Saturday, December 16, 2006

Sport and politics uncomfortable bedfellows

Oddly, it was the old chestnut of whether sport and politics mix that came to mind while watching the golf Ryder Cup recently. This was not because the Ryder Cup is particularly political, but because it appears so apolitical. The two world super economic powers, the EU and US, competing is presented as a jolly good struggle going back for decades. On one level, it is simply that, yet on another the tournament is laden with symbols. The ostentatious economic power driving the event, the lack of racial diversity on the course (sorry, Tiger) and in the stands, George Bush Snr relaxing and taking in the action, and that it is one place where people can chant “USA! USA!” these days without starting a riot, all belies a wider context in which the event took place.

Of course, one would not want to turn such events into political footballs. The tournament’s acontextual and trouble-free environment is exactly what makes it easy watching. But it does beg the question – how closely should sport and politics be related? The Olympic Charter opposes political abuse of sport and athletes, a point with which most of us would agree. Take, for example, the recent Formula One Grand Prix in Turkey. The Turkish government abused the occasion politically. Mehmet Ali Talat, who presented the winner’s trophy, was introduced as the “President of the Northern Turkish Republic of Cyprus”. This was a piece of political theatre, as it is only Turkey that recognises the northern part of Cyprus as a separate entity. The result was a $5-million fine by the sports governing body.

The tricky issue, however, is not about the political abuse of sport, but whether political abuse can be prevented by sport. The most notable case was the sporting boycott against South Africa, aimed at ending apartheid. The South African case set a precedent, and it continues to throw up complications today.

Arguably, the South African sports boycott was made easier because apartheid was declared a crime against humanity. But where do sports boycotts stand in relation to other types of abuses and actions? Should the US have been prevented from playing in the Ryder Cup because its government is engaged in an illegal war in Iraq? Should there be a sports boycott, as many lobby groups profess, against Israel because of its treatment of the Palestinians? I do not want to get into the validity of such cases, as I will upset someone and I am not very fast over 100m, but the cases clearly demonstrate the intricacy of the relationship between sport and politics. The mere mention of these examples is, no doubt, enough to make some people spitting mad. Perhaps, the real question then is: why does the issue of sport and politics evoke such an emotive reaction? One reason is that sport is a way of taking refuge from the world of politics. Sport pretends there is no wider context. The sports arena is allegedly an uncomplicated place, where the best person wins. But the best person does not always win: socioeconomic status, political conditions and equality of opportunity, not to mention drugs, can all influence your chance of success. Sports have also always been mixed with nationalist fervour. They can also be used to cement political projects. Think of the impact of Nelson Mandela’s donning the Springbok rugby jersey in the early 1990s. So, believing that sport is unrelated to politics is about as unrealistic as thinking Tiger Woods is going to miss a six-inch putt. The so-called gap between sport and politics is a false distinction.

The question, therefore, is not whether sport and politics are linked, but how we can discuss them in a rational way. Or is looking for a constructive and unemotive approach to the sport and politics debate as dim-witted as attempting the pole vault with a matchstick?

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, May 2006. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 6 October 2006.