Dear Friends,

In case you hadn’t noticed, the Winter Olympic Games are presently taking place in and around Beijing in China. As someone who has neither skied nor skated – although I do recall as a child going tobogganing, or as we called it, ‘sledging’ – and whose appreciation of so-called ‘winter sports’ is confined to rugby and football, I must confess I am not that interested. But the Games have found themselves wrapped up in political controversy with a number of countries, including our own, imposing a ‘diplomatic boycott’. This is in protest at China’s appalling human rights record, especially in respect of the Uyghur people – Muslim by religion – who are being forced to undergo a state run ‘re-education’ programme. Interestingly, there is a Uyghur restaurant on the Finchley Road just beyond the Child’s Hill turn off. The interaction between sport and politics has history; what might be described as the weaponization, or politicisation of sport. Perhaps the earliest example in the modern era was the 1968 Olympics in Mexico with the giving of ‘black power’ salutes on the podium. Although, ironically, the Berlin Olympics of 1936 intended to be a show case for Nazi ideology was subverted by the performance of the black American sprinter, Jesse Owens. My own up-front experience of the ferocity of political protest at a sporting event was in November 1969 when as a 12-year-old school boy I was taken to watch Newport play the South African rugby tourists. As with every other match on the tour, it was targeted by anti-apartheid protesters who formed a picket line to confront all those going in to watch the game in the hope of persuading them not to. As someone who maybe should have known better, even at the tender age of 12, I crossed the picket line, went into the ground, and enjoyed watching Newport defeat the tourists 11-6. (Picket lines would feature heavily later on in my life – but that’s another story). Not long afterwards South Africa did find itself excluded from nearly all major sporting events although there were those who took delight in organising sanctions busting tours. Not until the collapse of the apartheid regime and the institution of black majority rule would South Africa find itself welcomed ‘back’ into the sporting world; culminating in playing host to the rugby world cup in 1995 and the football world cup in 2010. We will never know how much if at all the sporting boycott helped to hasten the collapse of apartheid. No doubt it was one among many factors that contributed to its downfall. If I had my time over, would I still have crossed that picket line? Honestly, I don’t know. And that may well be the reason why it is necessary for such protests to go ahead. Precisely because too many of us remain indifferent to what is at stake. Modern media has allowed us to know about the plight of the Uyghurs in spite of China’s best efforts to suppress the story. It is too easy to be dismissive of so-called ‘gesture politics’, but we should never underestimate the effect of a well-timed gesture on behalf of a particular good cause. Anyway, back to the Winter Olympics: has anybody seen ‘Eddie the Eagle’?

The politicisation of sport