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Sport and politics are joined at the hip, the bigger the sporting event the bigger the political connection, and it doesn’t get much bigger than the World Cup and Olympic Games.
Many would argue that there are very few economic benefits from hosting large-scale events such as the Olympics and World Cup. The Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008 cost $40 billion (USD). The Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 cost $51 billion.
The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro cost at least $13 billion. The 2014 World Cup in Brazil cost $15 billion. These costs cannot be covered by television rights, ticket sales, and merchandise.
While economists will say the short and long-term benefits of hosting the Olympics or World Cup are at best exaggerated and at worst non-existent, governments will continue to support them.
These events are used by governments to promote their ideals, ideology, encourage investment, bring in tourists and increase their world standing.
In the lead up to the 1936 Olympic games observers in the United States and other western democracies began to question the morality of supporting Olympic Games hosted by the Nazi regime. The 1936 Olympic Games had been awarded to Berlin in 1931, two years before Hitler and the Nazi Party took power in Germany.
No atrocities had been committed in Germany prior to 1936. However, since taking power in 1933 the Nazi Party had begun to implement new laws that forced Jews out of their civil service jobs, university and law court positions, and other areas of public life.
In April 1933, laws proclaimed at Nuremberg made Jews second-class citizens. In the same month, an “Aryans only” policy was instituted in all German athletic organisations. “Non-Aryans” — Jews or individuals with Jewish parents and Roma (Gypsies) — were systematically excluded from German sports facilities and associations.
Avery Brundage, president of the American Olympic Committee (AOC) fought zealously against a boycott of the 1936 Summer Olympics. With dissension, growing Brundage traveled to Germany in September 1934 to see for himself the situation in Germany.
Brundage needed Hitler’s regime to make the appearance of being inclusive. To appease Brundage the Germans offered a place on the team to Helene Mayer, a fencer whose father was Jewish.
This token inclusion was enough for Brundage who on his return to the US reported, “I was given positive assurance in writing … that there will be no discrimination against Jews. You can’t ask more than that and I think the guarantee will be fulfilled”.
The 1936 Olympics gave Hitler and the Nazi Party a platform to present their ideology. The Olympics gave Hitler and his party legitimacy. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) loved what the Nazi Party did for the games, they built the biggest stadiums, there was pomp and ceremony and advances in technology, the Nazi Party presented the biggest and best games the world had ever seen.
If it hadn’t been for the determination of Avery Brundage we may well have seen the United States boycott the 1936 Olympics, which may have lead the way for further countries to reconsider their participation.
While it’s unlikely a boycott would have saved the world form a devastating World War, it may have caused people to view the Nazi Party in a different light. More people would have taken the time to read and understand what was happening in Germany, maybe governments would have taken less of a conciliatory view of Hitler and his brown shirts.
The success and opulence of the 1936 Olympics Games caused people to look at Germany through rose-colored glasses. The world was bedazzled, swept up by the grandiose stadiums and pageantry. A boycott would have given us cause to peek behind the curtain and look at what the Nazi Party and Hitler really stood for.
Sport is a powerful political tool and Australians have used sport to try and make the world a better place.
In the early 70s Australia was a leading force in the movement to bring about the end of apartheid in South Africa. We did not impact South Africa with economic sanctions but through a sports boycott. They view sport in the same way we do – it’s part of their culture and a way of life.
From 1972 to 1991 there were no official Australia rugby or cricket tours to South Africa. In the mid 80s former Australian Captain, Kim Hughes did lead a group of Australia cricketers to South Africa, causing a painful rift in cricket that is rarely talked about today. Then Prime Minister Bob Hawke labeled the rebels ‘traitors’ and those who played received bans of two to three years, which some considered to be light. Kim Hughes never played for Australia again.
The sporting boycott of South Africa by Australia and the world helped bring down the racist, repugnant apartheid policies of South Africa. The sporting boycott was not the sole reason the South African government, led by FW de Klerk, to open bilateral discussions with Nelson Mandela in 1993 for a transition of policies and government, but it was a form of isolation that had a significant impact.
By preventing South Africa from taking part in the Olympics, Commonwealth Games and ending sanctioned tours, South Africa was prevented from normal relations with the global community. It was made aware that its outdated and racist polices did not conform and that normal relations would only be returned when the South African government’s apartheid polices where removed.
Soon the world will stop to celebrate the regime of Vladimir Putin at the World Cup. Not since the IOC bent over backwards for Adolf Hitler in 1936 has sport been so silent in its condemnation of a corrupt, violent and tyrannical regime.
Famously, Winston Churchill defined Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” and his words in 1939 spoke eloquently to the Western sense of Moscow as the “other” – an inscrutable and menacing land that plays by its own rules, usually to the detriment of those who choose more open regulations.
The characterisation of Russia by Churchill is very apt. Since the closing ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics on 23 February 2014, at Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi, Russia has without question been playing by its own rules. It has flouted international conventions and laws, broken treaties, lied, cheated and killed innocent civilians.
It started not long after the athletes had left the village in Sochi on 27 February when masked Russian troops without insignia took over the Supreme Council (parliament) of Crimea (a constituent entity of independent Ukraine), and captured strategic sites across the peninsula.
This led to the installation of the pro-Russian Aksyonov government, the conducting of the Crimean status referendum and the declaration of Crimea’s independence on 16 March 2014. Russia formally incorporated Crimea as two federal subjects of the Russian Federation with effect from 18 March 2014.
Russia has a long and complicated history with Ukraine and has sought to control its former territory. In February 2014, the Moscow-backed president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted and replaced with a Western-backed government. The outing of Yanukovych gave Putin the opportunity to annex Crimea, an area Russia has always considered its own.
Ukraine and many world leaders condemned the annexation and consider it to be a violation of international law and Russian-signed agreements safeguarding territorial integrity of Ukraine, including the Agreement on Establishing the Commonwealth of Independent States in 1991, the Helsinki Accords, the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances of 1994 and the Treaty on friendship, cooperation, and partnership between the Russian Federation and Ukraine.
In April 2014 Russia began making incursions into Donbass area of Ukraine in support of separatist rebels. Despite two internationally-brokered ceasefire agreements, the fighting continues.
The conflict in Eastern Ukraine has led to 10,000 deaths and 3.8 million people in need of humanitarian aid. Many members of the international community and organizations such as Amnesty International have condemned Russia for its actions in post-revolutionary Ukraine, accusing it of breaking international law and violating Ukrainian sovereignty. Many countries implemented economic sanctions against Russia, Russian individuals and companies.
On July 17, 2014 Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) was on route to Kuala Lumpur, as it reached the Ukraine-Russia border at exactly 16:20:03 local time, a Buk surface-to-air missile, which had been launched from an area east from the aircraft, detonated outside the aircraft just above the cockpit to the left.
An explosive decompression occurred, resulting in both the cockpit and tail sections tearing away from the middle portion of the fuselage. All three sections disintegrated as they fell rapidly towards the ground. All 298 passengers and crew of MH17 were killed.
Of the 298 killed on July 17, 38 called Australia home.
Investigations into the shooting down of MH17 by a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) — comprised of Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine have found irrefutable evidence that the Russian made Buk missile had been supplied by Russia’s 53rd anti-aircraft brigade in Kursk.
Not content with trying to destabilise Ukraine, Russia has been busy trying to influence the outcome of elections globally, primarily the 2016, United States Presidential election.
While investigations are ongoing into the scope of influence and knowledge of the Trump campaign team, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released a report in early January of 2017 stating:
Russian efforts to influence the 2016 US presidential election represent the most recent expression of Moscow’s longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order, but these activities demonstrated a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations. We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.
In 2015 Russia began military support of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Assad has been desperately trying to hold onto power since a devastating civil war commenced in 2011. The Syrian regime has been accused of using Chemical weapons throughout the civil war, including Sarin, Chlorine and Mustard gas.
A UN-backed independent investigation said the Syrian regime was responsible for the attack in Khan Sheikhoun, which left 87 people dead, including 30 children. The last attack occurring on April 7, 2018, in Douma, with reports of 70 killed.
Former US Secretary of state Rex Tillerson said in relation to chemical weapons attacks in rebel-held area of East Ghouta “Whoever conducted the attacks, Russia ultimately bears responsibility for the victims in East Ghouta and countless other Syrians targeted with chemical weapons since Russia became involved in Syria.”
“There is simply no denying that Russia, by shielding its Syrian ally, has breached its commitments to the US as a framework guarantor” of the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles”.
Russia has had a more direct connection with chemical weapons in recent months. In March 2018 Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were left critically ill after being exposed to a nerve agent.
The international body that monitors compliance with chemical weapons treaties confirmed Britain’s assessment that the toxin used in Salisbury, England, against the Skripals was a powerful, military-grade agent known as novichok, which experts say was developed in the Soviet Union.
The group, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, released a report saying that its laboratory analysis of “environmental and biomedical samples” that its experts had collected “confirm the findings of the U.K. relating to the identity of the toxic chemical.”
At the end of the investigation, the UK expelled 23 Russian diplomats on 14 March 2018. By the end of March 2018, a number of countries, including Australia expelled Russian diplomats in a show of solidarity with the UK. According to the BBC, it was “the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in history”.
While Russia has been running rampant on the world scene creating chaos, havoc, death and destruction since the end of the Sochi Winter Olympics, its efforts to destroy sport began well before.
While doping in sport is nothing new, doping in Russia is systemic, organised and run by the Russian government. Russia has had 41 Olympic medals stripped for doping violations – the most of any country, four times the number of the runner-up, and more than a quarter of the global total.
Following the 2015 documentary The Doping Secret: How Russia Creates its Champions, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) commissioned an investigation headed by former anti-doping agency President Dick Pound. The 335-page document reported widespread doping and large-scale cover-ups by the Russian authorities.
Following information provided in 2016 by Grigory Rodchenkov, former director of Russia’s national anti-doping laboratory, Canadian attorney Richard McLaren was retained by WADA to investigate the claims. Rodchenkov claimed he helped develop and distribute banned performance enhancing substances for thousands of Russian Olympians from 2005 to 2015.
According to the McLaren report, the Disappearing Positive Methodology (DPM) operated from “at least late 2011 to August 2015.” It was used on 643 positive samples, a number that the authors consider “only a minimum” due to limited access to Russian records.
The investigation found that from 2011 to 2015, more than 1,000 Russian competitors in various sports (including summer, winter, and Paralympic sports) benefited from the cover-up.
Russia has denied almost all the allegations presented to it over the last several years. It speaks of conspiracy theories and denies the evidence presented.
Russia has categorically denied any involvement in the downing of MH17. There is little to no chance that Russia will ever allow any of their military figures involved in the downing of MH17 to face a courtroom.
It denies its ally Syria has used chemical weapons. It denies involvement in the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal. It denies trying to influence the US Presidential Election.
Considering what has taken place since the Sochi Olympics it’s very surprising that there has been little or no talk of boycotting the World Cup in Russia. Perhaps if the United States hadn’t played so poorly in their last qualification game against lowly Trinidad and Tobago it would have been more of an issue. Maybe if the US had qualified for the World Cup, Russia’s interference in the 2016 Presidential election would have caused politicians to call for the US to opt out.
Maybe if the Netherlands had not crumbled against France twice in the qualification rounds the Dutch people may have asked if their team should be playing in Russia after 193 of their countrymen died on MH17.
Why can’t we use sport to stand up to dictators and tyrants? Why do we have to go to Russia and celebrate a country that has acted so poorly on a regular basis?
Why can we not make a stand for the 38 Australian residents, men, women and children who died due to the callous and dangerous actions of the Russian military?
This is not a 1980s style boycott based on cold war principles. It is not the case that Russia has merely invaded a country. Both Russia, formerly known as the USSR or Soviet Union and the USA were guilty of aggressive acts throughout the Cold War.
The boycotts of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow by the United States and its allies, and the subsequent boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics by the USSR, and her allies were both examples of Cold War posturing.
There are more than enough examples of Russia’s misdeeds to warrant serious debate amongst Australians about our involvement at the upcoming World Cup. Most notably the downing of MH17 and death of 298 men, women and children.
The World Cup is not just a sporting event, it’s a celebration for the host country. There is nothing we should be celebrating with Russia until it is prepared to admit to its wrongdoing over the last four years.
By attending the World Cup Australia will be legitimising the regime of Vladimir Putin and the callous, egregious, violent and deceptive conduct his government has undertaken over the last four years.