What's remarkable isn't that 800 million people watched the Super Bowl on Sunday but that 5.6 billion people did not. It's a tad insulting, don't you think, that our biggest sports stories are of little interest to the rest of the world? The Fighting Illini basketball team is unbeaten in Champaign, Illinois, and unheard of in Champagne, France. To those few people abroad who are even aware of it, the BALCO scandal is barely significant, a tempest in a pee cup.
This is an article from the Feb. 14, 2005 issue
So what were those five billion pinheads watching while America took a two-week sitz bath in Super Bowl coverage? And can we possibly learn anything from their exotic passions?
It's true, for instance, that a billion people in China don't care about Terrell Owens. While they are enamored of one NBA player--Beijing has Yao Ming out the yin-yang--they're more fascinated by Tian Liang. The Olympic diver with what has been described as a "heart-throbbing smile" won a gold medal in Athens but was just banished from the national team for being, according to the Chinese diving official who made the announcement, excessively involved in show business.
If excessive involvement in show business were a fireable offense in American sports, of course, there would be no Super Bowl, and Shaquille O'Neal would have more pink slips than Dennis Rodman's lingerie drawer.
But Tian's teammate and reputed former girlfriend, fellow Athens gold medalist Guo Jingjing, was only recently reinstated to the national diving team after also "indulging in show business for several months," as the Shenzhen Daily reported. The Chinese, laudably, "indulge" in show business as one might in a shameful bender. Lesson: Cashing in is crass in China. Ming Dynasty? Good. Cha-ching Dynasty? Bad.
But then all sports, like all politics, are local. In the United Kingdom the Super Bowl wasn't even the most hyped football game of the week. That was, instead, Arsenal versus Manchester United in English soccer's Premier League. The first time the teams met this season United ended Arsenal's league-record 49-game unbeaten streak, and in the tunnel after the match unidentified Arsenal players doused victorious manager Sir Alex Ferguson with pea soup and pizza. He looked, by all accounts, like the love child of Linda Blair and Little Caesar. In a rematch last week Man U again beat Arsenal, teaching us that revenge--unlike pea soup--is a dish best served cold.
That victory merely earned United the right to finish in second place in the league, behind Chelsea, which is often derided--in a nod to the team's billionaire Russian owner, Roman Abramovich--as Chelski. And indeed, the most impressive Roman numerals in sports last week did not belong to Super Bowl XXXIX but to Abramovich, whose club sheepishly disclosed that its payroll for last season was $216 million. By comparison, George Steinbrenner's Yankees, whose 2004 payroll of $187.9 million was a major league record, are midmarket skinflints.
And Abramovich was hardly the most impulsive European soccer owner of the week. That distinction went to the nut who owns the Greek first-division club Iraklis Salonika, which announced that it would give every fan attending its next home game a free DVD highlighting the most atrocious officiating calls that have gone against Iraklis this season. (That sound you hear is a lightbulb buzzing to life above the head of Mark Cuban.)
For all the attention lavished on the Super Bowl, it was not even the greatest example of dead-horse-flogging in sports last week. Per capita there were more sports reporters (300) on the Japanese island of Kume (pop. 9,500) than were on hand in the press box in Jacksonville for the Super Bowl. They were chronicling the first day of spring training for the Rakuten Eagles, Japanese baseball's first expansion team in the last half century.
At least they had some games to look forward to. America's identity may be bound up in the Super Bowl but no more, surely, than Canada's is in hockey. Having lost the NHL, Canadians were last week coping with a new national trauma--the yard sale of Jean Beliveau's hockey memorabilia. The Montreal Canadiens' legend is selling his Stanley Cup rings and his 1965 Conn Smythe trophy on the same Internet auction site that is liquidating some of the Maurice Richard estate. Looking last week at the Rocket's passport and driver's license (latest bid: $825), and sympathy cards from hockey celebrities sent after his death ($200), you are reminded that voyeurism is, at root, a French word.
If sports are a universal language, it's a language of countless dialects. As a billion Indians ignored the Super Bowl, and we their cricket, sports did not sound so much like Esperanto--one global tongue--as the opposite: a Tower of Babel. ‚ñ†
• For a collection of Steve Rushin's columns, go to si.com/writers.