Politics in the time of Olympics


Sports can teach us a lesson or two

When propaganda works, it becomes conventional wisdom fairly quickly. As the Olympic torch fleets from hand to heroic hand on its way to the London Games, we offer it the aura of a tradition stretching back to that hoary past when this event was restricted to a few nude Greek men.

There is certainly a very pre-electricity touch to this torch which conjures up visions of an olden golden age. A bit of reflection suggests that a torch could not have been much use, since the sports were held during daylight. In fact, this wheeze was dreamt up by the Nazis for the 1936 Berlin extravaganza as part of a publicity drive for Hitler’s pseudo-white Aryan maniac delusions. The world destroyed Nazis, but kept the torch.

Nor did the logo, of five interlinked circles, originate in some great architectural symbol of ancient Greece. It was born in the intelligent imagination of the man who reinvented the Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, when he saw a magazine advertisement for Dunlop bicycle tyres with a similar display. It might however be the most significant contribution made by an ad agency to world history.

This logo was first revealed in 1914, so in two years it will reach its centenary moment. Surely this is sufficient cause for the advertising and sports industries to pool their considerable talents, and raise sufficient funds to celebrate in the manner to which they are accustomed. 1914 also saw the advent of the First World War, but no one seems particularly eager to recall that first instance of organised, relentless and often pointless carnage on a multinational scale.

Baron Coubertin became convinced that sport was a better option than war, and who can blame him. But, to succeed, he argued, sport had to be organised on the lines of religion, with its own church, dogma and ritual. This profound insight is the basis of the commercial success of all contemporary sport.

Each sport has its own Pope, who is infallible as long as he is in office. His support system is a cluster of cardinals and a structured order of bishops. This should end all questions about why politicians want to be at the command centre. It is not the sport that they love, but the infallibility that they crave.

There is nothing democratic about sports management. Its culture is that of an opaque cabal, and woe betide any heretic who attempts to disturb its secret society methods of insider trading, as the current Sports Minister Ajay Maken discovered when he thought that the Government of India was more important than the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). The chorus that silenced him was a formidable all-party alliance.

If the alliance that squashed Maken formed a coalition government in Delhi, it would be the strongest, most stable, policy-focused ruling partnership in Indian history. Perhaps Rahul Gandhi should, when he takes effective charge of Congress in September, hire Lalit Modi as consultant to decipher the bcci code of management. If Modi is held up in London, there is always Jagmohan Dalmiya waiting to serve in Calcutta.

Politics, far more than sport, needs the glue of symbols. The BJP revived from a near-death experience in the 1984 general elections by turning a brick into a magnet during its campaign for the construction of a temple at Ayodhya. The Gandhi cap has rather lost its adhesive quality for the Congress. When its leaders are forced by protocol to wear them, they look faintly ridiculous. Moreover, Anna Hazare has co-opted the cap into his own brand image.

A torch could be a good substitute. One can visualise the excitement created by Youth Congress volunteers holding aloft the Torch of Reform, as they race from village to village, behind a bus with dancing and music on the upper deck. This in turn would ensure TV coverage, as news channels need the barest excuse to show free footage of Hindi film songs. TV would also encourage sponsors to jump in with free packets of sweets for children among the spectators. Every PCC would send one torch to an AICC session; all of them would be used to ignite one giant flame to inaugurate a fiery start.

Sceptics will always dismiss any revolutionary idea. When Baron Coubertin persuaded a few countries to throw a javelin, did he know that one day, more than a century later, a blond mayor of London called Boris Johnson would aspire to become prime minister of a great power on the strength of his Olympic skills? A sneer is the privilege of a pessimist.

The Congress is in obvious need of a strong dose of optimism. The Olympic spirit is in the air. It should breathe deeply.

The columnist is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and Editorial Director, India Today and Headlines Today.


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