One of the few plusses of sliding beyond a certain age is that, whatever your views, they tend to become more strident and either black or, alternatively, white. I find that my youthful wishy-washy liberal desire to see all sides of every argument has tended to recede into the rear-view mirror as I accelerate towards the proverbial cliff of life in the style of Thelma & Louise [the 1991 Ridley Scott movie starring Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon].
In the two decades after 1965, which is the year I finger as being about the time I became aware of the world in a political sense, I wrestled with both sides of the ‘sport and politics shouldn’t mix’ and ‘get real – don’t be ridiculous – in human society such things as dignity, respect and freedom from racism and tyranny are actually more important than that’ argument.
During that period, of course, there was the sporting (and artistic) isolation of South Africa over its state-sponsored apartheid policy, famously opposed – the isolation, not the apartheid policy(!) – by Tory premier Margaret Thatcher. This encompassed the MCC getting itself tied in knots over the Basil D’Oliviera Affair, various global anti-apartheid protest movements around the world – not least the Peter Hain-orchestrated one that attempted to disrupt the 1969-70 South African rugby tour of the UK – and ongoing controversies over whether the All Blacks should tour South Africa and a succession of ‘unofficial’ (highly-lucrative but much-criticised) cricket and rugby tours there.
For a time, there were good sportsmen (and women) and true on both sides of the fence, i.e. those that took personal stands to ostracise South Africa and those who espoused the principle that politics should have no part in sport.
Then there was the Moscow 1980. At the time Russia was conducting its own, ultimately futile, war in Afghanistan and ‘The West’ (primarily the USA and Britain) decided to teach the Russian bear a lesson by promoting a boycott of its summer Olympics.
In Britain – as I recall it – we couldn’t even ‘do’ that properly: Maggie Thatcher’s government strongly advised our sportsmen and women not to go, but ultimately left the final decision to the consciences of the British Olympic Association and individual athletes.
I guess it speaks volumes about the ‘politics and sport’ issue that the verdict of history – judged by what we remember of Moscow 1980 these days, looking backwards from thirty-four years on – majors on the 800 and 1500 metre rivalry of Seb Coe and Steve Ovett and Alan Wells’ gold medal in the men’s 100 metre dash … with the boycott a distant last.
Which brings me to my subject today.
Leopards don’t change their spots. Anyone who thought that the supposed ending of the Cold War, plus collapse of the USSR and the Berlin Wall, would inexorably lead to the arrival in an idealistic sunny uplands of global harmony of an outward-looking, democratised, Russia needed to have their heads examined.
Russians are instinctively programmed not only to follow their leaders, however ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ they are, but also to believe everything that their government tells them.
You could point out to a Russian that polar bears are white, but that doesn’t mean they’d agree. He or she would be perfectly happy to argue that polar bears are black if either they’ve been told to do so and/or it suits what they regards as their national interest.
In Russian society, truth, integrity, transparency and honesty are never principles or absolutes – instead they’re malleable, flexible, moveable, fluid and manipulative feasts. Ask the powerful oligarchs, the state dictatorship, the secret service operatives, the drug-runners, the mafia members and the gangsters who all have their place in everyday Russian life.
How else do we explain the Russian actions on Ukraine and the Crimea? Their attitude towards gays and lesbians? Their lip-service (only) to democratic principles.
I began my world and social awareness as a firm believer that sport and politics should not mix.
Later I accepted that, whilst perhaps that was correct as a principle, in practice (i.e. in the real world) they did mix, whether anyone liked it or not.
I was pleased, indeed proud, that the sporting boycott of South Africa – which I was originally against – had contributed to the end of apartheid.
I’m only going on what I’ve seen and read in the media, so I could have been brainwashed by The West’s powers-that-be, but – as I see it – Russia’s performance over the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 is way beyond the Pale.
It’s plain that The West hasn’t been able to make its sanctions (imposed upon Russia for its performance over Ukraine) ‘bite’ – in this regard, the USA appears to blame the EU for its weak-kneed attitude, prompted by naked self-interest in terms of the oil and gas it gets from Russia.
But let’s not shilly-shally about.
In my view, it’s a pity that Russia has been awarded the hosting of the 2018 soccer World Cup because, had that not been the case, things would be marginally simpler in my world.
Arguably, any boycott of the 2018 World Cup is unlikely to work. Individual players, countries and world organisations might make their own decisions about whether they wish to go to Russia for that tournament, but sadly, Moscow 1980 demonstrates that boycotting that global events is ultimately unlikely to make much of a dent in errant nations’ attitudes. Moscow 2018 is going to take place anyway, come what may … and, when you think about it, the more who boycott it, the greater the likelihood that the host nation will do well in the tournament.
Why doesn’t every sporting governing body in the world immediately ban Russia and its athletes from taking part in any major sporting event for an initial, but rolling, five year period?
With this decision to be revisited, based upon an United Nations ‘special committee’ review of Russia’s performance in world affairs in the meantime, taking place not before 1st July 2019.
That might make Mr President Blood-On-His-Hands Putin sit up and take notice.