What was that about sports promoting international harmony and understanding?
As the hour approached for the opening whistle of the Euro 2012 soccer tournament on Friday, it was mostly discord that was in evidence.
Poland and Ukraine are co-hosting what my colleague Jeré Longman has described as “the most important sporting event in Eastern Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall.”
The 16-nation tournament had been seen as an opportunity for the two former Soviet bloc states to showcase their incorporation into the wider European family over the past two decades.
But, even before the first ball was kicked, the four-yearly sports festival had provoked recriminations and boycotts linked to Ukraine’s human rights record and the alleged racism among local fans in both countries.
“The hope is that a million tourists, who have never visited Poland or Ukraine, will see enough to make them want to visit again,” wrote Rob Hughes, the IHT’s soccer reporter in his front-page article today. “The fear is that even if new infrastructures are ready, old, intolerant attitudes toward race may not be.”
On the political front, the British government on Thursday became the latest to announce that its ministers and officials would boycott the qualifying rounds of the tournament in protest at “selective justice and the rule of law in Ukraine.” (It hedged its bet by not ruling out attendance at later matches in the unlikely event that the England team advances to the final.)
Other European governments had already said they would not attend matches in Ukraine, citing the incarceration and alleged mistreatment ofYulia Tymoshenko, the jailed Ukrainian opposition leader.
The clash of sports and politics is nothing new. The ancient Spartans were barred from the Olympic Games for refusing to pay a fine for breaking a truce — and that was in 420 B.C.
In modern times, money has been thrown into the often poisonous politico-sporting mix to ensure that no international sporting gathering is just about the games. Allegations of corruption and profiteering are now a familiar leitmotiv.
“Indeed, the belief that sports on an international scale can operate outside national, economic or even political realities is no longer possible,” Rob wrote in an earlier piece.
“Prestigious events like the Olympics, World Cup and European Championships require governmental backing, international security enforcement and cooperation between all sectors of society.”
Do host countries exaggerate the benefits and prestige of staging major international events, while others over-estimate the effectiveness of their periodic boycotts?
Countries frequently put themselves in hock for the glory of hosting sporting festivals whose legacy is soon forgotten, while boycotts rarely spark a change in the behavior of the offending party.
In 1980, the United States led a Western boycott of the Moscow Olympic Games to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Moscow’s predictable reaction was to remain in Afghanistan and lead its own tit-for-tat boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
Does the current pressure on Ukraine stand any greater chance of changing its government’s behavior, or is it just a case of gesture politics on the part of the boycotters? It is only a half-boycott anyway, since none of Ukraine’s critics has actually proposed pulling teams out of the games.
An analysis of current Ukrainian politics suggests the powerful oligarchy surrounding President Viktor Yanukovych is quite happy to inhabit a “grey zone” between the European Union and Russia in which “its members may continue their self-enrichment unhindered by reforms.”
“Boycotts of the Euro 2012 football tournament may not concern the oligarchs around Yanukovych very much,” the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies concluded.