Opinions - 09.05.2012 - 00:00 

Sports as a platform for politics

<br/>The European Football Championship is controversial. What impact do boycotts of large-scale sports events have at a political level? Martin Müller about sports as a political platform in Eastern Europe.<br/>


8 May 2012. From 8 June onwards, more than 150 million viewers worldwide will be watching a ball as if spellbound. The opening game of the European Football Championship in Warsaw will mark the beginning of one of Europe’s biggest media events. The European citizens’ attention is precious: the media rights to the European Championship have been sold for more than a billion Swiss francs while sponsorship and merchandising will generate another estimated 350 million. After all, where else can you get an opportunity to place yourself so prominently in the public eye?

Boycott of the games in Ukraine
This is very likely what the German Federal Chancellor, Angela Merkel, was thinking when she announced in late April that she may well not pay a visit to the European Championship – at least as long as the opposition politician and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is imprisoned in Ukraine, is not released. Tymoshenko had started a hunger strike on 20 April to draw attention to inhumane prison conditions. The point in time six weeks before kick-off is unlikely to have been accidental with the media-savvy politician. On Thursday, the EU Commission followed Merkel’s lead and explained that they wanted to stay away from the event. The reaction by the Ukrainian government was as vehement as it was predictable: a government spokesman reproached Merkel for employing the methods of the Cold War and of making sports a hostage to politics.

Using large-scale sports events as a political platform is nothing new. Emerging nations, in particular, like to make use of such occasions to present their countries to an international public as liberal-minded and progressive. China, for instance, had its world premiere with the 2008 Olympic Games, and South Africa with the 2010 World Cup. Conversely, however, such events also constitute a platform for international political protest. In 1980, the teams of 62 nations stayed away from the Olympic Games in Moscow after US President Jimmy Carter had called for a boycott to signal disapproval of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

“Sports are sports” will remain UEFA’s motto
For the Union of European Football Association (UEFA), politics and sports live in different pigeonholes. This is why there is not any great applause for a boycott on their part. UEFA is in a delicate position: so late before the start, it depends on Ukraine. A relocation of the games, as suggested in some quarters, is a logistical impossibility. Therefore UEFA must of necessity bolster up the host country by labelling sports as an apolitical end in themselves.

Yet the political exploitation of the European Championship has long taken place in Ukraine. The preparation of the organisation is perceived as an exercise in patriotism. Government funds flow abundantly to spruce up airports, streets, hotels and stadiums for the public behind the TV and computer screens. In this way, the regime aims to build legitimacy vis-à-vis the outside world while an image of everything being hunky dory is being presented, which has little to do with everyday life in the country, where ever since the presidential elections of 2010, a political elite has been at the helm who is more concerned with itself than with the population. Handsome sums from the funds for government contracts for the European Championship are channelled into private pockets. The show trial of Tymoshenko is an indication of the ailing condition of law and order.

Signal against abuses
Thus Angela Merkel did not only act correctly but also appropriately. A country that wants to become a member of the European community of nations cannot be “all show and no substance”. By threatening to stay away herself – but not with the German national team doing likewise – she emitted a political signal. If Ukraine really adheres to the separation of sports and politics, then it is likely to pay relatively little attention to Merkel’s absence. After all, it will have no influence on what’s going on on the pitch.

Even if during the European Championship, many of us will be more interested in sports than in politics: our very attention will allow people to send effective signals against the violation of human rights. So don’t let’s avert our eyes.

Picture: Photocase / Rebekkaw

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