"Sports do not build character, they reveal it". When John Wooden said those famous words he had those in mind who play sports. It turns out it reveals quite a bit about those who buy into sports as well.
Sporting success inspires people, provides a sense of accomplishment and pride, besides being a welcome diversion from bad news. I witnessed first hand this summer, the emotional uplift of a billion Indians when Abhinav Bindra won the first individual Olympic gold in his country's history. I remember from childhood, whenever things got tense under General Zia's martial law in Pakistan, we'd be treated to a rerun of some famous cricketing victory on state television. Who wants to protest when you can see Miandad bat instead?
Thinking about it, the surprise is that it took so long for nations to start throwing money at buying sporting success given all the positive externalities. China wanted to match its burgeoning economic might with gold medals and spent hundreds of millions of dollars through its state run sports system. And while the accompanying photograph of Chinese children gymnasts makes for more compelling newsprint, the British success was also criticized locally for diverting lottery money from community schemes to sports. Britain trebled its Olympic funding for Beijing to £235 million, funneling funding from other areas.
Then there is gas rich Qatar that has already taken the next logical step with all the subtlety of a jackhammer. In 2004, Qatari Saif Saaeed Shaheen broke the 3000 meter steeple chase world record. This would have been admirable for a country with a population of less than a million people except that until the year before, Shaheen was actually Stephen Chorono of Kenya and changed his nationality (and name for some reason) in return for $1,000 a month for life. There was an uproar in Kenya, but the undaunted Qataris continued their shopping spree by snapping up the Kenyan 5000m specialist Albert Chepkurui (now fittingly Ahmad Hassan Abdullah) next. These moves were probably inspired by the earlier wholesale purchase of eight Bulgarian weight-lifters for an alleged $1 million. In case you can't tell the Bulgarian silver medalist Alan Tsagaev from Qatari bronze medalist 'Said Assad' in the photo from Sydney Olympics below, here's a hint: Qatari flag (and track suit) has red in it.
Is there anything wrong with what Qatar has done? "I can't define it but I know it when I see it" was my first reaction. But a deeper look changed my mind. Is it ok for the rich countries to attract bankers and lawyers and doctors for financial reward, but not athletes? Is it the exclusive preserve of Ivy League educated professionals to sell out to the highest bidder? Surely, whats good for the goose is good for the gander.