Fool's Gold

Article excerpt

Byline: Christopher Hitchens; Hitchens is a NEWSWEEK contributor and a columnist for Vanity Fair.

How the Olympics and other international competitions breed conflict and bring out the worst in human nature.

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. …