Events might be "shit", but "modern life can be rubbish"

Professor Simon Chadwick

Posted: August 7, 2014

So, if we are to believe them, Britpop era band Blur thought “Modern Life is Rubbish”, while Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt allegedly thinks the Commonwealth Games is “a bit shit”. While some of us will no doubt agree with one or both assertions, the former’s claim caused rather less of a furore than the latter’s.

Bolt is reported to have made his “crap” proclamation about Scotland’s biggest sporting mega-event in nearly 30 years in a brief interview with the Times. He has subsequently denied making the statement and used his twitter account to refute claims of him ever having made any excrement related comments about the event.

Many of us are prone to exclaim that aspects of our lives are a “bit shit”, just as we all believe that some of modern life is, indeed, “rubbish”. Nevertheless, to wander even remotely into the territory of criticising the games using an expletive raises some important communication issues, which sport in general seems to have an ongoing struggle with.

Bolt may simply have been honest in his personal assessment of the Commonwealth Games; he may otherwise have been rather too relaxed in revealing his thoughts to a journalist he presumably trusted; he could have forgotten his responsibility to the event and its stakeholders; or, maybe it is true, for Bolt at least the games may not be a patch on a gold medal winning world record at the Beijing Olympics.

Careless talk may not cost lives, but it potentially damages reputations, fosters anger and conflict, and creates dissonance between what we expect athletes to say about taking part in a major sporting event and what they actually do say.

One of my personal favourites was Polish President Donald Tusk’s reaction to English referee Howard Webb’s decision to award a late penalty to Austria in a game against his country (during UEFA Euro 2008). While many of us would be sympathetic towards Tusk’s frustration with the sometimes irritating Webb, his subsequent caused problems.

Tusk suggested to the media that: “As the prime minister I have to be balanced and collected. But last night I was speaking very differently about the whole thing, I wanted to kill [the referee].” As one might imagine, the English collectively threw up their arms in disgust – The Sun newspaper screamed “Death threat hell for referee Webb” from its front page.

Hysterical stuff indeed, although The Sun might have wanted to check popular usage of the phrase in Poland first. It is something many people say in various situations, across all aspects of life there. While the English got agitated, Tusk and his fellow Poles could not understand the fuss.

Context is therefore all, so perhaps being a “bit shit” can be accounted for as a throwaway line, something a highly paid international superstar from a different part of the world might normally say. Could it be that the British are being rather too sensitive and tetchy about this matter? Or is the s-word something that someone in Bolt’s position should never say?

As an individual, whatever his normal use of language, Bolt is perfectly entitled to say what he wants about the Commonwealth Games; the more important issue is whether he should have said it in public. Some have questioned the extent to which Bolt has an obligation to the event, to its commercial partners and, indeed, to his own sponsors and partners to “say the right thing”. In other words, perhaps he should have kept his mouth shut and toed the line by, at the very least, making vaguely pleasant statements about the games?

And this is where the massively proliferating corporate communications industry comes into play; the need to “manage the message” now ensures people like Bolt rarely say things that might come back to haunt either them or their sport and its backers.

This has spawned a growing number of consultancies, full of the sorts of PR minders and advisers who follow the likes of Bolt around. There is even an associated academic field, centred on outlets such as the International Journal of Sport Communication and Communication in Sport.

But keeping competitors “on message” remains difficult. After all, the athletes, in spite of their sporting prowess, can be loose-tongued, opinionated and even, well, just human. Monitoring and managing what they say can often be “a bit shit”. Furthermore, trying to communicate in a way that is not open to misinterpretation by anyone, anywhere can challenge even the brightest minds.

Yet many people try, leading critics and cynics alike to contend the corporate invasion of communications has sanitised sport to such an extent that both events and the athletes participating in them have been reduced to 50 shades of grey. Such that, control of communications has become a way of preventing dissent, exercising power and controlling unwanted voices.

Yes, maybe modern life is actually rubbish after all, especially when you cannot communicate with another human being in an unimpeded way, and without having to spot the agenda or subtext of what it is the athlete in front of you has just said. So while Usain Bolt may in fact think the Commonwealth Games is a “bit shit”, his communications advisors would no doubt have preferred to package the phrase in a more palatable way, leaving journalists to decipher the meaning of what he actually meant with his “crap” reference.

About Professor Simon Chadwick

Professor Simon Chadwick set-up and edits The Scorecard. He is Director of CIBS (Centre for the International Business of Sport) at Coventry University, where he works as Professor of Sport Business Strategy and Marketing.  Simon tweets via Prof_Chadwick