The BBC broadcast a damning Panorama programme this week exposing the frightening levels of racism that blight the Euro 2012 host countries Poland and Ukraine. Nazi salutes, anti-Semitic chanting, white power graffiti, random attacks on supporters of ethnic origin and a police force reluctant to act were all common place inside the stadiums that will soon play host to the championships.
Ukraine’s suitability to host a major sporting event has also recently been called in to question after several state leaders, including Germany’s Angela Merkel, pledged to boycott the Euros in protest at the treatment of the former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Ms Tymoshenko is currently being held in prison after what is widely believed to be a politically motivated trial against her. She was recently on hunger strike for almost three weeks in protest at “what is happening in the country and what is happening to her in prison.”
These controversies come after Azerbaijan, a country that jails opposition activists and threatens dissenting journalists, hosted the Eurovision song contest and Bahrain, a country where police killed protestors in the recent Arab Spring uprisings, hosted a Formula One Grand Prix. In 2008 China, one of the world’s most authoritarian countries, hosted the Olympic Games amid protests and boycotts over it’s role in Tibet, Darfur and Myanmur. Countries lined up to host prestigious championships in the future include Russia and Qatar.
The common justification given by the organisations that award these high profile events to questionable countries is that it is an opportunity to shine a light on the worst practices of the state and shape world opinion to pressure for change. A statement along these lines was released to Panorama by UEFA on Monday.
I would agree with this to some extent, of course we would not be talking about racism in Poland or the imprisonment of Ms Tymoshenko without the upcoming championships.
However all too often, deep societal problems are glossed over for the two weeks the world’s attention is on the host nation. In Beijing in 2008, the authorities rounded up the cities’ homeless and hid them from the world’s gaze. In Bahrain, armoured vehicles protected competitors and spectators in their racing haven, safe from the need to worry about outside protests. Corrupt governments pour millions of pounds in to these events while their citizens face poverty, repression and an uncertain future.
Sport and entertainment can claim it is apolitical all it wants but it can’t escape the truth that it’s activities can serve to legitimate governments and provide a stamp of approval to actions that are otherwise intolerable.
Panorama’s footage of police standing by as the whole crowd in unison make the Nazi salute mocks UEFA’s zero tolerance to racism strategy and insults all the people who have worked tirelessly to rid the game of this disgusting behaviour.
As a sports fan, I want to see UEFA, the IOC and the rest take proper responsibility for their actions. They should admit that they do not exist in a bubble whereby the runner on the track has nothing to do with the protestor on the other side of the stadium who has been stripped of their voice, their dignity and their freedom.