Listen to this article
A man dies in a traffic accident in North Korea. Soon, letters of condolence are dispatched to the hermit state from the north English town of Middlesbrough. It is the power of sport that does this.
The victim, according to Robert Nichols, editor of a Middlesbrough football fanzine, who told me the story, was the son of Pak Do Ik, one of the few North Koreans to have achieved international fame. He did this almost 40 years ago by scoring the goal that beat Italy in one of the World Cup’s biggest shocks. The match was played in Middlesbrough.
Sport can build bridges between people that would not otherwise exist. At its best, the quadrennial football World Cup has become a multicultural jamboree, with fans from more than 30 countries milling colourfully around the host nation, trading stories with each other and the locals. As a shared global idiom, rock music is the only thing that comes even close.
This, plus the fact that it is well on the way to becoming a $100bn-a-year (€83bn-a-year) industry, means surely that sport has earned its place at the World Economic Forum. Next week in Davos, sport will have its biggest presence yet at this annual gathering of the world’s movers and shakers. The heads of world football and the Olympic movement are expected, along with celebrated athletes such as Pele and Muhammad Ali. “I think we felt we weren’t really giving enough prominence to sport,” says a forum official. “We decided to make a real effort this year.”
And yet, I have to admit, the prospect makes me queasy. Sports administrators are at their worst when claiming some dubious extra dimension of significance for the gloriously trivial pursuits over which they preside, in order to justify the fabulous sums that media companies and sponsors have poured into sport in recent years.
You cannot be wholly cynical about the Olympic truce, which revives and adapts an ancient Greek tradition whereby conflicts were ordered to stop for the duration of the Games. But how many modern-day conflicts has this played a significant part in resolving? Meanwhile, it allows Olympism to highlight its ties with antiquity, differentiating itself from the world championships staged these days by every twopenny-halfpenny sport.
Has sport ever had a hand in stopping a war – other than the short-lived Christmas truce of December 1914? Readers of Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Polish journalist, will know, on the other hand, that sport has ignited at least one conflict: the so-called “soccer war” between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969.
Sport’s vast global audience allows athletes to stage effective protests, such as Tommie Smith’s black power salute in 1968. It can also make them vulnerable, as in Munich four years later. And it makes sport and athletes – like rock music – good vehicles for fundraising ventures, such as tsunami relief, as well as for commercial endorsements.
The absence of top-class international sport starved the Afrikaner soul and helped precipitate the collapse of apartheid. But did the Berlin Olympics of 1936 have the slightest impact on Hitler’s subsequent behaviour? We like to imagine that Jesse Owens, the black US sprinter, punctured the myth of Aryan supremacy. Yet Germany topped the medals table by a wide margin.
Will the Beijing Olympics in 2008 act as a catalyst for positive change in China, or will its rulers simply bask in the global attention and plough on regardless? Tanni Grey-Thompson, the British wheelchair athlete, told me recently that she did not think China had “any idea of what 4,500 disabled athletes hitting Beijing is going to do to them . . . Stuff will change.” Certainly, these Games will be an important test of sport’s standing as a force for good in the world.
There is another thing. Sport, as a whole, displays precious little financial discipline for an industry of its size. This means its seamier side is seldom out of the news. Football attracts much of the attention because of its global following and the large sums flowing into its coffers. But sport as a whole is not generally associated with top-notch governance.
This will have to change if sports leaders are really to play a more prominent role at gatherings such as Davos. There have been lots of fine words in recent months. Sepp Blatter, president of Fifa, world football’s governing body, said the haphazard way money had flowed into the game was “reminiscent of a misguided, wild-west style of capitalism”. The time had come to “take action to curb the excesses”. To date, though, little effective action has been taken.
Many grandiose claims are made for sport. But, at root, we can rely on it to fulfil only two simple broader functions. It acts as a powerful stimulus to the emotions. The consequences of this can be good or bad. It also provides common ground on which people from diverse backgrounds – say Middlesbrough and Pyongyang – can begin to construct a relationship.
“Can a ball change the world?”, as sports leaders will discuss next week in Davos. Yes, but usually in modest ways and for short periods.
The writer is the FT’s sports editor
Get alerts on News when a new story is published