it was the old chestnut of whether sport and politics mix that came
to mind while watching the golf Ryder Cup recently. This was not
because the Ryder Cup is particularly political, but because it
appears so apolitical. The two world super economic powers, the
EU and US, competing is presented as a jolly good struggle going
back for decades. On one level, it is simply that, yet on another
the tournament is laden with symbols. The ostentatious economic
power driving the event, the lack of racial diversity on the course
(sorry, Tiger) and in the stands, George Bush Snr relaxing and taking
in the action, and that it is one place where people can chant USA!
USA! these days without starting a riot, all belies a wider
context in which the event took place.
course, one would not want to turn such events into political footballs.
The tournaments acontextual and trouble-free environment is
exactly what makes it easy watching. But it does beg the question
how closely should sport and politics be related? The Olympic
Charter opposes political abuse of sport and athletes, a point with
which most of us would agree. Take, for example, the recent Formula
One Grand Prix in Turkey. The Turkish government abused the occasion
politically. Mehmet Ali Talat, who presented the winners trophy,
was introduced as the President of the Northern Turkish Republic
of Cyprus. This was a piece of political theatre, as it is
only Turkey that recognises the northern part of Cyprus as a separate
entity. The result was a $5-million fine by the sports governing
tricky issue, however, is not about the political abuse of sport,
but whether political abuse can be prevented by sport. The most
notable case was the sporting boycott against South Africa, aimed
at ending apartheid. The South African case set a precedent, and
it continues to throw up complications today.
the South African sports boycott was made easier because apartheid
was declared a crime against humanity. But where do sports boycotts
stand in relation to other types of abuses and actions? Should the
US have been prevented from playing in the Ryder Cup because its
govern-ment is engaged in an illegal war in Iraq? Should there be
a sports boycott, as many lobby groups profess, against Israel because
of its treatment of the Palestinians? I do not want to get into
the validity of such cases, as I will upset someone and I am not
very fast over 100 m, but the cases clearly demonstrate the intricacy
of the relationship between sport and politics. The mere mention
of these examples is, no doubt, enough to make some people spitting
mad. Perhaps, the real question then is: why does the issue of sport
and politics evoke such an emotive reaction? One reason is that
sport is a way of taking refuge from the world of politics. Sport
pretends there is no wider context. The sports arena is allegedly
an uncomplicated place, where the best person wins. But the best
person does not always win: socioeconomic status, political conditions
and equality of opportunity, not to mention drugs, can all influence
your chance of success. Sports have also always been mixed with
nationalist fervour. They can also be used to cement political projects.
Think of the impact of Nelson Mandelas donning the Springbok
rugby jersey in the early 1990s. So, believing that sport is unrelated
to politics is about as unrealistic as thinking Tiger Woods is going
to miss a six-inch putt. The so-called gap between sport and politics
is a false distinction.
question, therefore, is not whether sport and politics are linked,
but how we can discuss them in a rational way. Or is looking for
a constructive and unemotive approach to the sport and politics
debate as dim-witted as attempting the pole vault with a matchstick?
Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis
of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its
relevance to South Africa on Polity, see http://www.polity.co.za/pol/opinion/brandon/.
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