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Politics is the art of controlling your environment.The Seal of Gonzo Approval
    
-- Hunter S. Thompson

 

The Olympics have beguiled everyone again. Once every four years we dust off our antiquated knowledge of swimming and track and field and archery and badminton and water polo and diving and gymnastics and so on and so forth and we forget that we couldn't give a damn about these sports the rest of the year. The process will repeat itself again in 2010 in Vancouver, when the stage will switch to events really only popular in the nether regions of the northern hemisphere -- ice for skating and ice for curling and ice for hockey, snow for skiing and snow for snowboarding and snow for the biathlon, cold banked chutes of ice and snow for luges and bobsleds to race down at ungodly speeds. More and more we witness the hardened thugs of the world's preeminent professional leagues swooping in to remove any vestiges of amateurism from their respective events -- the Dream Team in the NBA, the NHL intervention in hockey which opened the floodgates for six powerhouse teams and several also-rans, the Federers and Nadals in tennis, juiced sprinters and juiced cyclists...

 

Yet still, it often amazes people that -- egad, it couldn't possibly be! -- politics could possibly play a role in sports or in the Olympics. Yet it has always been this way, sports as the diversion for the masses. When sports are lost on the public -- during time of war or crisis -- people are forced to look at the hard truths of existence and to witness the real degradation of our crumbling world all around even as wealth amasses in quantities never before imagined. Sports provide that clear and perfect universe, a place where the grass is green no matter which side of the park you gaze upon, where rules are codified and more often than not enforced. We mollify ourselves with alternate realities, whole worlds of statistics as real as any financial house, while the whole world crumbles and burns outside the gates. Our sports arenas are as real in their intentions as any chariot race or thrust of a gladiator's spear. They placate us, they soothe our pride, they are the successor to religion as Karl Marx's famously-proclaimed "opiate of the masses"...

 

Politics are the very essence of sport, for what is an athlete doing besides trying to control his or her environment in a manner which befits their goals? And sports instill great power in those who control them. Juan Antonio Samaranch for decades lorded over the International Olympic Committee as his own personal fiefdom. If, as Hunter S. Thompson asserts, politics IS the art of controlling one's environment, wouldn't then sports be but one of the purest forms of politics? From megalomanaical owners around the world, the guys like Al Davis or Silvio Berlusconi who lord over their realm. Some use their power derived from sports as a springboard to higher office; others use their power as an insulator from the inevitable criticism of those who do not wield such force...

 

The question then lies -- how much power do fans wish to yield to the political forces of organized sport? There is power in fandom, and that power lies far beyond merely the hooliganism which has befallen European stadia in the past. A team can continue to play its matches, but as Italian stadium restrictions showed last season, without the tifosi in the seats there is little point to the action on the pitch. Fans have the power to direct their attention and their accounts to specific sports. We become spellbound by guys like Michael Phelps, people who in any other realm we would care less about what he does, and ignore equally compelling stories all around. Between the power brokers and the media (and the fourth estate itself wields perhaps the greatest power of all), fans are inundated with a barrage of stimuli -- LOOK AT ME!!!

 

Yet some still purport to be shocked by China's posturing during these Olympic Games. Countries do not go through the arduous process of bidding for and hosting the Olympic Games without an ulterior motive in mind, just as the community which hosts the Super Bowl does so fully knowing that the tourism industry will get a short-term influx and the town will be awash in cash from all comers. China, an ascendant power whether one likes the reality or not, has taken this opportunity -- just as so many other rulers and nations have before -- to trumpet their system of governance and of living to the world. China is having its coming out party with these Olympics, and it is precisely that... revelations about what is really happening. Sports cannot change the situation in Darfur, they cannot bring everlasting peace to Tibet, but when sporting events take place in tightly-bound societies, they have the opportunity to illuminate discrepancies for the rest of the planet. As sports become corrupted, they come more and more to reveal our actual reality outside their effect as a new "opiate of the masses". No longer a simple salve for our sore societies, sports increasingly are becoming a microcosm of our greater global society...

 

Which is why our politics come to reveal sporting events. The polls are a neverending glance back at the scoreboard, as each team rolls along from city to city playing their cards for the populace. The line blurs between each as the original intent of both is lost amidst dollar signs and growing notoriety. As you use the art of politics to manipulate your environment, beware... sports can easily teach a person the sense of rules that are required to succeed in benevolent manipulation, but so too can the machinations of the professional world grind one into nefarious Machiavellian misconduct. Enjoy your sports, but remember to keep one foot on the other side of reality. The grass may be greener in the stadium, but the world would be much less full were we to lose the variance of reality...

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