. "No multinational company bent on expanding into

China or national company seeking to grow inside or outside China will

miss out on the branding opportunity presented by the Olympics in

Beijing," according to Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of WPP, a giant

advertising and marketing agency. Underpinning this festival of commerce

is the symbiotic relationship between sport and the media. That still chiefly

means television, but more and more people also follow sport on

computers, BlackBerrys and mobile phones. Sport has clearly become a

global business—but in fact it has been since long before "globalization"

was invented. International sport dates back to the 19th century, and the

commercial exploitation of sport is even older than that. What is new is the

degree of commercialization and its spread to emerging markets.

One sign is that capital is chasing sporting profit across borders. For

example, nine of the 20 football clubs in the English Premier League last

season were owned by foreigners. (The final count was eight: no amount

of American cash could have saved Derby County from relegation.) One or

two may be rich men's playthings, but most have been bought for the

media rights, ticket sales and merchandising.

Another sign is the international integration of sport's labour markets.

Brazilian footballers, for instance, turn up in leagues from the Faroe

Islands to Vietnam. Successful sportsmen and women are now earning

sums that the stars of a generation ago could not have dreamed of. Money

from broadcasters and sponsors inflates pay packets to eye-popping

dimensions, especially when an attractive image meets sporting brilliance.

Tiger Woods is as far ahead in earning power as he is on the golf course.

Sport's product markets, too, are becoming ever more global as Western

businesses target the newly affluent in developing countries. And those

developing economies, notably India in cricket, are creating powerful

sports businesses of their own. Ambitious countries in Asia and the Gulf

want their own tennis tournaments and Grand Prix.

The old marriage of media and sport has proved durable because it is so

mutually beneficial. What they both get out of it is eyeballs. The sports

business is based on the idea that people are willing to pay to watch

others play, and television expands the audience vastly, from thousands

inside the stadium to millions outside. For broadcasters, more eyeballs

mean more subscribers and advertisers. And sport is one of the few things

that still have people tuning in by the million.

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