The thorny mixing of politics and sport

Friday, February 01, 2019

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History is littered with instances of sport being used to make political statements.

In 1908 for instance, Irish athletes boycotted the London Olympic Games because of Britain's refusal to grant independence to Ireland.

We recall as well the Black Power salute by American sprinters Messrs Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games during the playing of the US National Anthem.

Mr Smith, who had won the gold medal in the 200 metres, and Mr Carlos, who took bronze, were protesting against the treatment of black Americans and other minorities in the United States.

Both men were booed when they left the podium, were expelled from the games, and harshly criticised for their action.

The photograph of both athletes — their heads bowed, right hands raised to the sky with clenched fists — is among the iconic images of the 20th Century.

Jamaicans supported the decision of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1970 to expel apartheid South Africa from the Olympic movement due to that country's unwillingness to end its policy of segregation in sport. And this was after the IOC had barred South Africa from the 1964 Games in Tokyo for the same reason.

The Olympic Games were again the pawn when 65 countries, led by the United States, boycotted the 1980 games in protest against the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.

Four years later, in an obvious tit for tat, the Soviet Union and other Warsaw pact states organised a boycott of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

In more recent times we have seen the refusal of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Mr Colin Kaepernick to stand during the US National Anthem in protest against what he described as the oppression of black people and people of colour in the USA.

Our reflection on these events is informed by Lord Sebastian Coe's comments yesterday that he expects a “full house” of countries to compete at this year's IAAF World Championships in Qatar, despite an ongoing Gulf blockade.

Readers will recall that a number of countries in the Middle East and Africa have cut diplomatic and transport ties with Qatar, claiming that it supports terrorism.

The Qatari Government has denied the charge.

Lord Coe, who is president of the IAAF, is reported by Agence France Presse as saying that he could “see no reason” why all countries wouldn't be present at the championships, scheduled for September 27 to October 6 in Doha.

He also said he was “pretty confident and optimistic that there is a recognition that the primacy of sport is very important”.

Lord Coe's opposition to a boycott is not unexpected because he, during his time as an athlete representing Britain, refused to observe Western countries' snub of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

He recalled in an online article that: “We faced a lot of pressure to boycott the games, including from the Government, but I think we absolutely made the right decision”.

As the World Championships draw nearer, it will be interesting to see if any country will actually declare a boycott, and how the IAAF will respond, especially given that Qatar is scheduled to host the Fifa World Cup in 2022 and the fact that political tensions between Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have started to stain the current Asian Cup football tournament.

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