Every four years, the finest athletes in the world get together for weeks of athletic supremacy, friendship, high drama, and global unity. There are controversial calls, upsets, disqualifications, and threats of protest. But at the end of the journey, there lies a golden reward. Anyone who is lucky enough to attain said reward is feted in his or her own country, and the world at large. His or her name will be enshrined forever in the pantheon of winners. The name of this celebration: the Olympics.
No, wait. It’s the World Cup.
No, it’s BOTH the Olympics and World Cup.
Bollocks. The Olympics are nothing more than a perverse collection of boutique sports that only a select few can master. More people play soccer than any other sport on the planet. The World Cup is the apex of global sports!
That’s just it. Anyone can play SOCCER. Can you lift three times your body weight and hold it up for five seconds? Can you do a quadruple toe-loop in combination with a quadruple salchow? Can you hit a shuttlecock traveling at 120 miles per hour?
The World Cup has a long history.
The Olympics started in 776 BC, bitch.
And that is a typical conversation (well, somewhat) between two people debating on which is the ultimate global sports event: the FIFA World Cup or the Olympic Games. This conversation has been going on for years, and with both events expanding, the conversation gets even more heated than it already is.
The irony of the situation is that both have a shared history. From 1908 to 1928, the Olympic Games’ soccer tournament was the pre-eminent international competition. Though FIFA was around at the time, it wasn’t until 1930 that there was an officially-sanctioned FIFA World Cup. The contest was held in Uruguay (the eventual winners), which had won two Olympic titles in soccer beforehand (to date, their 1924 and 1928 triumphs are the only Olympic titles won by Uruguayan athletes).
Meanwhile, FIFA and the IOC were clashing over the amateur status of the playes. IOC rules stipulated that amateurs were to receive no monetary compensation whatsoever. FIFA disagreed, and thus the controversy began. Today, the FIFA World Cup showcases the elite teams of the world, while Olympic soccer is an under-23 event, at least for the men. The female equivalents of said competitions both feature the elite teams of the world.
Let’s explore this controversy a little bit further. I have broken down this discussion into these groups: spread of sport, cultural significance, and the role of women. I will list various pros and cons for each group.
SPREAD OF SPORT
Soccer is the world’s most prolific sport. Almost every country in the world has a significant professional soccer league, except for Canada. FIFA counts 207 member federations in its fold, representing 203 countries and self-governing dependencies, plus the four Home Nations of the United Kingdom (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales). Viewership of the World Cup draws a total audience of 38 billion (which in all truth is unlikely as there are only over 6 billion people on earth, which on average would mean one viewer would count for six).
198 countries vied throughout the 2-year lead-up for the 32 slots at the 2006 event in Germany. Out of 207 national teams, less than 80 have been lucky enough to make a World Cup tournament. And the World Cup has been held by only nine nations: Argentina, Brazil, England GBR, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, United States, and Uruguay. (Norway and the USA have only won the women’s event, while Germany is the only nation to have won both the men’s and women’s event.)
The Olympic Games is the largest multi-sport competition in the world. The IOC has 203 member federations, representing 203 countries and self-governing dependencies. There are also 35 sports federations in the fold, from those representing track and field to equestrian sports (ironically, FIFA is one of them). 202 vied for medals at the 2004 Summer Olympics (the 203rd country, Marshall Islands, became a member in 2005 and will likely field a team in 2008). As of this writing, 120 of the 203 member nations have won at least one Olympic medal, with 86 of them having won at least one Olympic gold medal. Most Olympic champions come from Europe, the USA, Australia, and east Asia (China, Japan, and South Korea), though increasingly athletes from Latin America, the Middle East, Africa are asserting their place atop the podium.
PRO WORLD CUP: The game is the most widespread on Earth. The World Cup is the largest single-sports event on Earth. Unlike the Olympics, there is only one goal at stake, making it easier for even the casual viewer to get into it.
CON WORLD CUP: For all its widespread glory, less than 80 countries have qualified for a World Cup tournament since its inception. Qualification standards laid down by FIFA can put many aspirant teams at a disadvantage. Only a select handful will ever attain the Cup. Only recently has the World Cup been held outside of Europe and the Americas, where it receives the most backing.
PRO OLYMPICS: The Olympic Games is the largest major multi-sport tournament in the world. The diverse array of events highlights its motto: citius, altius, fortius (faster, higher, stronger). Though not every country has won an Olympic gold medal, the list of Olympic champions is more diverse than the list of World Cup champions.
CON OLYMPICS: The Olympics are getting too big for its own good. The diversity of events makes it very confusing for others to follow. Plus, like the World Cup, the Olympics are dominated by mainly European and US interests. As a result, input and success from other parts of the world is not taken as seriously.
The World Cup is, for many, more than just a tournament. The hopes of a nation rise and fall with the way their team is playing. In many countries, soccer is the only significant sport of choice that is accessible to all. They don’t have the multi-sport capabilities that richer nations like the United States, Russia, China, and Australia have. Many countries have plenty at stake in the World Cup, and not just in terms of winning the crown: in Cote d’Ivoire, which qualified for the 2006 tournament (their first outing), a civil war was temporarily stopped because of the country’s participation. Pele, the greatest soccer player ever, visited the Nigerian breakaway region of Biafra in the late 1960s and his presence single-handedly quashed warfare there, if only for a short time. Also, the 1998 World Cup was won by France on their home turf, and the makeup of that team reflected the ethnic reality that hitherto and since, the government has sought to quash: it included players of African (Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira), Arab (Zinedine Zidane), Basque (Bixente Lizarazu), and Eastern European (Yuri Zhorkayev [Youri Djorkaeff]) descent.
The cultural mores of many countries emphasize team efforts as something to aspire to, while discouraging individual efforts. This is especially true in the United Kingdom, where the union-esque sensibility makes one cheer for teams like Manchester United and the English national team, more than they would for Paula Radcliffe and Dame Kelly Holmes. Even players who had a minor role in a team’s success are feted with more vigor than individuals whose contributions to world sport are innumerable.
The Olympics have been around since 776 BC (the first celebration of sport as we know it), though the modern games did not come about until 1896, and that was only after a 1,500-year disappearance. Since, the Olympics have been dominated by rich nations who can afford multi-sport capabilities, though athletes from third-world countries have become very successful as of late. Like at the World Cup, ethnic diversity of a country has been showcased to full effect at the Olympics. Jesse Owens won 4 gold medals for the USA at the 1936 Summer Olympics, a feat made even more significant by the fact that he was an African-American competing in Adolf Hitler’s Germany. Cathy Freeman, a multi-ethnic Australian track star with a strong Aboriginal background, forever enshrined herself in her country’s lore with a victory in the 400m at the Olympics in 2000, held in Sydney.
Before Gal Fridman won a gold medal in sailing in 2004, his nation of Israel’s most significant Olympic moment was the massacre at Munich in 1972. His victory (the first ever for an Israeli) made him a national hero in his politically volatile homeland. War and terrorism have made their impact on the Olympic Games, but the Games continue on as a symbol of peace and unity, though the IOC’s usual decree for wars to be stopped during the Games has been little respected. At the Olympic Games, individual efforts and team efforts are celebrated equally. The fact that you won on your own does not make your victory inferior to a group of people winning together.
PRO WORLD CUP: Soccer is a team sport, and many countries value team efforts over individual success. Many countries do not have a strong sporting or cultural infrastructure, but in venues like the World Cup, they can really shine. Though two tournaments had to be canceled because of war (1942 and 1946), the World Cup has been more successful at promoting peace and avoiding terrorist activities than the Olympics.
CON WORLD CUP: Individual achievements are as worthy of recognition as team achievements. Even in the World Cup, someone can steal the limelight from his or her teammates, usually in a positive fashion but often in a negative situation. And the fact that the World Cup has avoided the same problems as the Olympics does not mean that it is infallible to those problems in the future.
PRO OLYMPICS: The Olympic Games celebrate success in all its forms, be it individual or with a team. That thousands of athletes from around the world can compete together shows how good the Olympics are at bringing people together in a positive, friendly, and safe manner.
CON OLYMPICS: Because of the varied amount of sports and often the exorbitant costs of establishing and maintaing strong sports programs, Olympic success is not readily accepted or embraced in many countries. And the Olympics are not immune to war or terrorism. Five Olympic Games had to be canceled because of war, and the 1972 and 1996 Summer Olympics played host to savage terrorist attacks.
Soccer was not supposed to be a women’s sport when it was first developed. When the World Cup was coming along, women played virtually no part in its participation or organization. In fact, the cultural mores of the day discouraged women from taking part in any sporting event, save for tennis or golf. It wasn’t until 1991 that FIFA organized the first ever women’s World Cup.
Since then, the women’s game has exploded, though less than half of the 207 FIFA member federations has the means to produce a women’s program. This is due in part to many societies’ view of women as inferior to men. It should be noted that one of the sport’s legends, Mia Hamm, has scored more goals in international competition than even revered male legends like Pele, Eusebio, Diego Maradona, and David Beckham. In fact, the US women’s program has had more international success (two Olympic titles and two World Cups) than the US men’s program (no Olympic or World Cup titles). Today, women’s soccer is at the forefront of the rise of women in competitive sports.
The original Olympics of ancient times banned women from even watching the contests, let alone compete. The first modern Olympics did not have any women, but the second one in 1900 did have a handful of women in tennis and golf events. When women first competed in track and field events in 1928, the strenuous nature of the event prompted the IOC to ban women’s races above 200 metres until a few decades later. Since then, the Olympics has actively sought to include more women in the movement.
Every successive Olympics (both winter and summer editions) has seen a significant increase in the number of women competing. New events in existing sports have been created for women, and a clause in the IOC charter stipulates that new sports added must include women in their fold. The most successful Olympian of all time is a woman: gymnast Larisa Latynina of the Ukraine, who won 18 medals (9 gold, 5 silver, and 4 bronze) for the USSR in the late 1950s to early 1960s. Events like the women’s individual all-around event in gymnastics and women’s figure skating are considered to be among the elite events in their respective Olympics, right alongside the men’s 100m in athletics and the men’s downhill in Alpine skiing.
PRO WORLD CUP: The women’s game has been growing in the past few decades. Though the women’s World Cup is considerably smaller in scale and stature than the men’s version, it is a World Cup nonetheless.
CON WORLD CUP: The women’s game is not as respected much as the men’s version. Many feel that a junior men’s team can beat a senior women’s team on the basis of women being less strong and fast than men. Many countries do not view women in the same lights as more progressive and enlightened ones, and this trickles down to their sporting programs.
PRO OLYMPICS: Though women were not part of the initial birth of the Olympics, their contributions since have made them an indelible part of the movement, more than in the World Cup. The IOC has actively supported the inclusion of more women in the Games, and are steadily embracing women in its executive and administrative affairs.
CON OLYMPICS: While the Olympics have been better than the World Cup at including women, sports is still considered by and large to be the domain of men. Some sports remain exclusively male in the Olympic ranks (baseball, boxing, nordic combined, ski jumping), and some think that adding a large number of women’s events is contributing to the over-expansion of the Games.
So, who wins? The World Cup or the Olympics? As an American, I am inclined to choose the latter. After all, the World Cup (at least the men’s version) has not had much American success, whereas Americans have won 974 Olympic gold medals since 1896 (and are likely to cross the magic 1,000-golds barrier in Beijing). But to be fair, the United States is not the be-all and end-all of sports. I respect the World Cup and what it does immensely. In fact, I follow both the men’s and women’s tournament with the same interest and fervor that I do unto the Summer and Winter Olympics.
If anything, we should declare a tie between the Olympics and the World Cup just for the sake of it. Both competitions have been ingrained into the global consciousness and are now cultural touchstones, warts and all. They will continue to inspire generations of people long after we’ve gone gracefully into the night. The two contests have done more for the good of the world through sport than any similar function before or since. So, going for the gold vs. going for the goal? Why not both? After all, the ultimate prize is the same thing: a gold-plated object.