The Australian Government has banned the national cricket team from playing against Zimbabwe. Australian PM John Howard threatened to seize the players’ passports if they didn’t fall in line, claiming that their presence in Zimbabwe would be a “propaganda boost” to the “grubby dictator” Robert Mugabe.
It’s been a popular decision; MPs from across the political spectrum tabled an early day motion in Parliament welcoming the move. Whatever people think of Howard, he’s shown a lot more gumption than Jack Straw a few years ago, who shied away from a difficult decision. Straw, then Foreign Secretary, passed the buck to the England and Wales Cricket Board, saying that it was a matter for the sporting authorities, and not for the Government. That effectively forced England to play, because without the force majeure of a Government intervention, they would have had to pay a substantial fine to the International Cricket Council.
When politicians like Straw argue that sport and politics don’t mix, they’re merely running away from a difficult decision – a decision which they ought to tackle directly. For as long as national sporting teams have competed against each other, Governments have used them as a proxy, fighting for political prowess and recognition. More often than not, it’s the least pleasant and least democratic regimes, the ones with something to prove, who feel the need to inflate the national ego with a major sporting event. Sport and politics have always gone hand in hand.
Just as a case study, take the People’s Republic of China. The Chinese Government bankrolled the construction of a massive, state-of-the-art racing circuit in Shanghai, where they’ve been hosting a Formula 1 Grand Prix since 2004. The project cost 240 million US dollars; the track is shaped like the Chinese character “Shang”, and has a racing paddock the size of a reasonably large village. It also has two gigantic, impossibly-balanced, glass-and-metal viewing platforms suspended over the start finish line. I have no idea how many people had to slog away to build the thing, but whoever they were, I’m pretty certain they weren’t earning a fair minimum wage, weren’t protected by workplace safety standards, and weren’t entitled to join a union or to strike. They also certainly didn’t have the chance to vote, in a general election, on whether or not a Formula 1 track was the best possible use for $240 million – or on any other political issue facing China.
I should point out that the 2007 Freedom in the World survey awarded identical (and identically atrocious) scores to both China and Zimbabwe – so perhaps if British super-kid Lewis Hamilton is still leading the World Championship at the end of the season, as F1 heads to China, the new Foreign Secretary should have his car impounded. It would devastate the fans, and almost certainly cause a diplomatic crisis – but is it any less morally justified than Howard standing up to Mugabe?
The truth is that sport will always be political. If the Governments of democratic nations stand back, and refuse to sully the purity of sporting competition with external affairs, they’ll simply allow undemocratic regimes the freedom to promote themselves without challenge. Instead, we should play Mugabe and friends at their own game, and use the sporting arena to isolate countries that fail to respect the human rights of their citizens.
We may not be able to stop sport from being infiltrated by politics, but at least we can make sure that it’s the right kind of politics.