Politicising sport doesn't work

Also read Robert Menard’s Point, “The Olympic prisoners

When the Olympic Games were held in Moscow in 1980, the British team did not take part in the opening ceremony. As a first-time Olympian I was mildly disappointed, perhaps more so because it hadn’t been orchestrated by Steven Spielberg. That is now also true of Beijing and I doubt whether many Olympians lost much sleep over his decision.

In fact, if you’re a medal contender, avoiding the ceremonies is essential preparation.
However, the stance taken by Spielberg and others has opened the debate again on whether sporting boycotts are a valid weapon to change the attitudes and behaviours of governments and regimes.

Not surprisingly, I hold the view that sport has always had the ability to be used in a very positive way to encourage fairness and cultural understanding. That might sound somewhat pompous, but I can assure you that travelling the world as an open-minded 18- and 19-year-old back in the Seventies certainly enabled you to have a deeper insight into our world and its issues than those simply presented on the News at Ten.

The issue for sportsmen and -women, of course, is that events such as the Olympic Games unfortunately are not just about them, even though that was the initial intention. Almost since the inception of the modern Games in 1896, the sporting contests have been used as a platform for governments, cities, corporations, media and sometimes individuals to promote some message to the wider world.

The argument then presumably goes that if you remove the sporting contest, you remove the platform.

Those calling for a boycott of the Beijing Games also have a message they wish to promote, and herein lies the interesting dilemma in which sport is often placed.

Sport cannot and should not be the arbiter of who is right or wrong. As an individual, anyone can take the decision not to compete in a particular country, at a particular event or even against certain individuals, but that must be a decision of personal conscience.

World sport is built on the premise of fair competition and an openness of access that is essential to events such as the Olympics and World Cup. At the same time, they are also hugely commercial and this is where the real power of any boycott would lie. The annoying aspect is that it is always the individual sportsmen and -women who are asked to make the big sacrifice. They didn’t ask for the Games to be given to Moscow, Los Angeles, Beijing or London, but they do ask for the chance to be able to compete.

In the instance of China, the world’s governments have many more powerful options open to them if they don’t find engagement the best resource. I might or might not agree with them, but one thing is clear from history and that is that a sporting boycott on its own has little or no chance of doing anything other than politicising the event.

I feel that Spielberg and many of his Hollywood counterparts would argue that film and the arts generally have the ability to educate, provoke thought and cut across political and cultural divides.

Sport, I think, falls into the same category in some respects, but because of its national representation, it should never be asked to promote a political viewpoint in the field of competition. In expansion of that point, it is important that individual athletes follow the same edict. It would be the height of hypocrisy to ask not to be used as a political tool and then use the sporting arena as a platform to voice any personal beliefs.

The British Olympic Association made a rather clumsy attempt to ensure this did not happen, but it must have realised the absurdity of claiming independence from government policy and influence and then trying to impose an effective gagging order on its athletes.

Nonetheless, the athletes have a responsibility to maintain an independent and politically neutral environment in the arena. I, for one, would ask that, in the absence of any political and economic concerted campaign towards any regime, sport should not be seen as the easy option to ease the conscience of world opinion.—Â

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