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Last Updated: Monday, 22 August 2005, 13:01 GMT 14:01 UK
The political risks of sport
By Nick Assinder
BBC News website political correspondent

Keeping politics out of sport is about as easy as keeping George Best out of a pub.

Jack Straw and Tessa Jowell
Straw and Jowell risk rejection
For every person who believes games like cricket should rise above the day to day grime of politics there is another who will argue sport can and should be a powerful political weapon.

And there have been numerous examples of both individuals and nations using sporting events to make political protests.

But, as Jack Straw and Tessa Jowell know full well, there are real dangers for politicians who go down this road.

Perhaps the biggest is the embarrassment of being told to mind their own business.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher discovered this in 1980 when she followed US President Jimmy Carter's call for a boycott of the Moscow Olympics.

Thatcher's demand

The US demand came in the wake of the USSR invasion of Afghanistan the previous year and as the Cold War continued. But there was, to say the least, a mixed response.

The International Olympic Committee refused to move the games to another country and even suggested it would provide funds for teams attending the games against their governments' wishes.

Lady Thatcher
Thatcher failed in Olympics ban
The British Olympic Association voted to ignore the government call and chairman Sir Denis Follows, clearly irritated by the tone of Mrs Thatcher's demand, declared: "We believe sport should be a bridge, not a destroyer."

Inevitably, once the political point had been made, things escalated.

The next games, in Los Angeles in 1984, saw a bit of tit-for-tat with the USSR boycotting them claiming their competitors may have been in danger because of the anti-Communist sentiments in the US.

Meanwhile, sporting sanctions were continuing against South Africa in protest at the apartheid regime, with the country being banned from Olympic participation from 1964 to 1992.

Black power

The young Peter Hain, now Northern Ireland Secretary, was also in the forefront of the protests against South African cricketing tours.

It remains a matter of debate just how important a part these protests played in finally ending apartheid.

Before these examples there was the famous black power salutes given by two US athletes from the podium in the 1968 Mexico Olympics.

And no one doubts that Adolf Hitler and his propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels attempted to use the first ever televised Olympics, in Berlin in 1936, to prove his theory of the Aryan master race.

It was a particularly powerful symbol, therefore, when African-American sprinter and long jumper Jesse Owens became the hero of the games after winning four gold medals.

Zimbabwe's President Mugabe
A message to Mugabe
As for Jack Straw and Tessa Jowell, they are facing criticisms for demanding a cricket boycott of Zimbabwe now, after failing to prevent the England cricket team's tour of Zimbabwe last year.

The government maintained it had not supported the trip but was unable to act against it because they could have been sued and did not want to set a precedent and land taxpayers with the bill.

What this all adds up to is that, first, politics has been and probably always will be mixed up with sport.

Second, it is hugely difficult nowadays for the UK government to impose sporting sanctions. Probably the best they can do is urge.

But no politician likes to take a stand only to see their pleas being roundly rejected.

So the question is whether it is better to take a stand and risk embarrassment or remain silent and encourage claims of lack of moral fibre.



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