Mixing politics and play: Russian protests and sporting boycotts

International protests against Russia’s anti-gay laws are the latest in a long history of attempts to boycott international sporting events. Photo: Julius Reque/Flickr


Comment by David Rowe
Calls for boycott of a mega-event because of the host country's national politics are never far away, and the image battle rages in the media. In this article from The Conversation, David Rowe examines the relationship between sport and politics.

The mantra that “sport and politics don’t mix” was always false and misleading, but in the age of Twitter it’s absurd.

Calling for boycotts of high-profile sporting events is an established political tactic among social movements. The most recent case concerns the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia and the protest against new laws banning the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations among minors”, which effectively criminalise the discussion of homo-, bi- and trans-sexuality with anyone under 18.

The omnipresent British television personality Stephen Fry has been especially active on the subject, even meeting with prime minister David Cameron in a London pub co-owned by revered actor and gay rights advocate Sir Ian McKellen. The campaign has received support from other prominent people, such as actor Rupert Everett, although a large-scale boycott is highly unlikely to eventuate.

Vladimir Putin has since signed a presidential decree banning all “gatherings, rallies, demonstrations, marches and pickets that are not related to the Olympics and Paralympics” from January 7 to March 21, 2014. Special controls are always introduced in mega sport event zones, but Putin’s suppression of any public assembly that is not part of the official Olympic show is clearly designed to stifle all local dissent concerning gay or any other rights.

It is easier to boycott a brand than an event, with the Dump Russian Vodka campaign causing the Stolichnaya CEO to condemn the laws in an open letter and its website to pledge support to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) that awarded the games to Sochi and the principal Australian Olympic broadcaster ABC have received similar pressure, including a petition from Athlete Ally and All Out urging the International Olympic Committee and world leaders to call for the elimination of discriminatory laws that persecute the LGBT community.

Social movement mobilisation using the threat of a sporting boycott has a long, varied history. Despite urging, the 1936 Berlin “Nazi” Olympics was not boycotted by the major Olympic nations of the day; while a whole nation, South Africa, was boycotted by many sports and countries for over two decades during the apartheid era. This sporting sanction has been widely acknowledged as highly effective in isolating and weakening a racist regime.

Among the most contentious boycotts was promoted by the United States government and targeted the 1980 Moscow Olympics to protest against the invasion of Afghanistan. This prompted a retaliatory Eastern bloc no-show at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

Since then, and especially following the advent of the internet, mega sport events have regularly attracted loud media-directed protests and threatened boycotts.

The reason for using sport as a focus for political action is fairly obvious. Hosting global sport spectacles like the Olympics and FIFA World Cup involves vast expense and an enormous exercise in image management. Cities and nations compete vigorously to secure the prize, and the competitors seek any advantage, including direct or implied accusations that a host is unworthy to receive the honour.

It is believed, for example, that Australia narrowly defeated China in the 1993 ballot for the 2000 Olympics because some countries, with the orchestrated encouragement of the Australian bid team, were troubled by China’s human rights record.

Ironically, there were concerns that several African countries would, at the invitation of some of Australia’s aggrieved Indigenous people, boycott Sydney 2000. Also faced with a potential Aboriginal boycott – including calls for figurehead Cathy Freeman to refuse to participate – the Sydney 2000 Olympic Bid Ltd put considerable effort into closely involving Aboriginal people in the Cultural Olympiad, the lighting of the cauldron, and in the Opening and Closing Ceremonies.

Having learnt a bitter lesson, China left nothing to chance when next bidding for the Games in 2001, hiring Western public relations companies to soften its image. Having won the bid, however, China then saw worldwide protests and demands to boycott Beijing 2008, culminating in the nightly news fiasco of the Torch Relay passing through Europe and North America surrounded by heavy security and jeering crowds.

In neither case did a boycott ensue, but its threat is always potent because mega sport events depend on the sustained projection of universal human amity that, however flawed, cannot allow the illusion to be shattered by pointed absences. When these holes in the global sporting fabric occur, instead of highlighting the host’s advantages and positive accomplishments, unwelcome attention turns to their blemishes and failures.

Because such image battles are fought in the media, and mega sport is nothing if not a media spectacle, boycott calls are never far away. This technique turns the attention-seeking rationale of global sport event impression management against itself. Hence, in recent times there have been attempts to boycott:

  • the Euro 2012 football championship over political repression in co-host Ukraine
  • the London 2012 Games because of “NATO war crimes” in Iraq and Afghanistan
  • the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Olympics in Brazil because of corruption and mass evictions
  • the 2018 Russia and 2022 Qatar FIFA World Cups over gay rights.

There are many other examples.

With Australia hosting the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, and Australasia the ICC World Cup in the same year, it can be predicted safely that boycott calls will ensue over issues such as the treatment of asylum seekers.

Sport and politics don’t just mix – they’re married with children.

David Rowe is a professor of cultural research at the University of Western Sydney. The article was originally published on The Conversation on 26 August 2013, and is republished on Play the Game’s website with kind permission from the author.


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