May 12, 2007

Sport, Politics and Boycotts

Recently the Australian cricket team like the English team before them have come up against the problem of whether to play matches against Zimbabwe and potentially legitimise the regime there. Of course cricket has been here before- there was a boycott of South Africa launched in the 1980s thanks to that country's abuses against its black population. Many argued at the time that the English team under Nasser Hussein ought to boycott Zimbabwe in the cricket world cup of 2003. Likewise now it seems that many Australians are calling for their team to boycott a prospective tour of Zimbabwe- James Higham has more details at his blog. The issue of whether to boycott or not is an interesting one- especially with the Olympics in China, a country that abuses the rights of Tibetans and its own population continuously and refuses to recognise the democratic integrity of the island of Taiwan, coming up- but this post doesn't really concern that issue.

It is difficult- especially for sportsmen and women whose careers rest upon their decisions to take those decisions. Most of us would agree that most of the time sportsmen ought to play abroad- we would all feel a little odd should a leftwing footballer refuse to play in France because of the Sarkozy government or a rightwing one refuse to play in Scotland because of the SNP- so there are degrees. Human rights alone might not furnish enough justification either- firstly again there are gradations of abuse and secondly it might not always necessarily be always true that not playing will help the local population. Many of these decisions to have an impact needs a corporate decision say from a players union in order to have effect- even a decision from an association for the sport- this opens up a new question.

The reason that sporting teams should not play in repressive countries, according to supporters of boycotts, is because it encourages the dictatorial regime. Now the problem is that sports teams in a sense represent countries- individuals and even associations take decisions ultimately only representing themselves- but a decision to go to say Zimbabwe is seen as a decision to tolerate the government by the UK. Hence it seems to me justifiable that it ought to be the government that reccomends and helps the sporting bodies take the blow if there is one. Politicians ought not to be cowards and advise but not tell the associations not to go. Doing so is the ultimate in political cowardice because ultimately the politician hides behind the sporting authority and lets that authority take a sometimes massive financial hit- something that the politician ultimately doesn't have to worry about whereas the sporting body does have to worry about it.

Ultimately if a decision is to be forced upon anyone, politicians ought to have the courage to do the forcing rather than use the press to force sports authorities to boycott. Utlimately as well sportsmen ought to be able to withdraw out of conscience but take the cost of such a withdrawel. Where a national association withdraws from an engagement with a foreign side on grounds such as those that the cricketers are under pressure to withdraw in Zimbabwe, they are making a statement for the nation and ought to be guided in that choice by politicians and furthermore the cost should be born nationally because the sporting association is acting as a national institution, not a private one.


Political Umpire said...

G, only time for a very brief comment:

1. The SA boycott started in the 70s, not 80s.

2. At least initially it began not specifically because of the abuse of the blacks, but because the SA authorities tried to interfere with the selection of the English team to tour there in the very early 70s. The English (not initially) wanted to include Basil D'Olivera, a Cape Coloured, and SA said no, so no tour happened. This lead to the withdrawal of the SA tour to England (replaced by a rest of the world team) and the cancellation of all cricketing contact (the subcontinent and West Indies never played them anyway). It all lead to the Gleneagles agreement in about 77 from memory banning all sporting contact (though the NZ rugby union split that country by agreeing to an official tour in 81).

All the while we continued sporting relations with the East European and other African dictatorships, of course, including the likes of Romania, whose gvt was then rated worse by the UN than SA's ....

Political Umpire said...

... 3. which isn't to say I disagreed with the ban on SA, or a ban on Zim now (I do agree with both ...)

Gracchi said...

Apologies on 1 this is the fault of being too young at the time- I didn't exist in the 70s and didn't realise about the context. And as for the Eastern European thing I agree- the interesting question about China and the Olympics deserves to be posed at the moment. Its really who takes the decision that I think is at stake in this argument for me and not particular decisions- in a way your point explains a lot because I doubt most sports players would have a better idea than I do of the history of boycotts and why they were brought in- again it makes the case for going back to governmetns.

Its not an easy issue either- thanks for your clarifications :)

Political Umpire said...

Hi G, I did exist in the 70s though wasn't old enough to understand any of it. I do have childhood memories of the Springbok tour to NZ in '81 - mainly just how angry it made people on both sides.

The questions boil down to this:

(1) we do huge business with China, just as we did with Apatheid SA. There's no call for economic sanctions now with repressive regimes, which usually hurt everyone but the leaders. Why should sport be different? It's a form of business. It has maybe more symbolism but equally lesser economic effect than other business.

(2) How bad does the regime in question have to be? Military dictatorship (Pakistan)? Instigators of an unpopular war (UK)? Operator of unique system of racial discrimination (apatheid SA)? Or just old fashioned oppressor/fascist (Zimbabwe)?

Anonymous said...


Regarding your first point about economic sanctions I would argue that although it is true that sport is a business you have to consider that a national sporting team is meant to represent the entire nation. People, to a degree, define themselves and their national identity via support for a national sporting team. You can build a short-lived but intense bond with a complete stranger while watching an important national sporting event - the same cannot be said between Tesco's customers!

What I really mean is that from the conduct of a national sporting team there is an inference, rightly or wrongly, that this represents a nation. The same inference is not made from the conduct of businesses.