FIFA: Empire of Football or a global super-soft power?

The Empire of kicking around

If one acronym has dominated the world’s media and public minds in the past month, it must be FIFA.

It stands for the International Federation of Association Football, and is derived from the original French name, Fédération Internationale de Football Association. It’s the global governing body of association football, founded in 1904 and with its headquarters in Zürich, Switzerland.

FIFA is responsible for the organisation and governance of football’s major international tournaments — most notably the FIFA World Cup, held once every four years since 1930. The current World Cup, being held in South Africa from 11 June to 11 July 2010, is the 19th edition. The next will be hosted by Brazil in 2014.

As a global body with substantial financial resources, FIFA has had its own share of controversies and been criticised for its lack of transparency and internal democracy. It’s true that FIFA controls the media rights to key international games with an iron fist (which inspired the above cartoon). They are not alone: the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has its own detractors and allegations on similar considerations.

Who's got the soft power?

But there is little argument on how far and wide the influence of these global sports bodies extend. In an op ed essay being published this weekend, I contend: “FIFA, with its 208 member associations, is probably more influential — and certainly better known — than the United Nations, with its 192 member states. The difference is in media outreach. It signifies the rise of soft power in our always-connected information society.”

Indeed, the UN itself is well aware of this. In one of the most memorable op ed essays he’s written, the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan acknowledged in 2006 (during the previous FIFA World Cup): “The World Cup makes us at the UN green with envy. As the pinnacle of the only truly global game, played in every country by every race and religion, it is one of the few phenomena as universal as the UN. But there are better reasons for our envy.”

He continued: “This is an event in which everybody knows where their team stands, and what it did to get there. They know who scored and how and in what minute of the game; they know who saved the penalty. I wish we had more of that sort of competition in the family of nations. Countries vying for the best standing in the table of respect for human rights, and trying to outdo one another in child survival rates or enrolment in secondary education. States parading their performance for all the world to see. Governments being held accountable.”

Of course, FIFA’s domination over the global public mind will wane after the FIFA World Cup 2010 ends. But how many other global bodies can claim to hold billions of people so engaged for a month? And in this era of 24/7 information society, that’s formidable soft power indeed.

What can we call the wielder of such soft power? How about Super-soft-power?

And can this kind of power also intoxicate and even corrupt its wielders? We’ve seen how power manipulations work in other centres of soft power, such as Hollywood and Bollywood. The challenge for FIFA — and all others who are connected to it through the love of football and/or media’s outreach — is to watch out that this concentration of soft power doesn’t corrupt.

The very same media that helps FIFA attain the status of a soft-super-power needs to keep an eye on how this power is being used. Perhaps that’s the ultimate game in the media-saturated 21st Century: Emperors of Eyeballs vs. Titans of Kick.

Remember, you read it here first.

Beijing 2008: So what’s a little fake for a cuter Olympics?

The world saw Lin Miaoke, right, sing at the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony - but actually heard the voice of Yang Peiyi, left.

The world saw Lin Miaoke, right, sing at the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony - but actually heard the voice of Yang Peiyi, left.

So now it’s confirmed: the spectacular Beijing Olympics opening ceremony – watched live on television by over a billion people worldwide – had been a little more than what it seemed.

What we saw was not what we actually heard. It turns out that the little girl in a red dress, who sang “Ode to the Motherland” as China’s flag was paraded into Beijing’s National Stadium, wasn’t really singing. Clever stage management and sound mixing just made us believe she was.

Beijing games organisers have confirmed that Lin Miaoke, aged 9, whom we saw on TV, was lip-syncing to the sound of another girl, 7-year-old Yang Peiyi, who was only heard but not seen — all because she was deemed not “cute enough”. And they just forgot to tell us there were two…

To refresh memories, here’s that moment from 8 August 2008, as captured by China’s national broadcaster CCTV:

Since the story broke a couple of days later, it has been covered very widely in print, broadcast and online media. There has been particularly good coverage in the New York Times.

An extract from that story:

“The Chinese government has taken great pains to present the best possible image to the outside world during the Olympics, and perfection was the goal for the dazzling opening ceremonies. The filmmaker Zhang Yimou, who oversaw the production, has earned international praise for staging a performance that many considered one of the most spectacular in Olympic history.

“But to achieve the spectacular, not only did organizers fake the song, but they also have acknowledged that one early sequence of the stunning fireworks shown to television viewers actually included digitally enhanced computer graphics used for ‘theatrical effect.'”

And here’s how CNN covered the news of the fake incident on 12 August 2008:

The blogosphere is teeming with discussions on this — and not just in English. It sure raises a number of concerns.

The Olympic motto is made up of three Latin words: “Citius, Altius, Fortius”, which mean “Faster, Higher, Stronger”. At the rate things are moving — with media images taking precedence over accomplishment — we might soon find ‘cuter’ being annexed to it. (Somebody please find the right Latin word.)

But let’s face it: this is not the first time that the world’s greatest festival has been carefully stage-crafted for the benefit of broadcast television, nor will it be the last. The pressure on host nations is immense to show their best face to the world. Perhaps our Chinese friends took that literally, and opted to showcase the supposedly cuter Lin Miaoke to the billion plus audience. (Apparently, a party official deemed that the face of little Miss Yang Peiyi wasn’t good enough – both look perfectly adorable to me…)

Not for a moment do I condone the trickery that Beijing tried to get away with. At the same time, let this be seen as part of a growing, disturbing trend: the broadcast television ‘tail’ has been wagging the Olympics dog for quite some time.

Since the summer Olympics were first commercially broadcast in Rome in 1960, both television’s technology and industry have advanced leaps and bounds. Today, broadcast rights are a very significant source of income for the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and the host countries/cities.

As the IOC official website says: “Increases in broadcast revenue over the past two decades have provided the Olympic Movement and sport with an unprecedented financial base.” And according to the most recent data available, theat revenue accounts for a little over half of all the income that Olympic marketing generates.

That’s all well and good — much of competitive sport today relies so heavily on corporate sponsorships, and television rights are a key part of sports financing.

However, we must worry when so much time, effort, creativity and money is being invested in staging ever more spectacular opening (and to a lesser extent, closing) ceremonies. Yes, it’s a time for the world to celebrate the best and the brightest of the Global Family. And there’s absolutely no harm in having a gala party. But should that extend to rolling out all the tricks of showbiz and make belief? With such a massive global audience following the games not just on television but now also online, where do the IOC and hosts draw the line?

As the world becomes more and more media saturated, these pressures are only set to increase. This year, for the first time, the IOC also allowed online video platform YouTube (owned by Google) to carry about three hours a day of exclusive content — summaries and highlights — from Olympic Broadcasting Services on a dedicated channel.

Let’s not kid ourselves: the world of broadcast television distorts reality on a daily basis. This is an industry that prefers and promotes those whom it considers more cute, pretty, good-looking and sexy. It makes no secret of choosing style over substance. And not just in pure entertainment, but in ALL areas of coverage, including news and current affairs. I have been pointing out how this also affects the coverage of issues like poverty, disasters and development. Even in such serious, factual coverage, many television producers would go with faces that they think are tele-genic, cute or at least particularly pathetic-looking…

Television audiences, by and large, have come to terms with all these ‘adjustments and improvements’ to the murky, messy and unruly real world (yes, some pockets of resistance are fighting a brave vanguard battle, but their numbers are no match for the uncritical couch potatoes).

The challenge is when the real world of Olympic sports tries to mix with the make-belief world of broadcast television to reach out to all those billions of eyeballs. Whose values, standards and rules would then apply?

While the IOC jealously guards time-cherished Olympic principles, it has been slow to modernise and keep up with the times. It must find ways to balance the Olympics integrity with media’s obsession for manufactured reality and feel-good, look-great extravaganzas. And if IOC thinks manging broadcast rights is tricky, just wait till they have to deal with the more bewildering and multitudinous online and mobile media platforms…

What happened in Beijing once again rekindles a long simmering debate. It goes much deeper than an overzealous host nation trying to picture-perfect its proud moment. It takes us right to the heart of the Olympics, and tests if the founding ideals can survive the corporate media realities of the twenty first century.

Olympics 2008 campaign: The Best of Us

It’s finally here. The calendar shows 08.08.08 — the date the Chinese hosts selected to open the 29th Olympic Games in Beijing.

All eyes and ears will turn to the opening ceremony and subsequent events in the Chinese capital for the next two weeks. We will be looking forward to the best of us competing for the noblest of ideals in the spirit of excellence, friendship and goodwill.

The build-up to the Beijing Olympics has seen a large number of television commercials and public service announcements (PSAs) using the Olympic theme. Some of them are quite clever, bringing out the best creativity of those who create moving image treats. Today, we feature one such campaign.

For the past year, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has been running a global promotional campaign, titled “The Best of Us”. Its aim was to communicate the key Olympic values of Excellence, Friendship and Respect to a global youth audience.

The theme of “The Best of Us” is a simple, powerful idea that transcends cultures and borders, motivating young people around the world to participate in sport by proving that sport can bring out their best.

The campaign was developed by the Voluntarily United Group of Creative Agencies (United), part of WPP. This first phase of creative development was led by Sra Rushmore/United, Madrid. The two PSAs are accompanied by a viral video as well as print and digital media items.

Here are the two PSAs:

Teens (above): The “Teens” television advert communicates that being an athlete can help teens overcome their insecurities – either real or those imposed by their peers. It aims to demonstrate how sport can play an important role in boosting young people’s confidence. The film features young athletes from across the world, including Armenia, Belgium, Brazil, China, Egypt, Germany, Ghana, India, Israel, Japan, Mexico, Russia and the United States.

Heroes (above): Legendary Olympic athletes including Roger Federer, Yao Ming, Laure Manaudou, Liu Xiang and Yelena Isinbayeva are among the stars of the International Olympic Committee’s public service announcement entitled “Heroes”. “Heroes” leverages the determination and performance of Olympic athletes to communicate the key Olympic values. The campaign also stars Kenenisa Bekele, Haile Gebrselelassie, Vanessa Ferrari and Carolina Kluft who, along with those mentioned above, star as superheroes seeking to achieve the seemingly impossible.

And finally, here are two of the seven print media posters that made up the Best of Us campaign:

More about the Best of Us campaign on IOC website