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The World Cup is on, which is of no real consequence here on TCI, except that it provides an object lesson in how to grow (and how not to run) an international sport. As nearly as I can tell, they all follow the same trajectory. Early on, some group of bureaucratically-inclined people decide it’s a good idea to organize international events and try to standardize “the product.” Eventually, because humans like sports-style entertainment, the events become more popular, and then the “organization” begins to exert power and extort money in a variety of creative ways, all while trumpeting their belief in the power of sport.
In the late ’90s, cycling was on a real rise. Investment from newly rich telecoms made riders more wealthy and the spectacles more spectacular. Predictably, more money corrupted the whole thing, with the riders turning to blood doping and the UCI finding ways to exploit the commercial power of the sport for their own enrichment. Poor moral values pervaded, and the UCI spent most of its time trying to preserve a status quo that really only worked for them.
Then of course, it all fell apart.
Maybe football (soccer) has finally reached this stage too. More than a dozen FIFA executive committee members have been indicted, accused or driven out of the sport since the Qatar World Cup was awarded in 2010. The games on your television now may be the apotheosis of football’s culture of exploitation and corruption.
We’ve reached the nation-state stage of affairs in both football and cycling, the point at which simple multinational corporations find themselves outgunned by nations looking to cleanse their reputations through association with sports, a technique also called “sports washing.” We are a long, long way from the charms of local clubs, family-style teams, and anything resembling a level playing field.
No one sport seems to be better than any other in this regard. No sport is particularly clean or charming, and the cynical among us (sorry) wonder if it even matters. Huge attendances and sky-high ratings for this World Cup suggest not.
And so, never mind what the men (it’s usually men) are doing behind the curtain. Set the structures of the various sports aside and ask yourself if there is any one cycling “product” that can compete with football for global attention. What could be our World Cup? The obvious answer is the Tour de France, but if that were the answer, it would already have happened. Do we have some other discipline or event that could be appealing on that level? What is it? What are the obstacles?