Opinion – The politics of sport, from the Olympics to the Maccabiah Games

Opinion – The politics of sport, from the Olympics to the Maccabiah Games

By Jemma WAYNE, blogger and author.

Stephen Fry’s recent call to boycott the Winter Olympics in Russia is only the most recent posing of the question: should sport and politics mix? Comparing the upcoming Sochi Games to the 1936 Olympics held in Nazi Germany, he argued that Russia’s appalling policies of discrimination towards gay people demanded that Putin not “be seen to have the approval of the civilised world”.

Jemma Wayne
Jemma Wayne

But is sport a medium through which to fight political battles? If we believe something to be wrong, should it not be opposed all the time, not merely during the Olympics? Should we not utilise political channels to demand change? Should this not be the job of our politicians?

And until we exhaust these avenues, surely it is not right to sacrifice our athletes’ dreams for gesture?

The flaw in this thinking is that sport is clearly not free from politics. The debacle of awarding sweltering Qatar the World Cup is one example. But there is another far closer to our own Jewish community – Maccabi and the Maccabiah Games. A cross-continent, cross-age, celebration of Jewish sport. What the heck is Jewish sport?!

On its website, the Maccabi World Union declares its purpose as being: “A Zionist organisation that utilises sports as a means to bring Jewish people of all ages closer to Judaism and Israel…”

Utilises sport? Uses it? As a political and religious tool? Supposedly it highly values the competition as well, the discipline and the excellence.

Yet not enough, as was made clear at this most recent Games when a GB water-polo player (in the interest of full disclosure – my husband), was intentionally assaulted during a match, sending him to hospital and out of the Games, the Italian opponent to a measly two-match ban – despite admitting intent during a hearing. The Italian had apologised, explained the hearing’s panel. So that’s OK then. At least that’s enough for the powers that be to ignore the clear values of sport in favour of preserving a happy family. In favour of its higher purpose – positive promotion of Israel.

But of course thuggery in sport is certainly not confined to Jewish competitions, and is nothing new. Also old news is drug-taking, match-fixing, inappropriate advertising…the list goes on.

And here lies the conundrum. Sport can only claim to be something different from politics, something separate and better, and worthy of protecting from it, if it maintains its purity. If it truly places sporting values of fair play above everything else. Sadly this is rarely the case.

It is bemoaned on occasion by various athletes that they did not ask to be rolemodels – they asked only to be footballers, or cyclists. Yet if they upheld only the values expected of them, only the rules of their sport, then at least while the camera is on them and the crowds are cheering, they would be models of good behaviour anyway.

Such principles may seem secondary to the physical triumphs on display, but they cannot – or should not – be separable. And the duty to ensure this lies with sport’s governing bodies.

Administrators must protect the purity of physical pursuit with absolute stringency. They must enforce its rules and the spirit of its rules, without exception.

They must acknowledge and take responsibility for influences both internal and external that compromise this, and guard against such interference. For it is only when proper governance occurs, that the athletes themselves can be free.

Since Russia’s internal policies do not support the rights of gay people, yet the Olympic charter does, the decision should never have been made to hold the Games in Sochi. Yet it is not fair now to ask individual athletes or delegations to give up their hard-won places at the pinnacle of their sport.

The Maccabi World Union is at least upfront about its intentions, and there are undoubtedly myriad social and cultural benefits to it.

Yet even this only works if the sport itself is respected and protected. Without this, whatever the sphere, excellence is reduced to a bunch of grown men running in circles, or faking falls while they chase a piece of cow-hide round a patch of grass.

And at the cost of gay rights (or my husband’s face), that is not something worth defending.

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