Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Sport and politics will always go together

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.


Anonymous said...

An excellent post, as ever. I would just add that the politics in sport is often social, and not just international.

the FA's "show racism the red card" campaign was tremendously effective, and pitchside racism is down considerably now, probably as a result.

However, the FA has done comparatively little to stamp out the homophobia which seems almost institutional to football. With footballers being the main role models of so many young people, it seems clear to me that if the sport were to be more tolerant of homosexuality, the rest of society would follow as a result.

Football is the last bastion of homophobia, organised religion aside, as this article in the Guardian from last month by David James illustrates:

monsterravingloony said...

I think you may be being a bit unfair to the Chinese. Their human rights record looks dreadful from a western perspective but their society is a far cry from the tyrannical regime in Zimbabwe.

I was lucky enough to travel to China in the last few weeks and visited a number of major cities including Shanghai, (although not the F1 circuit). The topic of human rights did come up and the Chinese take on it is very different from the holier than thou attitude of the West. Their societal and cultural values are quite different. The Chinese still haven't got over what they see as the gross humiliation inflicted on them by the British during the Opium Wars in the middle of the 19th Century (forcing them to open their markets to opium being sold by the British), and the British retention of Hong Kong until 1997 was a constant reminder of that ignominious defeat. So when Maggie Thatcher tried to lecture them on human rights in the 80s it did not go down dreadfully well. The West needs to be mindful of these delicate sensibilities if there is to be any real progress on human rights going forward.

China may lack democracy in the sense that we understand it but they are developing a limited market economy and that means some individuals (particularly those living in the large coastal cities which tend to benefit from economic liberalisation) can enjoy far greater personal freedom and wealth than during the Cultural Revolution. The Chinese have few fond memories of that era.

They seem happy enough on a day to day basis, although there is a sense that their lives are far more "controlled" than in the West. I was a little taken aback by a large poster I saw in Tianjin, in Chinese and English, which read "Improve the solidarity between the government, the army and the people". Well that was straight out of Mao's little red book if anything was.

I do wonder how China will fare trying to hold onto their one party system while liberalising their economy to compete with the West. As people's economic aspiration grow their political aspirations will naturally tend to follow close behind. The Chinese may be opening up a Pandora's Box and it may prove tough to stop the lid flying open.

The shocking excesses at Tiananmen Square worked in the sense of stopping the march to democracy dead in its tracks, but with the passage of time and with ever more demanding personal aspirations to manage the call for democracy may reappear and stronger than before.

Alex Wright said...

Actually there is legal precedent for this in a judicial review case brought againsy Lancashire County Council where it was decided that stopping 3 Lancashire players (as the club was on council land) playing in the then apartheid South Africa was allowed under the race relations act.