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Observations of an Expat: Sport and Politics

Since the start of modern international sport, competitions between national teams have been a tool to score political points.

The sport had been the source to showcase achievements; make statements; isolate enemies and win public approval from home audiences.

By Tom Arms

For those World Cup fans insisting that politics has no place in sport or that sport and politics should be kept separate—forget it. You are backing an unwinnable horse.

The fact is that in the public imagination physical prowess on the playing field or in the stadium is equated with national success. And projecting the image of national success is an important part of politics.

Almost since the start of modern international sport, competitions between national teams have been a tool to score political points; showcase achievements; make statements; isolate enemies and win public approval from home audiences.

During the 1934 World Cup in Italy. Benito Mussolini saw the tournament as the perfect opportunity to promote muscular fascism.

The downward spiral probably started with the 1934 World Cup in Italy. Benito Mussolini saw the tournament as the perfect opportunity to promote muscular fascism. But to do that he needed the Italian team to win. So the game schedule was organized to suit the Italian side and referees were personally chosen by the Italian Duce. Italy won.

Encouraged by the success of his fellow dictator, Adolf Hitler set out to mirror his success at the 1936 Munich Olympics. These were meant to showcase the superiority of the Aryan race as well as Nazi Germany. He was, of course, thwarted by the Black American athlete Jesse Owens.

Conflict between states has led to violence in the stadium. The 1956 Olympics were held only a few weeks before the Soviet invasion of Hungary and were dominated by the “blood in the water” water polo semi-finals between the Soviet Union and Hungary. There were numerous clashes between the two sides which culminated in top Hungarian scorer Ervin Zadov being struck in the head by the Soviet player Valentin Propokov.

Zadov staggered from the pool with blood pouring from the side of his face. A riot involving players, officials and spectators was only narrowly averted when the Russian team was escorted away from the pool. Hungary won the re-match.

Throughout the Cold War the rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States regularly affected the sporting calendar. In 1980, the US organized a boycott of the Moscow Olympics in protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and in 1984 the Soviets and their Warsaw Pact allies boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics in protest against the boycott of the Moscow Olympics.

The 2008 Beijing Olympics were seen as marking the return of China to the world stage. The Russian federation was the inheritor state for the Soviet Union and in 2014 it hosted the Sochi Winter Olympics to mark its return after decades of political and economic turmoil following the collapse of the Soviet state.

The Sochi Olympics are remembered for two things: the staggering record-breaking price tag of $51 billion and the revelation that Russia was guilty of a state-sponsored doping regime. The discovery of Russia’s doping activities has led to Russian teams being banned from subsequent Olympic Games.

Apartheid was a major issue at both World Cup and the Olympics and led to South Africa being banned from both events between 1964 and 1992. Sporting contacts with South Africa in other sports was also a major issue. The decision of New Zealand’s All Black rugby team to tour South Africa led to a boycott of the 1976 Olympics by African countries.

International sport has also been used to make positive political statements.

International sport has also been used to make positive political statements. The 1948 London Sometimes there were overt positive political elements associated sport. The London Olympics were a celebration of a return to normality after World War Two. And the Pyeong Chang Winter Olympics in South Korea were marked by a joint North-South Korean team in the opening ceremony and in the ice hockey tournament. Unfortunately, tensions quickly returned to the Korean Peninsula after the games.

Many like to hark back to the good old days of classical Greece when the Olympics meant a truce throughout the Peloponnesian Peninsula. But even then politics infected sports. The quadrennial gathering in the shadow of Mount Olympus was used to forge and announce alliances and athletes became symbols of a city state’s greatness just as they are national symbols today.

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  • Conspicuous by their silence in their opening World Cup match was the Iranian football team. They stood with sealed lips as their national anthem was played. At the same time, and throughout the match, protesters dotted around the stadium held up signs demanding freedom for Iranian women. It was their opportunity to draw attention to the estimated 14,000 people who have been arrested since mid-September by the Iranian authorities. They are part of a wave of rebellion which seems to grow bigger every day. The spark that lit this rebellion was the death in custody of 22-year-old Iranian Kurd Mahsa Amin. She had been arrested by the morality police for not wearing her headscarf properly. Since then thousands upon thousands of men and women have taken to the streets across Iran, demonstrating, burning headscarves and even attacking police stations. Very few films have been made of the riots. The authorities have banned foreign news organizations. The Iranian team and the protesters’ in the stands were using the presence of the world’s media in Doha to publicize the plight of Iranians because they could not do so in their own country. Free speech in Iran was a problem under the Shah and it has become worse since the 1979 revolution. The organization Prison Atlas reckons that there were 4.890 Iranian political prisoners before the demonstrations began. The country is second only to China in the number of death penalties carried out—425 so far this year, according to Amnesty International. Volker Turk, the brand new head of the UNHCR said this week that Iran is in a “full-fledged human rights crisis.” He called on the ruling mullahs to end the unnecessary use of force. Khadijeh Karimi, Iran’s Deputy Vice President for Women and Family Affairs, responded: “Western countries lack the moral credibility to preach to others on human rights.”
  • When Ukrainians wander into the forests this winter it will not be to collect Christmas trees, or holly, ivy or mistletoe. It will be to gather desperately needed firewood to stay warm and perhaps snow and ice to melt for drinking water. The World Health Organization reckons that 10 million Ukrainians—roughly a quarter of the population—will be without electricity and water this winter because of Russian shelling of power and pumping stations. The areas most affected by the Russian attacks are Kyiv, the port city of Odessa, the western city of Vinnytsia and Sumy in the northwest. On Thursday, the residents of Kyiv awoke to an unwelcome blanket of snow. The white stuff falls on Kyiv an average of 31 days every year and the snowfalls range from an inch to a foot. The mean winter time temperature is -1 degree centigrade. London is nine degrees.
  • An Iron Curtain, to paraphrase, Winston Churchill, is descending across key borders of Europe. But there is a key difference between the ironmongery of 1945 and its 21st century equivalent. The former was to keep people trapped behind it. The contemporary version is designed to keep people out. It started in Hungary in 2015 when Viktor Orban constructed a fence to keep out Syrian refugees. Then, this time last year, Russian ally Belarus decided to weaponise illegal immigrants and flew tens of thousands of them from Syria and Turkey to border crossings with Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. All three countries erected fences on their border with Belarus. The longest was the Polish-Belarussian border cost $350 million. The Lithuanian fence cost $178 million. Now a new fence is going up, but this one is designed mainly to keep out Russian soldiers. It is along the 200 kilometer border between Poland and the heavily militarized Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. A quarter of Kaliningrad’s 1 million residents are military personnel. The enclave provides Russia with its only ice-free Baltic port as well as a forward military base. There is a problem for the Russians, however, the only land access to Kaliningrad is through the NATO countries of Poland and Lithuania via what is known as the Suwalki Gap. Surrounded Kaliningrad therefore is both a problem and an opportunity for both Russia and Nato.
  • I was wrong. A few weeks ago I wrote a blog describing Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro as an unlikely hero because he appeared to implicitly concede defeat in the recent presidential elections. He was expected to take a Trump-like position and claim that victory was stolen from him. He has now done just that. But there is another hero emerging from Brazil, the head of the Electoral Board, Alexandre de Moraes. He has rejected Bolsonaro’s claims and fined his Liberal Party $4.3 million for “bad faith litigation.” He went on to condemn Bolsonaro and his party for “incentivizing anti-democratic protest movements and creating tumults.” Bolsonaro’s claims centre on the use of electronic voting machines which he says can produce false results. He wants 250,000 machine votes nullified. One problem with Bolsonaro’s claim is that the machines were in use for 22 years before he was elected president. He didn’t complain about them in 2018.
  • It would seem that Donald Trump’s problems just continue to pile-up. This week the Supreme Court ordered that the Internal Revenue Service send his tax returns to Congress; Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed a special counsel to investigate Trump’s involvement in the Capitol Hill riots and possession of top secret documents and the Trump Organization went on trial in Manhattan on tax fraud charges. Finally, top it all off, Wall Street donors are starting to dump him. Billionaire Republican hedge fund manager Ken Griffin was among those who announced this week that he was switching his millions to Florida governor Ron de Santis. Trump, he said, was “a three-time loser.” This may not be as big a blow as one might think. It may seem counter-intuitive, but Wall Street as a whole is not a Trump fan. In 2018 its denizens donated only $18 million to his campaign compared to $74 million for Biden. Generally speaking, they are wary of Trump’s talk of a trade war with China; curbs on cheap immigrant labor and repatriating American businesses to be run by more expensive American labor. But Trump is not dependent on Wall Street to fund his war chest. He has already raised $100 million for the primary races. Mind you, he will need a lot more if he wins the nomination. The total bill for the 2020 presidential election race (for both parties combined) was $7 billion.

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Tom Arms Journalist Sindh CourierTom Arms is the foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and the author of “America Made in Britain.”

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