The sporting pages are not normally where you would expect to find Marxist analysis — well at least not since the great cricket writer, C. L. R. James, departed — but much of the commentary on the comebacks of Michael Klim, Ian Thorpe and Libby Trickett has a distinctly Marxist flavour.
The universal assumption in the media was that they were doing it for the money — thus encapsulating the Marx-Engels view that capitalism reduces everything — from marriage, social relations, leisure and much else — to the status of a cash commodity.
Now arguably sport, leisure and many other things have been reduced to the cash nexus — partly because sport, along with entertainment, is not only big business but also an activity where hugely disproportionate returns accrue to the most successful.
Most actors wait tables. A select few are multimillionaires. Most sports people strive away in suburban fields. A few are multimillionaires.
Swimming is not as unequal as some other sports — look at the remuneration of international soccer stars — but Australian Swimmers Association material submitted to the ACCC suggest that Swimming Australia payments to swimmers are six times higher for the very top swimmers compared with the bottom level of the “elite”. This is net of endorsements and sponsorships income that magnify the differences significantly. In many other sports the differential is about 50 times (even greater in areas such as pro basketball and US football) and the difference between an Australian Test cricketer and a district player is probably greater as well.
It has probably always been so — even if the absolute sums involved have been less — with “amateurs” such as W. G. Grace earning massively more (only in “expenses”, of course) than “professional” cricketers. Ric Sissons’ The Players (Pluto Press 1988) is probably the best guide to the history of cricket professionalism.
Some sportspeople also do make comebacks because of post-retirement setbacks. Billie Jean King was one who was put into some unwise investments by others and there are many other examples.
But why did Klim, Thorpe, Trickett and Geoff Huegill do it and why were their decisions reported the way they were in the media?
Part of the answer about why the swimmers did it can be found in watching a replay of Kieren Perkins’ 1996 Olympics 1500 metres gold medal win. Perkins had just qualified for the final by 0.24 seconds and then blitzed the field. I can remember what I was doing when JFK was shot (although from time to time I remember it differently) and I also remember exactly what I was doing when I suddenly realised Perkins was swimming in the event and rushed to switch on the TV.
Perkins wasn’t swimming for the gelt but for the glory and the gold. Young soccer players dream of football as a way to escape from a Rio favela but it is the glory that infuses their imagination. Who hasn’t dreamed of kicking the winning goal or scoring the winning try or scoring a hundred before lunch at Lord’s?
I suspect that for the returning swimmers the money would be nice but that basically the glory would be more important. After all, what they have to lose — how they survive in people’s memory — is more important than money. Although the astute former ICC president, Malcolm Gray, has wondered whether some of the problems of Australian cricket are a result of players becoming celebrities in the modern celebrity culture sense rather than famous for their on-field efforts.
Similarly most sports reporters probably wanted to be sports reporters because they loved sport. As a cricket writer I always smiled about being paid to do something I loved doing — watch cricket.
But as sport has become big business, and sports people have become part of celebrity culture, the nature of sports reporting has changed too. The scandals, the money and the leg overs get more coverage than the science of climate change.
Deep down most sports writers are like the athletes — it is about the game. During the Australian cricket players’ dispute it was clear that most cricket writers rapidly get bored about talks or strikes, contracts and what not and wanted to get back to covering cricket matches.
They couldn’t because sport is also big business for the media, which has shared interests with the big businesses that sponsor the big businesses that sports have become. The afternoon light on green fields and white flannelled folk has faded and been replaced by floodlights and promotions.
And as sport as transmogrified into multinational business, so public relations people have become ubiquitous within sports from staging the events to promoting games and players. Sports issues management has become a virtual industry specialisation sub-set.
Of course, one can’t begrudge athletes the sums they are paid. They probably work harder than the average mainstream business leader; have a shorter professional life; and, most importantly, have to keep winning to reap the rewards. In business you can fail, destroy shareholder value and generally underperform and still walk away with millions.
On reflection though, that could be said to be a bit like the recent Australian Test team Ashes performance.
*Ritual declaration of interest: the author has advised Cricket Australia, the ICC and an AFL club as well as working with sports sponsors.