Magazine article UNESCO Courier

What's in a Game?

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

What's in a Game?

Article excerpt

Does sport create harmony or foment division? Or both at once?

Basketballer Michael Jordan's announcement on January 13 that he was retiring made headlines all around the world. He was up there with Pele, they said. The American superstar's skill has dazzled everyone who has watched him dashing around a basketball court; as he leaps to dunk the ball in the net he seems to be momentarily suspended in the air. They call him "Air Jordan."

But Jordan, the Chicago Bulls star whose income as a player last season was estimated at $30 million, is also at the head of a business empire. His impact on the U.S. economy is reckoned by Fortune magazine at $10 billion. His link with the sporting goods firm Nike is believed to have generated about $5.2 billion in sales of shoes and clothing.

Idol of the world's youth he may be, but people argue about the role in society that he has - or hasn't - played. The basketball shoes carrying his name have been stitched by child workers in sweatshops, say U.S. trade unions. He has never spoken up for Black causes, say leaders of the Black American community. Has he not set up thousands of young people for a big fall because he is such a symbol of social advancement and success? Try as they might to emulate him, their chances of succeeding are close to nil.

In fact, has he not been a huge publicity machine which has strengthened social inequalities in the U.S. and other countries and helped big transnational companies to conquer a world market?

In August 1998, notes Siavosh Ghazi in his article on page 20 of this issue, 40 Iranian women footballers were given permission to train in a stadium in Teheran for the first time in 20 years. In a sense, they are the heirs of the pioneers, led by Frenchwoman Alice Millat, who founded the International Women's Sports Federation and then, in 1922, launched the first women's Olympic games. Women athletes are still in a minority in the Olympics, after making their debut in tennis and golf. Only a little more than a third of the competitors at the last summer Olympics were women. Even today women are still battling for complete equality and fair treatment in sport.

People with physical disabilities have removed one barrier that discriminated against them in sport. More and more disabled athletes, using special facilities, are today playing the same sports as the non-disabled. They have their own sports meetings, and since 1960 they have had their own Olympic games. However, the presence of the disabled in mainstream clubs is still rare and the example of the Norwegian swimmer described on page 22 is an exception.

So is sport an instrument manipulated by the powerful? Or is it a lifeline for those who are marginalized and excluded by society? Can it be an outlet for social discontent? The examples cited above provide no straightforward answer to these questions. In some cases sport serves the establishment; in others it can be a seedbed for social activism. At one and the same time it plays a host of contradictory social roles at local, national and international level.

Sport does not speak with a single voice. It is not monolithic. It holds different meanings for different social groups, partly depending on what they want to get out of it. For the well-heeled, sport can be a way of advertising their social status. Playing at exclusive golf, tennis or cricket clubs can be an opportunity to display membership of a privileged group. …

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