The beauty and purity of athletic endeavour and competition should not be sullied by the petty bickering of political gutter fighting.
That may well be an ideal, but it is far from practical reality. In the real world, sport and politics are inseparable. And the reality is that those who shout loudest about the supposed chastity of sport, do so with a large dollop of disingenuousness. As John Carlos, one of two US sprinters who famously raised ‘black power’ salutes from the medal podium at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, astutely asked recently: if sport officialdom wants to depoliticise the Olympics, why do athletes compete for specific countries in the games? Why don’t they compete for themselves?
The Olympics is perhaps the most political of all competitions. In the modern era, the 1936 Berlin event is best known for being manipulated by Adolf Hitler as a showcase for a diabolical vision of racial purity – but it was also boycotted by Ireland because the organisers insisted the Irish could only field competitors from the free state and not from north of the border. The US and Russia engaged in tit-for-tat boycotts in the 1980s in a sideshow to the Cold War, while terrorists slaughtered 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich games.
Football is also rife with political overtones. The very nature of countries fielding sides against each other means that regional enmities and old scores will bubble quickly to the surface, or that host nations will seize on competitions to make a point. And the forthcoming Euro 2012 competition is no different. Jointly hosted by Poland and Ukraine – both nations that are keen to close the door on recent history and portray a positive image to the rest of
For the Ukrainians that is arguably a difficult task. Poland – while not having a completely smooth transition from Soviet satellite state to economically thriving EU member, is in a less fraught position than its neighbour to the south east. At the heart of the current controversy is the situation involving Ukraine’s former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko. Convicted of corruption charges, she is currently languishing in a gaol cell when not being ferried to hospital wards nursing bruises that she alleges result from prison guard beatings.
Her guilt or innocence – while not irrelevant – is not the main point of Ms Tymoshenko’s story. At issue are suggestions that the charges were a political fit-up and that her trial a sham. The rule of law – so much an issue across the former Soviet republics – appears to be in a parlous state in Ukraine.
Is that something that should affect a forthcoming tournament during which pampered and over-paid men chase a round ball across a rectangular pitch? There is talk throughout Europe of a political boycott, in which ministers and government representatives from other states would not attend, although it is difficult to see such a move making a significant impact on the supporters or the various football associations.
Our commentator this week argues that the tournament should not be dragged into the political arena; that important rule of law issues should be handled by the Council of Europe. But just as John Carlos and Tommie Smith had a gut instinct that slipping on black gloves and raising their fists would make the most powerful of points, one suspects that sport and politics will forever be entwined.