It is time sport gained a conscience

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.

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2 comments

  1. Hey Tom,

    You forgot to mention Israel u21 competition in 2013.

    But my point is (and im not hinting at a solution, i dont have one) most countries are guilty of human rights abuses, severe ones. Show me a country with a clean human rights record? Just as China hid its homeless, Brazil is doing the same thing in preparation for 2014. The UK and the US exploits in the Middle East alone would warrant for me a boycott of any games held here, the London Olympics for example.

    So what are we to do? Why is it bad for Ukraine to be racist, but ok for the UK to killing millions of people in the Middle East? Why is it bad for China to hide its homeless but ok Brazil?

  2. Hi there,
    This is a great point for discussion. I find it really difficult to come to some sort of internal consensus on this. I was adamant, as I read the first two thirds of the article, that I was not going to agree with you by the end of it. Part of me is entirely sure that sport’s essence is unity through universality and apoliticism. But, by the end I had to agree with all that you have written (and well written it was!). I also have to agree with Samhi’s comment above. So, sport is universal and should be apolitical but mostly it can’t avoid being supportive of political and corporate groups these days and therefore its duties become compromised. It is in this paradox of agreeing with two seemingly opposing points of view that I struggle. .
    As a big sports fan I believe sport, at its heart, with all the money and drama cast aside, has a inclusive quality that means all can enjoy playing together, having fun, being honest and living in the moment. All segregation and animosity can be dissolved by sport.
    Conversely, mainstream sport these days is so irrevocably intertwined with large corporations and political groups that the actions of major sporting bodies cannot simply be disassociated from the geographic and cultural context in which they find themselves by quiet murmurs of being apolitical. When people directly or indirectly suffer through the actions of sport then something has to change. How that change can happen I am not too sure.

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