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  • Writer's pictureHugh Lawrence

Politics and sport: mix well for reality

After a long break and recent events in the world of sport, I thought it time to resurrect Coach Lawrence’s blog. The next few are about matters that bother me as a coach and, in particular, a coach of young athletes.

Last week, the International Olympic Committee President, Thomas Bach, suggested to a global audience that the Olympic Games were not a forum for politics. He said specifically that it would be “the end” of the Olympics if the IOC dropped its stance of political neutrality.

“If we are taking a political standpoint, and we are getting in the middle of tensions and disputes and confrontations of political powers, then we are putting the Games at risk,” he said. Bach was reprising his 2020 comments that “The International Olympic Committee, as a civil non-governmental organization, is strictly politically neutral at all times,” (the Guardian 23 October 2020)

Well let’s unscramble that sentence. First, politics are the activities associated with a country’s governance, especially the interplay between those in power. International sport features athletes representing their countries, flying national flags at the opening and closing ceremonies, political decisions by governments to fund elite sport and listing an athlete’s country next to their names - that sounds political to me.

Political scientist Rupert Emerson defined national identity as "a body of people who feel that they are a nation”. Some of us write about sport because of our passion for what, at its best, it brings to society. The sporting community, however, does not exist in vacuum. We are part of wider society and should not ignore what is really important. NFL quarterback, Colin Kaepernick took the knee to express a concern about matters beyond sport - police brutality and racial inequality. We are signatory to the World Anti-doping Code because we believe in doing what is right. The sports media swings into action at an Olympics, mostly turning a blind eye, to what may be going on a short distance from the Olympic bubble.

Let’s get it out in the open. The modern Olympic Games and politics are and have been inextricably intertwined from their beginning. I won’t repeat the vast trove of scholarship about the many and various political events that have accompanied the modern Olympic movement. Others have done it better and I recommend Jessica Campbell’s 2017 article “The Long, Loud History of Sports and Politics (in 66 Pictures)”.

So what is Mr Bach talking about and who is he speaking to? Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter states “no kind of demonstration, political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas”. I guess that puts to one side, the opening ceremony, national anthems, state-funded athletes and the role of a national government in hosting the Olympiad itself – a fundamentally political decision. Host the Games, spend billions of tax dollars on infrastructure that may never be used again, impose massive multi-year debt repayment on tax payers – these are political matters associated with all recent Olympiads.

Mr Bach provides us with two propositions. First, while the Games are on, we can legitimately suspend our concerns about human rights, corruption, state sponsored doping and other matters serious enough to worry the United Nations. Second, that celebrating the successes of athletes who have put their lives on hold for years to achieve the highest levels of excellence will lead to an improvement in the first proposition. An almost magical virtuous circle!!!

We should also unpack the term “civil non-governmental organization”. I suspect Mr Bach was trying to say ‘civil society non-governmental organisation’ – a tautology as ‘civil society’ and NGO are used interchangeably. Community and voluntary or non-profit sector organisations ranging in scope from the local chess club to major national sport organisation to corporate-like service providers. More commonly, civil society is thought of as a distinct sphere outside government and the market concerned with service, community life and voluntarism.

The challenge for sport is to balance commitment to those values against supporting those who do not have that commitment.

1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin - long jump medalists salute, Naoto Tajima (Japan), Jesse Owens (America), Luz Long (Germany). (Photo source: Getty Images, 2020)

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