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By Matthew Handley
The draw for the 2003 Cricket World Cup scheduled England’s first match to be against Zimbabwe in Harare. As soon as the fixture was announced, there were calls within the British media that England should refuse to play, as doing so would endorse the despotic regime of Robert Mugabe and its grotesque human rights abuses. The tournament’s organisers pled to the English authorities to prevent a boycott, but the players’ hands were forced by the discovery of death threats at the team hotel.
Perversely, attitudes towards sport and politics have U-turned dramatically since the events of 2003. Not only is Mugabe on the guest list and likely to attend the Olympics’ opening ceremony in London, he could be joined by a range of fellow tyrants including Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. The opposition MP recently heard criticising David Cameron for placing ‘sport über alles’ is not alone. Angela Merkel will refuse to attend Germany’s Euro 2012 matches in Ukraine until imprisoned ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko ends her hunger strike.
What kind of organisation awards World Cups to Russia, where no action was taken against fans unfurling a banner at Nigerian footballer Peter Odemwingie saying ‘monkey go home’, and Qatar, where homosexuality is illegal? Denying that sport and politics are inextricably linked has been fallacious since the West was duped by Nazi airbrushing of anti-Semitic propaganda durning the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
No cultural events are more popular than World Cups and Olympic Games; there is no better occasion to convey a message across the globe. If the Olympics are really about participation and inclusivity, then (male) Saudi Arabian athletes cannot be allowed to represent a country where girls are not even allowed PE lessons in school. The sporting boycott of apartheid South Africa may not have brought about the regime’s downfall by itself, but it embarrassed a country proud of its sporting culture and entrenched its international isolation.
In 1936, the sporting community’s response to Nazi legislation, including the prohibition of Jewish athletes from participating in the Olympics, was to organise a rival competition, to be held in Barcelona. 6,000 athletes from 22 countries were selected by trades unions and left-wing parties. The Barcelona Olympics never took place, halted by the outbreak of civil war in Spain, but the concept was ingenuous. Given the authorities’ continued refusal to accept that political ‘neutrality’ is a façade, the time will come once again when sportspeople are forced to take matters into their own hands.
Rebuttal: Matt Handley argues that sport can bring us together everywhere
April’s Bahrain Grand Prix was arguably the most controversial sporting event this year. After over 12 months of vicious crackdowns against revolutionary protesters by King Hamad, many argued that it was inappropriate to hold the prestigious event in the Gulf state, suggesting that it represented a victory for the authorities and pissed on the bonfire of the brave resistance.
In reality however, it did the exact opposite. Having been a crisis that was unfurling for months, and lacking the same mass-scale bloodiness as the uprisings in Syria and Libya, Bahrain had simply slipped off the news agenda; the Grand Prix at least brought it back to people’s attention, and, once again, sent Western journalists into the country. Whilst I’m not going to get all ‘Kony’ and claim ‘ahwarenarsssss’ solves all, it’s useful to remind people that Bahrain exists and is still a problem. Holding major sporting events in controversial regimes brings them into the public eye, in a way that is more effective than simply shunning them.
But this isn’t to say that we should desperately seek to hold sporting events in the most awful regimes possible (North Korea for the 2026 World Cup anyone? After Russia and Qatar, anything’s possible…), but rather that these are occurrences that can be used for positive ends. In choosing who we play sport with and where we play it, the concern should be exclusively on sport. The very nature of sport is that it is able to transcend political concerns and boundaries, and simply allow the best to compete at the highest level; it would be grossly unfair to deny athletes the chance to compete at the highest level merely by virtue of where they were born.
Moreover the gulf between sport and politics also allows for a shared humanity to shine through. For example in the 10m air pistol shooting at the 2008 Olympics, competitors Natalia Paderina of Russia and Nino Salukvadze of Georgia, who won silver and bronze respectively embraced on the podium despite their nations being at war at the time; this wasn’t an act of protest but an entirely apolitical display of the ability of sport to transcend national conflicts. The best competitors competed against one another, and in doing so produced a more potent message than any boycott ever could. We shouldn’t just offer a sporting embrace to those nations that we like.