Why we should mix Politics with Sport

Georgia Lewis 

Image © Morning Calm News

This week, mass laughter has been the overwhelming reaction to the South Korean flag appearing on screen just as the North Korean women’s football team was about to take to the pitch. Cock-ups like this are funny, and are as inevitable at events on the scale of the Olympics as the overreactions from the aggrieved parties. But should North Korea even be allowed to participate in the Games at all?

It is a challenging question because, on one hand, it is a great opportunity for North Korean athletes to see a bit more of the wider world and it can help bridge gaps between the rest of the world and one of the planet’s most secretive nations. Then again, with their constant threats to world peace and internal human rights abuses, should they be banned to send a strong message to the government that it should not treat its own people so appallingly and expect to be part of the global community? But if we exclude North Korea from the Games, do we also exclude China? Bahrain? Saudi Arabia? The US, even? Hell, should my own country, Australia, be excluded as a protest against the mandatory detention of asylum seekers, including children? Pretty soon, we’d end up with a very small Olympics indeed. The modern Olympic movement has grown since 1896, when just 14 countries competed, to become a global event – regardless of what you might think of the billions of taxpayer pounds spent on the games, the principle of bringing the countries of the world together is not all bad.

But to try and separate politics from any sport, let alone the Olympics is naive in the extreme. And again, this isn’t always a bad thing. Jesse Owens’ magnificent achievement at the 1936 Berlin Games made a mockery of Hitler’s ludicrous and lethal Aryan master race ideology. The image from the 1968 Games in Mexico City of Men’s 200m gold medallist Tommie Smith and bronze medallist John Carlos with their heads down and fists raised in the black power salute is one of the most powerful protest images of all time. In 1980, the Moscow Games was marred by a 61-nation boycott led by the US over the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan – a boycott that looks rather bizarre in light of the polarising US presence in the Middle East to this day. 

Indeed, the tribute to the NHS was a brilliant statement made by Danny Boyle at this year’s opening ceremony. Aside from Aidan Burley, an MP now famous for attending a Nazi-themed stag do and offending vast swathes of Britain from the left and the right with breathtakingly out-of-touch tweets – and Rick Dewsbury, Burley’s apologist for the Daily Mail, the opening ceremony is not only being lauded for its overall bonkers brilliance but also for the way Britain can proudly celebrate universal healthcare on the world stage. It’s all very political but the discussions as a result have been energising – and hopefully the momentum to stand up for the NHS will step up a gear and more people will make it clear to their MPs, councils and local NHS trusts that compromising healthcare will not be tolerated.

Mixing politics and Olympics is nothing new. Nor should it be. To try and separate the two when the whole process, from bidding to running the games to the role of taxpayer funding, is inherently political is, as I said, naive in the extreme. If taxpayers are largely funding this extravaganza, taxpayers have the right to question any aspect of it – from the overall cost to budget blowouts to the G4S security debacle to the empty corporate seats. Unlike China, freedom of speech and a free press means we can both enjoy the sport and call out the nonsense.

And the addition of politics is not just limited to the Olympics. While it would be insulting to so many freedom fighters, especially those who died for the cause, the role of international sports boycotts was an important part of the fight to end apartheid in South Africa. For years, South Africa was in the wilderness with cricket and rugby. I still remember the outcry when rebel Australian cricketers toured South Africa in 1985/86 and 1986/87 – especially when it was revealed that the tours were funded by the dirty money of the apartheid government via tax breaks while Nelson Mandela was still in prison. The sports boycotts were a great way for rugby and cricket communities to take a stand and keep the issue of apartheid in the global conscience.

In F1, there was much debate this year as to whether the Bahrain race should have been called off in response to the human rights abuses which have been carrying on since the Arab spring. Given that an 11-year-old has been incarcerated, a boycott by teams might have been appropriate if Bernie Ecclestone didn’t have the will to call off the race again. If anything, it’d be refreshing to see F1 and its critics and commentators go one further and call for a boycott of the Chinese Grand Prix and Malaysia on human rights grounds as well. But F1, admittedly a sport I love, is dominated by commercialism and I can’t see Bernie using the sport to make a stand for human rights any time soon. Indeed, if I was Bernie Ecclestone, I’d mastermind an F1 season where all countries involved must not have capital punishment. Yes, a pipe dream, I know – but what a way that would be to make a political statement in a sport that is already rife with issues that arise from internal and external politics.

Plenty of people claim politics has no place in sport. Way too late to make that call. The ship has sailed. May as well swim out to it, jump on board and politicise the hell out of sport. It’s great way start many an essential discussion.



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