By Dr Jonathan Grix
"Sport transcends politics and the former has no place in the dealings of the latter." That was Avery Brundage's proclamation 50 years ago. Yet sport has always been inextricably bound up with politics. For those people who argue otherwise, the past 30 years or so must have been a little troubling.
Governments of all political hues have increasingly drawn on sport as a relatively cheap resource with which to meet a number of domestic and international aims, ranging from improving inner city crime rates, to producing social capital, to engendering a national 'feel good factor' through the hosting of sports mega-events. The bidding for the latter has become a very competitive process in its own right, as potential hosts weigh up the benefits against the substantial costs of putting on such occasions.
The recent trend of awarding major tournaments to countries other than advanced capitalist states puts the spotlight on the use of sport for political ends. Fifa, the world governing body of football, would insist that such 'new lands' as Qatar who will host the World Cup in 2018, Russia in 2022 and, presumably, Poland and Ukraine in the Euro 2012 will be fast-tracked in their efforts to become fully-fledged democracies and will gain substantially from hosting the events.
In the case of Ukraine things have been a little different. Instead of their co-host status catapulting the ex-communist dictatorship into line for EU accession, the global media attention and scrutiny that accompanies such sports 'megas' has focused closely on the negative aspects of racism and political intrigue. The recent BBC Panorama exposé on racism among Ukrainian football fans honed in on the racist behaviour of Ukrainian fans and the alleged institutional racism of the authorities. There are also legitimate worries about the treatment of the former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, who is currently languishing in jail on charges many believe 'trumped up'.
This attention led to the highly unusual 'semi-boycott' by the UK: the government stated clearly that they would not send any ministers to the preliminary rounds at Euro 2012 in Ukraine amidst on-going concerns about human rights. While there is no doubt that such issues should be debated, the 'semi' status of the UK's boycott leaves it a little ambiguous as a political stance. A spokesman for the government suggested that ministers would attend the semi-finals, were England to qualify, based on the fact that this stage of the competition takes place in the territory of the co-hosts, Poland. It is unclear whether the UK would send a representative to the final, held in the Ukraine.
Quite apart from the wishful thinking behind such sentiments (i.e. that England would proceed further), the UK should have made a decision whether to make a political stand by boycotting the championships in principle, not just those parts of it held on Ukrainian soil.
Political boycotts of the past have had mixed results. At the height of the Cold War, the US led a boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980 to which the Soviets retaliated in 1984 in Los Angeles by leading a communist boycott. The Olympics, and the sport, carried on regardless. Other Olympic boycotts of note include the withdrawal of 22 African nations – 441 athletes in total - from the 1976 Montreal Olympics. The reason behind this protest was New Zealand's 1976 tour of apartheid-ridden South Africa.
Whether the UK's half-hearted 'boycott' actually achieved anything is a result we will have to wait to see. In the short-term, it is fair to say that it has helped increase the media exposure directed towards the Ukraine which inevitably will bring such topics as race, sexuality (in particular, consideration of recent laws to prevent the 'spread of homosexuality') and political corruption to the fore. It is also interesting to note in this regard that very little has been reported about the Euro 2012 co-hosts, Poland - also an ex-communist country.
On the back of this move by the UK government to use a sporting event to make a political point, the head of Syria's Olympic committee was refused a visa to visit the London games. The increasingly violent events in Syria have reportedly left William Hague, the UK's Foreign Secretary, 'absolutely sickened' by what he has seen.
Leaving the specifics of this case to one side, the question remains as to whether sport and politics ought to mix. The root of this question stems from the assumption that the former is divorced from the latter. However, if we look back to the beginning of the modern Olympics in 1896, the very underlying philosophy of the person considered as the founder, Pierre de Courbetin (although this, too, is not without its own political intrigue) was political. His intention was to bring people together in athletic competition to promote the understanding of different cultures and, ultimately, to contribute to peaceful co-existence. Every games since 1896 has been used politically (Berlin, 1936), been associated with a political event (Munich, 1972) or been the subject of a political act like boycotts.
The most modern political use of the Olympics is as a tool to showcase a city or state through staging the world's largest – and most viewed - sports mega-event. Recently, states with images that need improving or those who wish to move from 'emerging' to 'developed' state status have been competing to put on big sports events like in Qatar, Russia, Brazil and China. The rationale behind the fierce bidding for such events is clearly political: hosts want international recognition, an improved international image and an increase in inward investment and inbound tourism. When considering where Britain fits in with the range of uses of sport for political purposes, it is interesting to note that we too appear to be leveraging the 2012 Olympics for the same reasons as 'emerging' states: what Guttmann aptly described as the "twin suns of prestige and profit".
Dr Jonathan Grix is a senior lecturer at the University of Birmingham.
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