Is sport above human rights?

Just hours before England secured a place in the Euro 2012 quarter finals, sports enthusiasts and free expression advocates gathered at the Free Word Centre on Tuesday, discussing whether human rights has any place in the world of major sporting events, from Bahrain’s Grand Prix to the Olympics.

On the panel was award-winning sports journalist and author Mihir Bose, Chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association Clarke Carlisle and historian Martin Polley.

The evening began with a discussion of Euro 2012 amid reports that racism is rampant among the host countries’ football culture.

Northampton Town footballer Clarke Carlisle said that, with Euro 2012, Uefa failed in its duty of care to minority players and supporters. He was a great believer of football’s power to get messages across, he said, but it was important to understand the realities of the situation, ­including that football, along with most other sports, had been corrupted by money. Most players have other priorities: when asked whether players would notice the absence of UK government ministers’ (a protest at Ukraine’s human rights record), Carlisle answered: “Not one iota.”

Uefa, the International Olympic Committee and other sporting bodies have become big businesses. They view racism as society’s problem, not something they have to deal with, said Mihir Bose. “Are these organisations fit for purpose?” he asked. If sport wants to operate as a big business, it must adhere to the rules of corporate governance that other companies must accept.

Martin Polley railed against what he referred to as the “psuedo-religion” of the Olympics, ­ where governments, sporting body officials and others celebrate the so-called “good” implicit in the Games, the idea that the Olympics can somehow benefit society. Reminding the audience how sport can be used to support political aims, he pointed to the 1936 Berlin Games, where, after a brief attempt to bring the “bourgeois” event to an end, the Nazi party took full advantage of the propaganda opportunities at its disposal.

The panellists reflected on the ways corporate sponsors will dominate the London landscape during the Olympics, mocking Coca-Cola’s “pouring rights”, the prospect that an individual could be fined for wearing clothing featuring logos outside the Olympic “family” of sponsors and the London 2012 bidders’ promise of a “clean city”, free of any billboard featuring a non-Olympic sponsor.

With the legacy of the Olympics looming in Londoners’ minds, the acknowledgment that racism was still prevalent in British football and the bleak picture of East London trampled over by the Olympic’s organising committee (Locog) ­ as described by the Counter Olympic Group, members of which were in the audience, there were more than a few reasons to be a little gloomy. But with such informed and fascinating panelists and fantastic audience engagement, there was also a feeling that there was a lot more to do and a lot more to learn.

And then England won 1-0.

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