SPORTS ARE not just a game anymore. With the ringing of the bell by Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins, the historic London Olympics opening ceremony was underway on a Friday evening on July 27. Agent 007 Daniel Craig appeared in a pre-filmed video to spark the crowd along with the surprise entrance of the Olympic flame by football star David Beckham. Musical performances and stunning fireworks have all left a lasting memory for the 62,000 people in the stadium and billions of spectators all over the world. We live in an age in which sports have become a huge part of people’s lives, with repercussions that cannot be solely contained inside the world of sports.
Origin and fundamentals of sports
Looking back in history, the purpose and meaning of sports have been deeply rooted in a person’s education. According to the International Olympic Academy (IOA), during the time of ancient Greek civilization, physical exercise constituted one of the three faculties of a man, which were intellectual, mental, and physical. The same purpose and essence of sports have survived throughout the ages. “Sports sprung from the idea that a human being should be equipped with intelligence, morals, and physical training,” says Won Young-shin (Prof., Dept. of Sports & Leisure). “The human body is a valuable asset to a person, and physical education has played the role of cultivating the human body and shaping it into a beautiful form.”
The most basic fundamental rule in sports is the “fair play” spirit, the golden rule of sports. “Doing the best one can until the end, fair and square” are the keywords of good sportsmanship according to Won. Every athlete must conform to the rules of a sport at all times, to ensure that everyone has an equal chance in pursuing victory. This includes respecting teammates, opponents, and the game officials.
People might have more innate reasons for practicing sports they are not yet aware of. Won points out that people were born with the natural desire to move. Another interesting aspect of sports is that people can get rid of their excess energy and take their aggression out on athletic competitions. Actions that are considered illegal in society are allowed in sports by regulation. An explicit example is boxing, where athletes are allowed to assail the opponent. Similarly in popular ball games such as basketball and soccer, stealing the opponent’s ball is encouraged and applauded. This is not the case for just athletes; thanks to the television, the internet, and other types of media, spectators can enjoy fulfilling and satisfying experiences. By this vicarious pleasure, tasting success and failure through others, people can feel involved and can taste victory and excitement. This vicarious pleasure was how mass media started to take on a major role in sports culture.
Expansion and changes of the sports industry
The media has taken a substantial role in expanding and changing the sports industry. According to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the profit that it gained from broadcasting fees from 1996 to 2008 had exceeded $10 billion. The media depends on sports to provide it with news, and something that will excite the masses. Vice versa, the sport industry depends on the media to publicize sporting events, expand the sporting industry by getting people well-informed and eventually turning them into sports fans. On newspapers and television, sports are allotted with its own section. People have finally realized the magnitude of sport broadcasting’s potentials. Sport events have become very accessible; we now enjoy live coverage of sport events anytime and anywhere for either a very modest fee or even for free. Media and sports have become necessities of each other.
With the simultaneous rise of sports media and sports culture, the sport industry has become commercialized, and a new market emerged. In the words of IOC President Jacques Rogge, “without the support of business community, without its technology, expertise, people, services, products, telecommunication, its financing-the Olympic Games cannot happen. Without this support, the athletes cannot compete and achieve their very best in the world’s best sporting event.” Corporate sponsors have filled the stadiums with advertisements and these sponsors keep the sport events to happen. Opening press conferences for the Olympics and other athletic competitions are usually plastered with corporate logos and brands. In the case of the 1988 Olympics in Korea, soft drink producer Coca-Cola paid $22 million to fund the event in exchange to become its only official sponsor over its competitors. Private companies sponsoring sport events include insurance companies, sportswear brands, financial banks, and soft drink producers; they compete to become the official sponsors of athletic events.
Money flowing into the sports landscape has also affected the nature of athletes. Compared to the Ancient Greek times, when amateurs competed, there are now professionals, and sports stars. Won points out, “it was hard to see professional sports celebrities in the past, because the sports market was still very small and less money was being circulated.” With the rise of professionalism, athletes have become marketable commodities; they are sold and bought in the market, and their worth is measured by the size of their contracts. The concept of being a “pro” athlete has led to bigger paychecks. According to Britannica, “In 1977 no contract for an athlete existed that exceeded $1 million. Comparably, currently, there are hundreds of athletes who receive more than $1 million a year.” Some athletes have increased their worth not just through athletic accomplishment. Professional athletes have exercised their other talents such as physical attractiveness and acting skills to become popular. Soccer star David Beckham and bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger are such cases.
Also, the input of market forces has been the biggest influence on shaping the sports culture and industry as we know today. Won says that sports have been revived as a leisure and recreational content in modern society. With this revival, sports culture has expanded. Sports equipment and sportswear that used to be worn by athletes only became popular among the public. Some examples are “New Balance” running shoes, popular demands of outdoor brands, and baseball caps and jackets that have become people’s everyday fashion. These merchandise spread quickly through the public and are transformed into fashion fads. Sporting equipment and sportswear have become more public-friendly, and some sports companies are promoting a new paradigm of sports fashion. This phenomenon and consumers’ interest in sporting goods have boosted the sport equipment industry, as seen in the popular sports brands such as Nike, Adidas, and Reebok.
Through these changes, a market for sports emerged and started to thrive. Thanks to the boom in the sports industry, sports are now enjoying more popularity than ever across all nations, regions, race, gender, age.
New implications and economic purposes
With the wide spread and popularization of sports, sporting events have begun to hold more than their simple athletic meanings. Sporting events are no longer just events for athletes to compete in. They now have varying degrees of purposes and effects outside of the world of sports.
Recently, sporting events have brought economic development into a certain region or a country. With regards to a sporting event on a global scale, the Olympics come to mind. Friends and families in Korea gathered around their televisions and stood up from their seats with sheer joy at the announcing of Pyongchang city as the host for the 2018 Winter Games. Why all this commotion? Won says, “Hosting of the Olympics can be viewed as a means to raise Korea’s value as a brand.” Not only will this event bring tourists from all over the world to Pyongchang and Korea, it will benefit many of Korea’s domestic and multinational companies. The name “Korea” will have a higher value as a global marketing brand. Samsung Economic Research Institute estimated that the Pyongchang Winter Olympics will bring \3.2 trillion worth of advertisement effect. It is not only the Olympics that bring economic boons. Hyundai Research Institute reported that the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup single-handedly employed about 350,000 personnel in Korea for the event. These economic merits of the world’s largest sports competition make one contemplate what the cheering crowd and the waving flags are really for.
In other cases, sporting events were launched as part of a company’s advertisement schemes. In recent years, Nike has been holding annual marathon races: “We Run Soul” for younger generations and “She Runs Seoul” for women. In these races, advertising elements that are seeped into the athletic gatherings are evident. All participants are required to wear the Nike-branded race t-shirts, and many other exclusive company merchandise. Moon Jeong-seok (Captain, *Dalineun Yonsei*) said that marathons are events that are fairly simple to organize and still attract lots of people. Also, they are usually only 10 km long, instead of the full 42 km.” Many other sports companies such as Adidas, Sketchers, and New Balance, have also been holding marathons recently.
Are we heading in the right direction?
Sports are becoming a more intimate topic for the public thanks to its commercialization and portrayal through media. It is clear that sports have taken a valuable part of people’s lives and that the culture of sports is growing in size. However, it is necessary to stop gazing in awe at the brand new, shiny sporting goods and turn the gaze to the possible negative aspects of such a fast-changing sports culture. What have we left behind in our tracks? What has commercialization brought on the original tradition of sports? How far should we really be letting the meaning of holding a sporting event transform?
With the growth of the sports industry and the increase in the size of the sports market, people have tried to take advantage of the sports industry for economic profit such as cases of match fixing and illegal drug use. In February 2013, the NBA suspended Orlando Magic forward Hedo Turkoglu for 20 games after he tested positive for steroids. There are plenty of incidents in which athletes were caught for doping. Match fixing is another problem. Coach Kang Dong-hee of the Wonju Dongbu basketball team who was put on trial confessed that he had fixed four matches in exchange for \47 million through a sports betting website. Perhaps these actions that show tainted sportsmanship are the repercussions of the rapid commercialization of the sport industry.
It makes one to wonder if sporting events for ulterior motives has invaded the sacred boundaries of sports and athleticism. Nonetheless, Moon says, “even if these events were opened for marketing or commercial purposes, if they can get more people interested in sports and encourage them to exercise, it is doing more good than harm. They have helped in spreading out interest in sports.” That these companies have succeeded in bringing these thousands of young females to come out, take part in these events and to take interest in sports is an undisputable accomplishment. Commercialization and the power of media have indeed succeeded in bringing sports closer to the public.
Besides, sport events are sometimes held for the welfare of society and not for private company profit. A non-profit organization founded in 2011 by Korean soccer star Park Ji-sung, the JS Foundation provided soccer scholarships to youths in Thailand and Vietnam by organizing celebrity soccer matches. Although they were friendly matches rather than the adrenaline-fueled tournaments, they held great significance as a charity event. Terry Fox Run, a national event in Canada, is also another example. Every year people in Canada run to raise money by donations and raise public awareness for cancer research. What makes it a truly noble event is the fact that Terry Fox wished for the events to occur without the support from corporate sponsorships to prevent the events and the Terry Fox Foundation from straying from its original purpose of fighting against cancer. In other cases, on May 12, 2012, the first Eco Green Bike Festival opened in Songdo, Incheon. Although it was a competition and winners were rewarded with prizes, it held a larger meaning of promoting the usage of bicycles over cars as an environmental statement and promoting the theme of going green that is instilled in the UN Green Climate Fund that established its headquarters in Songdo. These events have inspired people to contribute to society.
To this change in the nature of sport events, Won says “Sports is something that works in tandem with social changes, it’s only natural that such changes have occurred. However, it is regretful that some athletes are taking part in such immoral activities for money.” An inevitable duality exists in what modern sport culture and industry have become: what commercialization of sports has brought to modern sports, and what it has taken away.
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There used to be a time when amateurs strived only to achieve athletic victory. The single laurel wreath that was presented to the victor was enough for the athletes to put their lives on the frontline. With the commercialization of the entire sports industry, the purpose and meaning that athletic events hold started to change, and so have the motives of the athletes. Sport events have taken on the figures of marketing tools and fundraising events, and athletes have taken on higher statuses than amateurs. “People play sports and exercise with different purposes. Some do it for health, and some do it for fun. I do not see any problem with holding events for charity,” says John (alias). Where does society stand now? Where are we to draw the line to keep the Olympic Flame sacred?