The Politics of Sports: Watching the World Cup in Beijing

The Politics of Sports: Watching the World Cup in Beijing

China did not qualify for the 2006 World Cup, yet there was almost fanatical enthusiasm for the games in Beijing. Because the matches were played in the middle of the night, many Beijingers slept during the day. This gave a brief respite from Beijing’s notorious traffic jams, and the number of emergency calls to the city hotline decreased by 11 percent during the hours of the games. My son’s end-of-year examinations were scheduled during the three-day interval between two rounds. I was told that the dates were purposefully chosen.

A Soft Spot for Great Historical Powers

What explains the passion that people showed for the game? It is hard to imagine Americans, say, getting so excited about victories by other nations in an international tournament for which their national team had failed to qualify. In the United States, although there is some ethnic-based enthusiasm for particular teams—Italian Americans support the Italian team, Mexican Americans support the Mexican team, and so on—the World Cup does not occupy center stage of social life. But the United States may be an outlying case. In many parts of the world—from South Africa to India to China—the bulk of ordinary citizens became crazed about soccer during the World Cup, even without any national team in the competition. This worldwide obsession can be explained partly by the usual commercial considerations: clever branding and marketing that tap the widespread desire to be part of a global event in countries of rising affluence.

In China, though, there may also be more particular political factors. As Yu Maochun of the U.S. Naval Academy notes, China’s decision, for the first time in its history, to allow live broadcasting of the 1978 World Cup in Argentina was a turning point in China’s political history because of the excitement it generated. For the first time since the revolution, the Chinese nation, exhausted by the Communist Party’s incessant political campaigns, realized that the world could be excited by something other than Marxism and class struggle. Francesco Sisci, the distinguished correspondent for La Stampa, offers an explanation for current interest. The two best-read newspapers in China, selling well over a million copies each every day, are Cankao Xiaoxi and Huanqiu Shibao. They cover mainly international news. Many popular local papers cover local news. In both cases, the reporting does not stray too far from the facts and deals with issues that people care about. All national news, however, is official propaganda and thus uninteresting. So the Chinese develop strong local and international interests but pay less attention to national affairs than do most citizens of liberal democratic countries.One might predict that there will be a rise in interest in national affairs if the media open up and the political system democratizes, with controversial national issues b...


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