Economist: Olympics VS World Cup
SEVENTY years after Jesse Owens sprinted to victory in the 1936 Olympic Games, the Berlin Olympic stadium is once again at the centre of the sporting world. Football's World Cup, which starts this week, will come to a climax with a final in the refurbished Olympic stadium in Berlin next month.
Fortunately, the political overtones that made the Berlin Olympics such a sinister event are completely absent. This is not just because Germany is now a democratic country. It is also because the World Cup, unlike the Olympics, is wonderfully difficult to manipulate for political purposes. Over its long history, success at the Olympics has usually been a fairly accurate measure of global political power. Although the world now remembers the snub that Jesse Owens delivered to Nazi theories of racial superiority, the Germans came top of the Olympic medal table in 1936, reflecting the Nazi regime's growing power. During the cold war, the United States and the Soviet Union repeatedly struggled to gain a symbolic victory, by winning the most medals at the Olympics. Already a similar, politically charged battle for supremacy between America and China looks likely in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
By contrast, the World Cup has its own hierarchy, which is pleasingly divorced from the global pecking order. There is a sole superpower—Brazil. The Italians and French, apparently doomed to gentle decline in the real world, remain formidable competitors on the football field. And then there are the rising powers—which are more likely to hail from Africa than Asia. America will field a serious team at the World Cup, but nobody expects it to win. The Chinese, who have discovered a passion for football, failed to qualify for the tournament.
Football's power structure reflects a satisfying characteristic of the global game. Despite the undoubted prestige to be had by becoming champions of the world, it is extremely hard—if not impossible—for a determined and well-resourced government to create a World Cup-winning team. Arguably, the Italians managed it in the 1930s; and Argentina's World Cup winners in 1978 received plenty of backing from the ruling military junta. But a modern-day dictator who ordered his minions to create a team that could beat Brazil—or even play in their style—would be swiftly disappointed.
Again, the comparison with the Olympics is striking. Think of all those robotic East German sprinters, Romanian gymnasts and Chinese swimmers churned out by state-backed programmes. By contrast, a winning football team needs not just athleticism but also a spark of creativity and style that cannot be manufactured by sport's central planners. Even taking drugs does not appear to be much help for footballers.
As a result, every World Cup seems to throw up a team that suddenly clicks at the right time and beats a much-fancied opponent. Think of North Korea vanquishing Italy in 1966 or Senegal turning over France, the reigning champions, in 2002. It is this capacity to surprise that helps make the World Cup such a gripping event. And it is why in the endless competition between the Olympics and the World Cup for the title of “the world's greatest sporting event” we vote for the World Cup.
Yeah, fuck a lotta Olympics.