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01 July 2008

Talking about... Politics in Sport

Talking about... Politics in Sport

Whether we are talking from a pulpit or over a garden fence, Tony Watkins helps us to give relevant answers to the big issues raised by contemporary popular culture...

A dark political shadow looms over the 2008 Olympic Games. From the announcement that Beijing would be the host city, the Games have been mired in controversy, particularly as the Olympic torch journeyed around the world. The organisers would like politics to be kept out of the frame while everyone gets on with the important business of running, jumping, throwing, swimming and generally pushing themselves to the limit.

But with widespread indignation at China's record on human rights, especially in Tibet, there's as much chance of that as of me winning a gold medal.

Many athletes, too, insist that politics and sport must remain separate. Before her surprise announcement about retirement in May, gold medallist Justine Henin said, "We must be focused on our job, which is sport and passion... I am of course concerned about the politics surrounding the Games, but I am going there to play tennis, not play politics."

Many people point to the enormous benefits for world co-operation that come from the Games. The Olympic Charter enshrines some very noble principles. It speaks of creating "a way of life based on the joy found in effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles".

It sees sport as contributing to "the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity". And it affirms the right of every individual to practice sport without discrimination because the Olympic spirit "requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play".

The highest goodness

The implication seems to be that sportsmanship - and the Olympic spirit in particular - is the highest expression of human goodness. Indeed, philosopher Bernard Suits argues in his book The Grasshopper that games are central to the good life. If we lived in a utopia, with all of our needs supplied, he wonders, what would we do but play games?

The Bible is not specific about what we will be doing in the new heavens and earth, besides worshipping God, so Suit's argument is rather intriguing.

The Bible is not specific about what we will be doing in the new heavens and earth, besides worshipping God

The difficulty is that the world we live in now is far from perfect, so it is impossible to keep politics out of the picture. At the highest levels, sport becomes more than simply playing games: it becomes very serious. For George Orwell, the more serious sport becomes, the less it has to do with the ideals expressed in the Olympic Charter. "Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play," he wrote in 1945. "It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. In other words, it is war minus the shooting."

The memory of the way the Nazis used the 1936 Olympics for propaganda was still very fresh for Orwell, of course. But as he saw it, the basic problem is that what happens on the sports field is often connected with some larger institution or power base.

An international football match is never just a game; national reputations are at stake. A country's interests often overshadow sporting events. When the US boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, it prompted the Soviet Union to stay away from the Los Angeles games four years later.

Tiger Woods has been criticised for his silence on social and political issues

Tiger WoodsThe linking of sport and politics has also brought about real change. During the apartheid years, South Africa was excluded from most international sport, and Nelson Mandela is adamant that this played a key role in bringing about the enormous changes there. By contrast, it is interesting to see how reluctant governments have been to criticise China in the run-up to Beijing.

It seems that the massive growth of China's economy has made Western nations very keen to be friends. Instead, protests have arisen from a general feeling among ordinary people in many nations that China must not be allowed to bask in the glory of successful games without also being pressurised to make changes.

Athletes, too, are speaking up, despite the displeasure of their national Olympic associations. Earlier this year, more than 200 signed a petition condemning China's support of the regime in Sudan and its inaction over Darfur.

Issues like this are of immense importance, and those in the public eye cannot pretend they are less significant than sport. Tiger Woods has been criticised for his silence on social and political issues. Could it be simply that he makes more money by maintaining his neutrality? When Michael Jordan, who made a fortune from his connection with Nike, was asked to endorse a Democratic campaign, he refused, famously declaring, "Republicans buy sneakers too." Let's hope Lewis Hamilton's major sponsorship deals don't make him go down the same road.

It's disappointing that it tends to be athletes who refuse to speak out on big issues, whereas similarly prominent people in the entertainment world are frequently keen to use their position in order to get the message heard. Steven Spielberg, for example, withdrew from his role as artistic adviser to the Olympics in protest over Darfur.

It's disappointing because they're right to insist that sport can be a great force for good. The Olympic goal of "promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity" is brilliant. But this is, in fact, a profoundly political goal, and we will never achieve it by sweeping injustice under the carpet.Tony Watkins

  • Find out more about the issues raised in this article at www.damaris.org/ideamagazine
  • www.ToolsForTalks.com provides a one-stop shop to help teach the Bible in the language of contemporary culture. The site contains quotes and illustrations taken from the latest films, music, magazines and TV - updated weekly
  • Tony Watkins is resources and training co-ordinator for the Damaris Trust

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