UK Prime Minister David Cameron rejected Stephen Fry’s request for a boycott of the Winter Olympics in the southern Russian resort of Sochi, due to the Putin government’s recent anti-homosexual laws coupled with a rise in homophobic attacks. In the wake of this, several commentators have severely rankled in their implicit attitude to the exemplar of sports boycotts - South Africa.
Former UK Olympics Ambassador Sebastian Coe asserted that he was against boycotts and maintained that they only damaged the athletes. Columnist David Fearnhead went further saying that ‘South Africa did not end apartheid because the Springboks weren't allowed to play international rugby’ in an aside that deals lightly with the most successful sports boycott ever mounted.
People may forget that South Africa was barred from almost all international athletic competitions, including the Olympics, from 1964 to 1991 and campaigners like the poet Dennis Brutus paid a high price for their part in achieving this. Besides imprisonment on Robben Island, he was exiled and shot in the back. Tellingly, the first ambulance called to attend him when he was shot, was sent away as it was for whites only.
The truth, of course, is that boycotts on their own do not bring down oppressive regimes. Neither do the protests of the athletes themselves. But who can deny the effect on public opinion of the many examples where Olympians themselves demonstrated their commitment through their efforts? Jesse Owens confounding Hitler’s eugenics by winning four gold medals in the 1936 summer Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos highlighting civil rights anger by raising two black gloves at their awards ceremony in 1968 and the many athletes who not only stayed away, but were loud and vocal in their reasons for doing so.
Coe’s view that boycotts never work needs countering. It is not acceptable to say athletes are above politics any more than it was right for the rock group Queen to make a similar claim when they ignored the boycott of Sun City during the apartheid era. Demonstrating political commitment is nothing when the barometer of public opinion has already swung behind a cause that campaigners have fought hard for. But it demands courage when all around you, the notion of the boycott is dismissed as futile and issues of discrimination and inequality are subordinate to ambition.
Tread lightly on the sacrifices made in the name of sports boycotts. Dismissing them as ineffective is to deny a bloody and hard-won place in political history.