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Should we not mix politics and sport?

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“You should never mix politics and football. You should always show respect. It’s a wonderful atmosphere and a positive experience and that’s what football should be about” – said the Swiss coach after the match between Serbia and Switzerland at 2018 football World Cup in Russia. The coach was commenting on the controversy related to three Swiss players – two of them born in Kosovo – who celebrated their goals with Albanian eagle on the field. The gesture was deemed politically-motivated by Serbia, it filed a formal complaint, so FIFA initiated disciplinary proceedings for those players in question.

That episode is just one of many other examples of controversies around any international sport competitions. The most resonant cases are usually related to such truly global events as football World Cup and Olympic games. When it comes to this kind of high-profile competitions, there is probably little chance to separate sport from politics. First reason – can anyone think of better ways to raise global awareness about certain issues than bringing the topic to the field of play and taking advantage of universal passion for sport? Second – sport has become substantially commercialized, today it is a big business, and the more newsbreaks it generates – the better it is for the sport industry. The newsbreaks certainly appear.

It was not always like this. The initial well-intentioned idea of the ancient Games was to use the opportunities of sport as a way to overcome differences and bring people together, to assist them in resolving conflicts, at the same time reinforcing people’s identity. No surprise the founder of modern Olympics saw it as peaceful communication channel, as a way to release aggression. Could Baron de Coubertin foresee the downside of his idealistic dream?

Offensive messages, political banners, calls for boycott as a way to exercise pressure on the policy of this or that country are becoming common accompaniment for the Games. Sport has become a powerful tool on the international arena: sport records, achievements of national teams, organization of events and even the very right to hold the Games have become the instruments of building up image of a country. So sometimes the atmosphere is far from wonderful, and positive experience is not guaranteed for the sides involved, be it athletes, spectators, host or organizers.

We like it or not, the competitive world of sport is another reflection of a real world, with tensions and controversies being its integral part. So despite Olympic Charter principles, not only athletes or national teams compete with each other but also the states and even ideologies.

Looking back at one of the most drastic examples of sport being driven by political ambition, we might recall the lessons of the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin. Those Games had been awarded to Germany before Hitler came to power, and the period from 1933 to 1936 became a fight for control between the German National Socialist regime, the International Olympic Committee, and anti-Nazi supporters of an Olympic boycott.

The boycott supporters challenged the Olympic policy towards Germany that had to observe Olympic charter forbidding racial and religious discrimination. There was also an important moral aspect: letting Germany host the biggest international sport event would mean further legitimizing the Nazi regime among international community.

The International Olympic Committee was in an extremely delicate situation and sought formal pledges from the Germans to observe Olympic charter. In May 1934, after a pro forma review, the lOC declared itself satisfied with how Germans had performed. So did the various national Olympic committees who justified their decisions by the obedience to the authority of the next higher level.

Avery Brundage, then the president of the American Olympic Committee and the powerful defender of Olympic business, insisted that National Socialism was separate from Olympic concerns, since the Games belonged to the IOC and not to any host country. At the time, there was another – ideological – motive: New Germany was halting Communists in Western Europe. So, in spite of considerable pro-boycott public opinion the decision was taken: Unites States of America that had sent the most athletes to past Olympics and usually won the most medals, would not withhold its significant Olympic team in protest of the Nazis Jews discrimination policies. Some other important officials including Pierre de Coubertin were favorably impressed by Hitler’s charisma, Olympics sport complex and the new Germany level or organization and discipline. Despite the mistreatment of Jews and banning of non-Aryans from Germany’s Olympic team, the Berlin Olympics went as scheduled, and was a success. The Nazis got what they most wanted from hosting the Olympics – respectability.

Sport dramatizes victory, defeat and competition, and up until today persist the debates over acceptability of boycotting the Games in a given country to demonstrate international community attitude towards its internal or external policies. Sport is a powerful tool that can be used in different ways though: it has a huge potential to contribute to peace building.

There are prominent examples when sport helps to reconcile rival states. This is how the term ping-pong diplomacy appeared in the early 1970s. At that time, the United States and People’s Republic of China had not have diplomatic or economic relations for nearly 20 years following China’s entry into the Korean War. The World Table Tennis Championship provided an opportunity for both countries to open up for each other. U.S. ping-pong players were sent to Japan to participate in a competition and where they were invited by the Chinese delegation to visit the People’s Republic. A year later, China’s tennis table team went to the United States, playing a series of matches in eight cities.

“The little ball moves the Big Ball.” – Chairman Mao then said.
Another well-known term – cricket diplomacy – appeared as a result of renewed talks between India and Pakistan following the Cricket World Cup in 2011. There was the time when the escalation of tension in relations between India and Pakistan forced their national teams either to hold competitions in third countries or cancel them as was the case after the terrorist attack in Mumbai. The sport event was the first meeting between the two rivals on one of their home grounds since then.

Sport is capable of uniting divided nations too. For example, the football team of Ivory Coast was made up of players from both parts of the divided country when it competed in the 2006 African Cup of Nations. As such, the squad was recognized as a symbol of reconciliation and the broad support gained all over the country helped to resume peace talks.

Sport has been used for reconciliation to improve relationships between divided people in the Balkans, the Middle East, West and Central Africa, Sri Lanka, South America. In post-conflict situations, sport programs are used by UN peacekeeping operations as a door opener to rebuild trust by bringing together former opponents, and to re-integrate ex-combatants into the civil communities. Although sport alone cannot stop or solve an acute conflict, it represents a flexible method for post-conflict relief work and peace building as well as conflict prevention.

Considering sport’s ability to embrace millions of people globally, there is no surprise sport is often influenced by politics. To ensure sport heals and not divides people, local organizations, international NGOs, national federations and other institutions should work hard and work together in a coordinated way.

“The little ball moves the Big ball.” In which direction? It is up to us to decide. (by Marina Khamitsevich)

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