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The torch and the spotlight

While in antiquity the Olympic truce suspended wars and allowed people to travel safely, in the modern era it has worked more frequently the other way round: politics has muscled its way into sports.

Fabrizio Tassinari
8 August 2012

Sunday’s ceremony at the London Olympics concludes another long summer of sporting events. As always, sports fans the world over reach this point in August gasping for some days of real holidays away from their flat screens. As always, another less healthy practice will go into hibernation together with the Olympic torch: the association of sporting events with politics.

For pundits and politicians alike, mixing sports and politics is irresistible: hordes of idolizing fans intone marches that call upon the French to arm themselves and Italians to fight to the death. Trainers and players alike speak of battles, survival and honour to explain their jobs. Sports competitions do seem to offer an avenue for continuing war by other means.

But large sporting events are much more than a source of facile metaphors; they have also played an integral part in political events. While in antiquity the Olympic truce suspended wars and allowed people to travel safely, in the modern era it has worked more frequently the other way round: politics has muscled its way into sports. Andrew Strenk, a former Olympics historian at the University of Southern California, crystallized the mechanism neatly: “Sport can be a very useful political and diplomatic tool and weapon in gaining prestige, protesting various situations, spreading propaganda, and in recognizing or isolating another nation.”   

Examples of the usage of this tool are countless, and this year proved to be no exception. The besieged regime of Bashar al-Assad instructed the Syrian team in London to bring a “message of peace” to the Olympics. Political undertones could be detected after the record-breaking performance of Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen, which was likened by an American swimming coach to the drug-enhanced feats of East German athletes. In that most classic of political rivalries, French President Francois Hollande went to London to say that: “The British have rolled out the red carpet for French athletes to win medals”—a neat paraphrasing of UK Prime Minister’s David Cameron’s invitation to French businesses to move to Britain.

The summer’s real highlight seems light-years away, but provides the most glaring example of the sport-politics nexus—and of its serious limits. It was indeed only two months ago that international public opinion drummed up momentum against the disturbing erosion of political and civil rights in Ukraine, one of the organizers of the European football tournament. Julia Tymoshenko, a former Prime Minister convicted on charges of fraud, an accusation believed to be politically motivated, alleged that she has been mistreated in jail, and took pictures to prove it.

But as Euro-2012 went on, it became clear that the much-touted possibility of a political boycott of Ukraine would never succeed. While some EU member states such as France and Britain chose not to send government officials to Ukraine, others such as the Netherlands and Denmark did. German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Ukraine a “dictatorship.” But Italy’s premier Mario Monti and his Spanish counterpart Mariano Rajoy attended the final match that their national teams played in Kiev, only a couple of seats away from Ukraine’s embattled President Viktor Yanukovic.

In retrospect, it is hard to see how it could have played out any differently. In recent years, a war in Iraq, revolutions in Eastern Europe, and upheavals in the Arab world were not enough to bring about European unity in foreign policy. It is not entirely clear why and how a football tournament was supposed to accomplish this feat. Yet, Euro-2012 confirmed to Yanukovic, and to anyone else who cared to notice, that Europe does not have a common foreign policy when it matters.

This sorry outcome helps to show the real glue bringing politics and big sporting events together: show-business. The emotional appeal of competitions and the 24/7 news cycle constitute too tempting a cocktail for publicity-thirsty policy-makers. When it comes to visibility, what one stands for politically is almost beside the point. You need look no further than the VIP section in Ukraine, which hosted even Alexander Lukashenko, Europe’s last dictator (Lukashenko was subsequently refused accreditation for the London Olympics).

The media spotlight is a double-edged sword. A high-level event can catalyze everyone’s attention on often little-known issues involving far-away people. Yet a cursory treatment of a difficult problem can lead to simplifications, contradictions at the least, if not a glaring display of our limitations. Complex international dossiers counsel time and reflection. They may require explanations that go far back in time and demand a little more of our increasingly short attention-span. These explanations will not always produce clear winners and losers. And in contrast to sports, politics does not always play by the rules. A politician championing an obscure political cause during an important sporting event should be taken with a pinch of salt. Whenever that happens, we have a right to demand that our representatives do not put the flame out after two weeks. If fact, it may be fair to demand that they carry around their chosen political torch during all those other summers when we are not glued to our flat screens. That would make for a great new Olympic discipline. 

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