Playing With The Devil
When should sporting events be boycotted?
Adolph Hitler’s Third Reich, Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, General Jorge Rafael Videla’s junta in the Argentine, the People’s Republic of China, Mexico’s notoriously corrupt and immovable Institutional Revolutionary Party and now Vladimir Putin’s Russia: all of these have hosted major international sporting events. The prima facie case against the international organisations which have co-operated with these regimes in the holding of such events is that they have aided and abetted bad and evil regimes by allowing them to be perceived as acceptable in the international context and as successful to their own citizens. There is a second list, which includes every Soviet leader after Lenin (since Stalin was still in power when the USSR topped the medals table at the Summer Olympics in Helsinki in 1952) of non-democratic leaders who have gained domestic kudos by being able to associate themselves with victory at such major events.
The great sporting international non-governmental organisations (henceforth SINGOs) such as FIFA and the International Olympic Committee are extraordinarily willing, so it would seem from a westertn liberal view, to sup with the devil. One curiosity of this willingness has been the co-operation of apparently rightist SINGO politicians to benefit leftist governments. The aristocratic apologist and anglophile Baron Pierre De Coubertin was (admittedly posthumously) declared to be “essentially progressive” by the Great Soviet Encyclopedia. The conservative Republican Avery Brundage did much to further the interests of the Soviet Union within the Olympic Movement. The former Falangist Juan Samaranch is said to have trembled with rage when the IOC vote went against Beijing as host for the 2002 Summer Olympics after Tiananmen Square. Les extremes se touchent. It is all too easy to portray SINGOs as self-appointed Great Universal Churches, embodying a kind of sinister apolitical politics which is at the same time authoritarian, elitist and preoccupied with physical perfection. Much of the artistic imagery employed by the Olympic Movement has lent strength to such a view, not least Leni Riefenstahl’s film Olympia.
But if you are writing a book about the history and politics of international sport (which I am, as it happens) then you have to understand how SINGO insiders might look at the morality of holding events. Take, for example, the two sets of Olympics in Germany in 1936 — Winter in Gelsen Partenkirchen and Summer in Berlin. Arguably, these constitute the extreme example of a SINGO supping with the devil. This was a difficult period for any international organisation; from 1918 to 1939 everything that we would now call globalisation was in retreat in the face of the vast totalitarian blocks which extended in Orwell’s imagination to the world of 1984. During this time the League of Nations failed and the Red Cross, for example, became, in many cases, a subsidiary of local dictatorships. But the Olympic Movement not only kept going, it expanded and innovated. The 1936 Games were not allocated to the Third Reich, but to the Weimar Republic. Hitler was initially all for ditching them as an un-German activity, but Josef Goebbels persuaded him of their propaganda value. It’s not obvious that Hitler’s initial position was wrong and Goebbels’ correct. The Summer Games are most remembered for the four gold medals won by a black American, Jesse Owens, a man who often wasn’t allowed to eat with college teammates in his own country. Owens himself remembered them for the gentlemanly friendliness of his German rival in the long jump, Lutz Long, and for the Berlin crowd chanting “YESSE OVENS”. The US Olympic Committee successfully assured a suspension of racist propaganda during both games. It is not obvious that the Games really assisted Nazi values more than sporting values. What is demonstrable is that opinion against the Third Reich in Britain and the United States hardened considerably in the two years after 1936 and that much of the perception of Germany was formed by such sporting events as the Olympics, the Max Schmelling-Joe Louis heavyweight championship bouts and the England-Germany football match of 1938.
Those who run SINGOs have to be “heroic simpletons” to borrow George Bernard Shaw’s phrase; that is, they have to believe that sport is an over-riding good and that the show must go on. They must also be Westphalians, in the spirit of the Treaty of Westphalia which in 1648 ended the Thirty Years War. The treaty said, in effect, that religion was a matter for local sovereign determination. The “Westphalian System” meant that when you were in Ruritania you accepted the established religion of Ruritania to be the established religion, notwithstanding that you, personally, thought they were a bunch of heretics who would rot in hell. Without Westphalia we would have religious wars for ever and without a modernised version it would be equally impossible to run a global organisation while finding local customs repugnant.
The remaining necessary question — which can be conceived separately for individuals, governments and sports associations — is about whether, in the interests of sport one should be prepared to play anyone. In my youth, to wind up the “Stop the Boks” campaigners I used to say yes to this. But it was right to boycott South Africa. To compete with them was to breach not only a myriad of moral and political principles, but also of fundamental sporting principles. South African sporting associations were not allowed to pick teams on merit or even to entertain teams picked on merit: they refused to accept Maori rugby players — or Basil D’Oliveira. And the boycott worked: public opinion resulting from the deprivation of international sport and the pressure of the sporting organisations were effective in bringing about change.
These two conditions, a breach of sporting principles and a strong possibility of desired effects, would not often be met together. Perhaps the case of some Islamic countries and the question of women’s sporting opportunities might meet the case? So boycotts should be very rare. Otherwise, one would risk a paradoxical situation in which by choosing not to boycott you are somehow endorsing the host regime (as opposed merely to recognising it). Morally, sport can be seen as an extension of tourism; as a tourist I have been in roughly a hundred countries including Franco’s Spain, the USSR and most of the Islamic world. I never thought for a moment that my presence offered a moral endorsement of the governments of those countries, let alone an endorsement of consequence. One must always remember that a country contains individuals and associations who may be innocent of the sins of the regime. I don’t think many sportsmen would condone the boycott Jimmy Carter instituted of the Moscow Olympics in 1980 because it just used competitors as expendable victims of the cheapest available political gesture. And many British sports persons of my generation would be justifiably proud of the fact that when Mrs. Thatcher tried to institute a boycott the overwhelming majority of sports associations ignored it.
A boycott of the Winter Olympics in Sochi was never going to be a serious issue. If you are running any international organisation you have to deal with a good deal worse than Mr. Putin. My personal view, as a libertarian and utilitarian, is that laws governing adult sexuality are pointless and ridiculous and that, moreover, it is reprehensible to demean people for their sexual tastes. But this is a relatively new opinion and the most of the rest of the world does not share it. This includes not just Putin’s Russia and the whole Islamic world, but also several American states. Utah, Texas and Arizona all have laws against promulgating homosexuality which read as remarkably similar to the Russian version. But you can’t run an international organisation (or a foreign policy) on the basis that everyone has to be the same kind of liberal as yourself or you’re not playing.
Arguably, however, this issue may be becoming more complicated. The orthodoxy in international relations is that the “Westphalian system” is slowly being eroded or undermined by a “New Medievalism”. Thus Edinburgh in the 21st century, where you may have to invoke at least the Scottish, UK and European levels of government as well as international organisations such as UNESCO and the IMF in order to explain what is going on, is like Florence five centuries earlier where you would have to explain the relative powers of the city council, the Dukedom of Tuscany, the Papacy and the Empire to develop an understanding. And unlike most political situationss in the mid-20th century, where the state was pretty well all you needed to understand. In this context we might reasonably expect SINGOs to show a broader sense of responsibility than just to play the existing system of states for all it is worth. A World Cup in Qatar indeed!