In a league of its own
As sports stories grab the headlines in the run up to the Olympics, Martin Polley explores the human rights issues surrounding sporting events
19 Jun 12

Sport on TrialAs sports stories grab the headlines in the run up to the Olympics, Martin Polley explores the human rights issues surrounding sporting events


Cross-posted from Independent Blogs

London gets ready to host the Olympic Games and the Paralympics, it is not just sports stories that have been grabbing the headlines. Controversies are abounding, ranging from the politics of squad selection to the relevance of drugs bans, via missiles on the rooftops and the exclusive traffic lanes.

Alongside these political concerns, there is a growing awareness of how human rights issues intersect with the Olympics. The IOC claim that “the practice of sport is a human right”, but this year, there are clear gaps between rhetoric and reality. Questions are being asked about Syria’s presence at the Games in the light of the recent massacres. This newspaper’s exposure of the conditions in which adidas is making Olympic clothing drew attention to labour abuses in the name of the Games. Saudi Arabia is planning to send only male competitors, despite the IOC’s Fundamental Principle 6, which prohibits “any form of discrimination with record to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise”. Add to this the other recent examples of sport being linked to human rights issues, from the Bahrain Grand Prix to Ukraine’s treatment of political prisoners while it hosts the European football championships, and you can see that we are in a fascinating time. People are looking to sport to live up to its ideals and start making the world a better place.

How did we get here? Is this a recent phenomenon, or is there a longer history? Work that I’ve been doing for the Free Word Centre’s Politics & Olympics: Ideals and Realities exhibition shows a long history.

Governments and non-governmental political organisations have long taken an interest in sport, but it was in the 1930s that people began to link sport to human rights. And just as it was the Nazis who invented the Olympic torch, so it was the Nazis that sparked these early protests.

Here, the TUC campaigned against the 1935 friendly football match between England and Germany which, thanks to some bright spark at the Football Association, was played at White Hart Lane, the North London home of Tottenham Hotspur, a team with a large Jewish following. Walter Citrine of the TUC lobbied the Home Secretary, arguing that there should be no sport against a government-backed team from a country where Jews, trade unionists, and political opponents were being denied their basic rights. He lost the argument and the game went ahead, with England winning 3-0. But the precedent was set, and Jewish, Communist, and trade union groups on both sides of the Atlantic ran campaigns against the 1936 Berlin Olympics on similar lines: that there should be no sport with countries where citizens were losing their human rights.

The same arguments re-emerged in the 1960s over South Africa: if a country picks its teams on racial lines, then we should not dignify them with competition. The sporting campaigns under the anti-apartheid banner targeted cricket and rugby union tours, and the Commonwealth Games. Indeed, the IOC took the brave step of expelling South Africa from the Olympics in 1962, making it clear that they would not be allowed back until they had non-racial sport systems in place. The ban lasted until 1992. The IOC applied the same sanction to Rhodesia between 1968 and the end of white minority rule.

These expulsions were exceptional. The IOC’s default position has been that Olympic involvement can serve as an agent for change. They have used this liberal leverage argument whenever the Olympics have been hosted by dictatorships, as at Berlin in 1936, Moscow in 1980, and Beijing in 2008. For sure, all three of those cities showed some kind of improvement during the Olympics. We could call this the Olympic Pause effect, a phenomenon which commentators in noticed in 1936 when Berliners were told to be polite to foreign visitors, even if they looked like Jews. We all know that this tokenism ended the minute the Games left town. In Beijing, the pause led to the creation of ‘free speech’ zones, but there is no evidence of any significant post-Olympic improvement in human rights in China.

It’s also worth recalling the IOC’s attitude to the atrocious act of state terrorism that took place a week before the Mexico City Olympics in 1968. Student protesters used the media attention that the Games brought to call for political reform. The government responded by shooting on the demonstration, leaving anything between 30 and 300 dead and thousands arrested. The IOC did nothing, and the Games went ahead.

The links between human rights and sport are unavoidable. Sport does not take place in a political or ethical vacuum, and if the simplistic yet valuable notion of ‘fair play’ means anything, then it has to include our ability to question the human rights records of countries who want to be treated normally on the sports field. The idea of Olympism is a laudable one: but, if it is to live up to its rhetoric, we need to see more of the political courage that the IOC showed in its attitude to apartheid South Africa, and less of its current policy of putting commercial success ahead of individual freedoms.

Martin Polley is a sports historian, author, broadcaster and senior lecturer in sport at the University of Southampton