Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Suits, Sponsors, Speed, and Skates

Long before the International Olympic Committee official permitted the participation of professionals,  following the 1988 games, in what had been, more or less a traditionally amateur sports event, de facto professionalization had greatly advanced. And, indeed, no wonder. World-level athletes must engaged in the sports full time. Long before professionalism took firm root, athletes had achieved a sports-related income  linked to sponsorships and such. And purists like us had seen that; by the time the IOC acted, we’d already stopped having fits out of sheer exhaustion.

To give this some dimension, in 2013, according to the website opendorse, $1.1 billion was spent on athletic endorsements (link).

Professionalization, of course, means commercialization. Significant “visibility” invariably attracts money; and where money is available, professionalization also means ever more spending on technology. The athletes’ prowess is taken for granted. So where shall we get that extra edge? From modern science and the technology that it can spin.

The current controversy over skating suits—worn by the U.S. speed skating complement—is an interesting illustration. The U.S. team, failing to win medals (thus far—team pursuit is still ahead) abandoned new suits made for them by Under Armour, INC, a major $2.3 billion sports-wear corporation. It’s not the athletes, it’s the technology.

In the Vancouver games four years ago, the U.S. team managed to get four medals out of the total of 36 available (1 gold, 2 silver, and 1 bronze). That was 11.1 percent of the medals. Only men won medals. In those games 177 athletes participated. The U.S. fielded 18. Thus with 10.2 percent of the participants, we got 11.1 percent of the medals—which isn’t bad. Thus far, no such luck.

According to USA Today and the Wall Street Journal, Under Armour is the chief sponsor of speed skating as well. Last Friday, the company’s stock fell by 2.4 percent. Visibility, of course, is a two-edged sword. And what is clear from this particular episode is that world-class sport is much, much more than sport. It is a kind of nexus which extends all through the economy and society. Such strange and, from a distance, barely recognizable but very firm combinations wrought by money and the media proliferate virtually everywhere. We cannot see them until something unravels; and doing something about it collectively is about as possible as influencing climate change.

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