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Sport often a political tool

Monday, February 3, 2014
Russian soldiers stand during the welcome ceremony for the Philippine Olympic team in the Athletes Village at Olympic Park ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, yesterday. The games open on Friday and run to February 23. AP Photo

In the modern age, sporting events have been used as public sites to highlight important non-sporting issues. 


The XXII (22nd) Olympic Winter Games which is to be held in the Russian resort of Sochi from February 7–23 is no different. The lead up to the games has been dominated by human rights protest, political sparring, and the fear of terrorist attacks.


The Vladimir Putin Russian administration has spent US$51b to showcase the games as well as promote the traditional Russian identity. However, human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and LGBT (Lesbian, Gays, Bi-sexual and Transgender) groups have been mounting calls for the Putin administration to rescind its anti-gay laws that bans “gay propaganda” directed at persons under 18 years old. 


A campaign called ‘principle six’ named after the clause in the Olympic charter which is supposed to guarantee non-discrimination has been launched by former and current athletes such as Martina Navratilova, Andy Roddick and Rosanna Crawford to pressure the IOC and the games organisers to revoke the anti-gay laws which have been linked to homophobic attacks.


Even the relationship between the IOC and the organisers are conflicting and strained over the anti-gay laws and how athletes are to be treated. According to the IOC president Thomas Bach, athletes are free to express their views on human rights issues, however, they are not to make political statements when on the medal podium. 


The CEO of the games, Dmitry Chernyshenko, however, has indicated that athletes can only make their protest known in a special ‘protest zone’ which is situated 11 miles from the Olympic Village. 


President Obama has expressed his condemnation of the anti-gay laws and violations of human rights by naming two openly gay athletes Billie Jean King and Caitlin Cahow to represent the US at the games’ opening and closing ceremonies, respectively.


In the past other social, economic and political conditions have been used to justify using sporting events for political statements. The lead up to the 1936 Berlin Olympics was dominated by calls for the US and other countries to boycott the games in protest of Adolf Hitler Nazi regime treatment of Jews and other marginalised groups in Germany. The US participated and it became the Olympics of African-American Jesse Owens who won four gold medals much to the disgust of Hitler and his promotion of the dominant German identity and the Aryan race. 


In the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, African-American athletes Tonnie Smith and John Carlos used the winner’s podium to show their support for the Civil Rights movement with their Black Power salute. Boxing legend Muhammad Ali also openly supported the Civil Rights movement and opposed the Vietnam War. 


The dispute in the Middle East marred the 1972 Munich Olympics, when eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team were killed by Palestine assassins. 


In 1980 the US boycotted the Moscow Olympics in protest of the USSR invading Afghanistan in 1979. In response, the USSR boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Interestingly sport was one of the tools that was used to ease the tension between the two nations with the creation of the Goodwill Games in 1986 by CNN and TBS founder Ted Turner.


Caribbean leaders have also used enforced their political influence in sport with the most notable example being their open support for the expulsion of apartheid South Africa from the ICC in 1970. In 1981, Guyana’s President Forbes Burnham successfully called for the cancellation of the Test match between the West Indies and England in Guyana as it was discovered that Robin Jackman, who was part of the English team, had South African links. 


In 1986 there was protest outside the Queen’s Park Oval over the inclusion of Graham Gooch in the touring England team. Gooch had earlier toured South Africa as part of a branded rebel team. The West Indies Cricket Board also demonstrated their strong anti-apartheid stance by banning several West Indians players including Colin Croft, Lawrence Rowe, Sylvester Clarke, Bernard Julien and Alvin Kallicharan for touring South Africa on two occasions 1982/83 and 1983/84. 


Further afield political differences between India and Pakistan have also affected cricketing relations between the two nations. Since the 2008 Mumbai attacks all tour matches between the teams have been cancelled. Additionally, no player from Pakistan has ever participated in the annual lucrative Indian Premier League (IPL) which was launched in 2008.


Some persons may argue that there is no room for politics in sport. However, it is quite evident from the Sochi 2014 headlines and some of the cited historical references that sporting activities are not immune to the social, political and economic activities that affect the lives of people world over. Sport is about power and is a battleground on and off the field of play.


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