Bread and Circuses
One of my life’s lasting joys will be having watched Lionel Messi lift the football World Cup on 18th Dec 2022, in perhaps the greatest sporting event ever televised. What a privilege to have lived in the time of Messi and Ronaldo, of Federer and Nadal and Serena, of Sachin and Warne and Dhoni and Kohli, of Kasparov and Carlsen, of Usain Bolt, of Schumacher and Hamilton. Men rise and fall like the winter wheat, but these names will never die.
Leo Messi in 2023
Sachin Tendulkar in 2011
Here’s a confession though: before the tournament began I was determined not to watch it at all. Because of FIFA’s gross corruption, the absurdity of holding it in Qatar, the terrible suffering of migrant laborers who built the facilities, and the socio-cultural clashes unleashed when fans arrived en masse. I feel fairly strongly about all these causes, and yet, the spectacle was too brilliant for me to resist.
And I feel conflicted about it. Juxtaposing the heights of Messi’s WC achievements against the lows of significant, real, ongoing harm caused by the very institutions that staged it and profited from it, leaves me uneasy. I don’t have a simple answer for it.
Overthinking It, my favorite pop culture podcast, did an episode about this dichotomy back when the Hunger Games movies first came out. You may hate the Capital, but don’t you also want to see Katniss back in the arena against the other tributes? IRL, you may be concerned about concussions in American football, or injuries to WWE wrestlers, or deaths in the sport of bodybuilding, but aren’t you still tuning in to see how your favorite team/players did? Is your entertainment worth the damage and risk these athletes are putting on their bodies?
In the case of the Qatar World Cup, was the suffering of thousands of migrant laborers, and thousands of silenced LGBTQ+ and women citizens, worth the incredible 120+ minutes? Or was it all bread and circuses?
In this world there are no easy answers to that question. To quote Dan Carlin from the amazing Hardcore History podcast series:
You don’t get to say if it was worth it; because it wasn’t you who paid the price.
We could, however, remember their stories.
p.s. I was left with a similar bittersweet feeling recently after watching the 2021 movie Ford v Ferrari. Watching Ken Miles (played by Christian Bales) sing the H-A-P-P-Y song with his son after a victory, and again during his greatest race at Le Mans, was a touching moment shattered later when (click below for spoilers):