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As an ”ideal type,” ”capitalism” is a social formation where people’s needs and wants are predominantly met through enterprises employing individuals who are free, and compelled by lack of other legal ways to adequately meet their needs, to sell their labor power. The capitalist ethos involves a predictable legal system and rational accounting so enterprises can pursue their primary objective -asset accumulation. Enterprises strive to extend their sphere of influence as far and as advantageously as possible, using all available, legal means. Instrumental reason pervades capitalism as people, objects and events are assessed in means/ ends terms (see Weber 1927: 352-68).
”Sport” is an abstraction denoting various embodied, competitive, agonistic cultural practices that occur and develop within a socioeconomic formation. ”Sport” as concrete practice is shaped by capitalism and its ethos.
Under capitalism, sport becomes a market opportunity for owners or promoters to purchase athletes’ skills and produce a spectacle they sell to spectators, sponsors, and various media. Just as the education system develops future workers, youth sport prepares and sorts those who will become athlete-workers. To mitigate the unconstrained application of instrumental reason in profit oriented spectacles centered on maximizing human physical performance in zero-sum competitions, sport leagues, governing bodies, and governments must regulate some aspects of sport.
Early promoters and owners competed with each other to produce the most commercially appealing spectacles. To prevent their self-destruction, owners in many sports formed leagues which acted like cartels, controlling costs, regulating player movement, reducing economic competition internally, and setting prices. Professional baseball enjoys immunity from American anti-trust laws and other leagues act as though they are also.
Drastically underpaid, toiling under conditions set completely by owners and tied in perpetuity to teams through ”the reserve clause,” players sought basic employees’ rights in bitter struggles with owners. Following failed, drawn out court challenges, athletes turned to unionization to change the balance of power. Despite internal player division and owner opposition, basketball (1954), hockey (1967), football (1968-87; 1993), and baseball (1968) formed certified bargaining units that negotiated improved working conditions and compensation.
Opposed to the rampant materialism of nineteenth-century capitalism, Pierre de Coubertin launched the modern Olympic Games to reestablish Europe’s traditional values. However, from 1896 to the present, commercial interests and nationalist political objectives – seen especially in the 1936 Nazi Games, the cold war confrontations between 1952 and 1989 and more recently Beijing 2008 – the Games have become as commercialized and profit driven as any professional sport in modern times. Requiring a full-time commitment by the 1970s, the International Olympic Committee removed amateurism from its eligibility code in 1974, opening the Games to the world’s best (professional) athletes – enriching athletes and the IOC.
Dominated by instrumental rationality, the Games have had to face difficult questions about child labor, athletes’ rights, athlete abuse, performance-enhancing substances and financial and ethical corruption. Initiated as the antithesis of the capitalist spirit, the Olympic Games are now deeply entrenched in the drive for profit, accumulation and personal financial gain through the widespread use of instrumental reason and a purely utilitarian approach to human athletic performance.
Oppositional forms like ”extreme sports” and other alternative sport forms have sprung up to resist the logic of capital but they have been quickly incorporated into the marketplace and begun to display the same ethos as mainstream, commercial and high-performance sport.
- Beamish, R. & Ritchie, I. (2006) Fastest, Highest, Strongest. Routledge, London.
- Gruneau, R. (1999) Class, Sports and Social Development. Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL.
- Weber, M. (1927)  General Economic History, trans. F. Knight. Free Press, Glencoe, IL.