Boycotts are a common feature of sports events. Indeed, a Cup or Games or Championship cannot claim significance unless someone, somewhere, believes he or she can utilise the PR aura by threatening to stay away.
This is perverse, if you think about it.
A sports event – such as the imminent Euro 2012 finals in Poland and Ukraine – is created, enlivened, enriched only by those who attend it. Not by those who stay away.
The record books note achievements of the winners and even of the losers. At least the losers turn up. Absentees do not earn even a footnote.
Here is the issue exercising the minds of various European Union leaders ahead of Euro 2012: Should I stay or should I go?
If, for example, German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends will that be construed as a vote of confidence in Ukraine’s President Victor Yanukovitch and an abandonment of jailed ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko?
If Merkel, who enjoys her occasional football outings, stays away will she just look like an old sourpuss capitalizing on poor, neutral, innocent sport to suit her own political purpose?
Or, frankly, will anyone notice once the first football has been kicked?
Not all boycotts are about ‘only’ politicians. The most contentious involve politicians winding sportsmen into their schemes.
Hence we had the tit-for-tat American and Soviet boycotts of the Olympics Games in Moscow in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1984.
What was the outcome? The Games went ahead, crowds cheered, records were broken, reputations were made and the attendant athletes, journalists and fans learned yet again that sport’s greatest power is in cutting through barriers, creating understanding and making the world (minimally) a smaller, potentially happier and safer place.
Thomas Bach made that point in urging Merkel not to boycott Ukraine during Euro 2012. Bach is a lawyer and businessman, vice-president of the International Olympic Committee, leader of the German Olympic sports committee and senior figure in the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
He says: “Boycotting major sports events has proved to be unsuccessful and senseless in the past. After the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, not a single Russian soldier withdrew from Afghanistan. Sport is neutral territory. That is the only way it can be a force for unity and the building of bridges rather than walls.
“But, if we say we stand for the rule of law and democracy then we should represent those concepts wherever sport takes us.
“For example, we would not be having this public debate about political and human rights conditions in the host country were it not for the European Championship taking place there. Sport offers a magnificent communications platform.”
If the United States Olympic Committee had not ignored calls for a boycott of the 1936 Berlin Olympics (because of Nazi racist policies) then the great black athlete Jesse Owens would not have been present to make the counter point more dramatically than any boycott.
All well and good…until, of course, one recalls that a sustained sports boycott helped hasten the end of apartheid in South Africa.
As it was then so it is now: boycotts are usually all about freedom.
Hence Merkel is free to play her game and Germany’s footballers are free to play theirs.
Keir Radnedge is one of the foremost observers of international soccer. He has reported at every World Cup since 1966 and is a regular contributor to TV, radio, newspapers and magazines worldwide. He is London-based Editor of SportsFeatures.com and is chairman of the Football Commission of the International Sports Press Association (AIPS). Visit www.KeirRadnedge.com for further information. Follow him on Twitter for more sports industry updates.
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