Monday, 24 May 2004

Sport for nearly all

The next few months will be very trying for those of us who have no interest in sport: Euro 2004, the Olympics (sorry, The Games of the XXVIII Olympiad), Wimbledon…… We can only hope that some of the old movies on TV will be good ones.

And we shall once again hear people saying that politics should be kept out of sport, as if this statement actually meant something. Having a national team and cheering it on are political gestures, and all international sporting events are festivals of nationalism. The only kinds of sports totally free of politics in the usual sense are ones like village green cricket and pub darts, though these may well have all the other attributes of international sport (greed, corruption, cheating and so on).

Keeping sport free of harmful manifestations of politics is another matter, but few sports have ever had (or now have) leaders with either the will or the political nous to try. However, the world governing body of one sport demonstrated such political sophistication and skill over the last seventy years that until relatively recently it was able to keep itself immune from the worst effects. Some people may read most of the following description before they work out which one it is.

Beginning in Victorian times as a middle and upper-middle class sport, it dropped out of fashion in the early years of the century and came back in the twenties as a proletarian activity. The international governing body was founded in 1926 by the Marxist younger son of an English peer, who was its president for the next forty years.

Its rules from the beginning forbade distinction between amateurs and professionals, which accounted for its exclusion from the Olympics until the IOC had seen where the really big money was and changed its views about all that. At its championships, flags and anthems were forbidden and teams were considered to represent not countries but merely Associations. This sounds like playing with words, but it was a device which enabled the international body from the thirties onwards to unite more member associations than any other sport except football and athletics. Later, at the height of the cold war, no other international sports federation had delegates at their Biennial General Meetings from East and West Germany, the USA, China, nearly all the Soviet bloc, Israel and most Arab countries, North and South Korea and almost everywhere else (though not South Africa, whose application for membership of the international federation had been refused in the early thirties for obvious reasons).

In 1979 their 35th World Championships took about a thousand players, spectators and officials into Pyongyang, including the first large party of Americans to visit the town since the B25s bombed it flat a quarter of a century earlier. You don’t achieve that level of international co-operation by believing that sportsmen are somehow above the restraints of politics.

And, in perhaps the most farsighted, morally right and important of all their policies, they banned racial discrimination among their members in the thirties, long before the word apartheid had been heard outside South Africa. Twenty years later they were enforcing the rule rigorously while most other sports were still waffling about building bridges and generally agonising over how to deal with their members who held strong nineteenth-century views about race.

Go to this entry to see which sport all this is about, if you don't know already.

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