We have had occasions in this column to denounce the insipid desire by sections of the global community to use politics as a foreign policy tool in determining the direction of global sports. Sports, incidentally, is the greatest neutral element in the making of global peace and friendship. Sportsmen and women, while competing for their various nations, think more about the competition, the festive occasion, the winning of medals, and the acquaintances they strike among themselves. The Olympic ideal has always been ‘sports and friendship’. Incidentally, and most regrettably, international politics has gradually crept into the realm of sports.
Indeed, it would be quite difficult to completely divorce a global event like sports (Olympics and/or FIFA World Cups) from politics. After all, it is nations that are competing among themselves and naturally, some countries may want to use sports as part of gestures of foreign policy. The Olympic Movement has had a long tradition of protests and boycotts. The first shock in the politicization of sports came in 1908. The tradition for the opening ceremonies has been that as countries’ athletes pass the host country’s dignitaries at the Olympic stadium, they dip their flag as a sign of respect. But at the London Games in 1908, American flagbearer and shotputter Ralph Rose refused to dip the Stars and Stripes for King Edward VIII. He reportedly insinuated: “This flag dips for no earthly king.” Since then, the U.S. has not dipped the American flag during the opening ceremony. A sad precedent! Also at that games, the Irish decided to boycott the London Games, as England had still not granted the neighboring land its independence. Several other politically motivated incidence have been recorded ever since then. The Berlin games in 1936, for instance, were already pretty controversial. Growing anger over Hitler’s rising power caused a number of Jewish athletes to boycott the games. Hitler also refused to accord African-American sprinter, Jesse Owens, the necessary courtesies.
In the history of modern Olympiads, 1956 is significant. It marked the first year that a modern Olympiad was the subject of a boycott. In this case, the move was spurred by the Soviet Union’s alleged invasion of Hungary, which provoked several countries, including the Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden, to withdraw from the games. In the same spirit, Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon did not compete in the Melbourne Games because of Britain and France’s invasion of the Suez. And on top of that, China refused to participate because of Taiwan’s participation, in a rivalry that continued for nearly three decades. In 1964 South Africa was barred from the Olympics because of her racial policies (even in sports). In 1976, New Zealand’s national rugby team, the All Blacks, toured apartheid South Africa but was allowed to compete in the Montreal games. This incensed the people of several African, Middle Eastern, and Caribbean countries, spurring Tanzania to lead a boycott. Eventually, 26 countries abstained from participating in the games, which pulled 300 athletes out of competition. It led to a scramble to reschedule or cancel certain events — in fact, teams from most of the countries that decided to boycott were already in Montreal, ready to compete.
In 1980, sixty-two countries, led by the United States, staged a boycott of the games in Moscow, following the Soviet Union’s intervention in Afghanistan in 1979. Only 80 countries competed in the Moscow games. The 1984 Games were boycotted by the Soviet Union and several countries of the Eastern Bloc.
In most of the instances shown above, it is clear that some political happenings do affect international sports. Such protests must lead to sanity in sports or the global political order. Unfortunately, we are seeing an emerging threat to the ‘ideal’ of sports and friendship. That threat is the use of institutions of sports to function as antennas for foreign policies of some countries. We had some past in this column criticized the use of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) for its inability to be independent. Their own report on the 2016 Rio Olympics gave them out as surrogate for some powers. The WADA report on Russia, for instance, has been debunked by Christoff De Kepper, who challenged WADA to show real proof of the involvement of Russian sportsmen and women in the so-called doping scandal. De Kepper is also challenging the methods adopted in collecting data so rapidly, saying that WADA’s decision is politically motivated. Incidentally, while the RUSADA (Russian Anti-Doping Agency) has, since the scandal, cooperated with WADA and had had several interactions between them, the latter’s report is still being pushed as the reason for reviewing the FIFA World Cup of 2018 and 2022. Remember, Russia and Qatar are hosting this prestigious soccer fiesta in 2018 and 2022 respectively. A huge propaganda machinery has been set in motion for the review of the venues. This is worrisome. If indeed, this is allowed, we shall have introduced into sports a more dangerous virus that ever was. Earlier examples given above, about protests and boycotts, though not palatable, had been linked to global nasty political events – Apartheid, Human Rights abuses, etc. But if today, we allow some powers to dictate the direction of either the Olympiad of FIFA Soccer Fiestas, the world is the loser. We would even lose the little role that sports play in the mitigation of conflict.
African countries should rise against this canker. After all, if Africa, with its fifty-four solid countries, would stand up against the use of politics in sports to advance a foreign policy cause, then the powers who have a vested interest in derailing global ethic would sit up. The time is now, for Africa to take a common stand on most of these issues. We are by no means supporting cheating in sports. We are calling for sanity, equity and justice and the avoidance of caprice in sports.