The Beginning of the End of the Process

Jenni Hermoso kissed by president of the RFEF Luis Rubiales during the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 Final, Sydney, Australia. 20 August 2023. Photo: Noe Llamas/SPP. Courtesy SPP Sport Press Photo/Alamy Live News

The year in sport: 2023 was a watershed of sportswashing

How was it for you? More wins than losses? Someone won your heart with a performance for the ages? Or more likely broke it by going missing in a clutch moment? And so, the season is quickly, deservedly forgotten. See you in 2024.

Except: something of note did happen in 2023, beyond the usual stories of this team won and that athlete lost. It was the year we went beyond sportswashing. The year when all the money, and the decisions of the powerbrokers funnelling funds into sport globally, overwhelmed the ideas and notions that until now have been baked into professional organised sports. Sport played power, and lost a tight match one-nil after extra time.

I am aware this is an almost unprovable claim. I am also aware it’s very hard to see the dots that make up this picture. That’s part of the problem. In a non-Olympic, non-men’s football World Cup year (that happened at the end of the previous year, for sportswashing reasons), it still felt that there was – is – too much sport available to make any real sense of it. The Cricket World Cup just ended. The Women’s football World Cup was this summer. The Kansas City Chiefs won the Super Bowl, their second in three years. Manchester City won the treble, and their fourth title in five years. There are probably one million other competitions, too. I’m sure they have their worthy winners as well.

It is nearly impossible to see patterns in a glut. The real story is beneath the series of discrete images of triumph and despair. Listen for longer. We can hear the voice nagging at us about all that is wrong with sport this year. It’s the voice that reminds us how there is so much action that the outcomes of the many millions of encounters matter less than a few key finals. That instead of finding meaning in results we are expected to find them in confected ‘narratives’ of clubs failing or unexpectedly rising, players breaking out, coaches inspirational or idiotic (often at the same time). That playing some sports professionally – and rugby and American football in particular – will inevitably and catastrophically damage the players physically in the long term, especially in terms of head injury. And that data is driving tactics, performances, who to sign and let go; but all the data in the world can’t help but take the unexpected – read: the romance and joy – out of these endeavours.

I am an old man kicking a ball at clouds. But I would you like you to consider that this year we reached the beginning of the end of the process begun in Britain in late 1870s, when imperial crusaders decided that games and pastimes needed some sort of ideological superstructure to justify their existence, liberate their power and put them to some greater purpose. It wasn’t enough they could be played. They had to be codified, organised, industrialised, exported, exploited.

In 2023 we started to glimpse what happens when that process reaches its conclusion. This was the year that sport stopped being a trivial concern. Instead, it is now to all intents a fully-fledged arm of geopolitical and economic power relations.

Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia logo. CC BY-SA 4.0

Don’t believe me? How about Mohammed Bin Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, who told NBC News that ‘If sportswashing is going to increase my GDP by 1%, then we will continue doing sportswashing. I don’t care. I have 1% growth in GDP from sport, and I am aiming for another 1.5%. Call it whatever you want.’ The impact of the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) crystalised this thought; how the PIF-owned LIV Golf tour forced an older, successful rival, the PGA Tour, into a merger more akin to a shotgun wedding, for no apparent other reason than… it could. It will change golf forever. It’s proof of concept, too.

Sport at the elite levels, at the money-making levels, is the plaything of men like Bin Salman. Whether it’s a despotic ruler, a shady financier, a secretive billionaire, a well-run state investment fund, the effect is the same. Come for the entertainment. Don’t look under the pitch.

If you do, what you’ll find is power reasserting itself. Flexing its ability to tempt players to waste their best years in the desert. And when some of them try to rebel, in the moment of their biggest triumph – such as Jennifer Hermoso, the Spanish football forward who was non-consensually kissed by Luis Rubiales, then president of Spain’s football federation, at the award ceremony when Spain won the Women’s World Cup – somehow power will remind them who is boss.

These things have become predictable. This isn’t to say unpredictability in sport has ended, as hot favourites India found out when they lost the final of the Cricket World Cup they hosted. Look at the underlying story, though. A game – thanks to the outsized role of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, which runs the Indian Premier League, the world’s most valuable cricket competition – suborned to serve the ambitions of one country’s interest. Forget the tests of time, the commonwealth gentility. Now – the pyrotechnics, the show, players as interchangeable as the franchise logos on the shirts. 1.2 billion people love it. The rest of the world will fall into line.

I am a pessimist: I am sports fan. I can’t see things getting better. Power and data and analytics love a system. I think the flowering of individual genius in any sport will become much less frequent. I expect absolutely no sport to actually deal with the fact that its travelling around the world in a time of global heating is akin to throwing a lit match in a petrol station.

And yet: I will be back to watch more of this trivia in 2024. Some sporting moments this year have moved me. Simone Biles’s return to gymnastics was a blessed reminder that a body can be touched by genius. The death of Bobby Charlton seemed to herald the end of a footballing era in which heroism, style and ferocity could be synonymous with each other – and worth much more than any tactical nerdery. And Michael Lorenzen was traded to my beloved baseball team Philadelphia Phillies, and promptly threw a no-hitter for them in his first home game. The Phillies, being the Phillies, went on to lose the National League pennant. However much everything changes, some things stay the same.

Be in no doubt. Something did change this year. I’m not sure we will like it. But we will still watch it.

Rishi Dastidar is a poet; his latest collection is Neptune’s Projects (Nine Arches Press)

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