Sport, Politics and the Rio Olympics

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With the 2016 Rio Olympics now just one year away, the crescendo of media, marketing and public interest will dichotomise its veracious newsfeed, between stories of triumph and hope to the forbearing of poverty and pollution as the axiom of not mixing sport and politics is hung out to dry.

 

For as long as there has been a captive audience, there have been those that will attempt to slant it to suit their need. Yet in the age of the 24 hour news cycle, it is imprecise to assume that this is a 21st century problem?

The reality is that major sporting events have been the battle grounds of competing and compelling interests for as long as scores have been kept. If Rio’s – albeit legitimately raised polluted water ways represents crisis – then what would we now make of Hitler’s Games in 1936, or of the Munich Massacre of 1972?

It’s not that sport is immune to society’s ills and moral dilemmas; just that if sport is defeated by it, what hope is there? Why in fact, do we put up with it? For all the political greed, capital gains and corporate cannibalism, the fact remains, that once the action takes centre stage, it is the people who determine sport’s fate.

The abject class gap in India doesn’t prevent millions living in destitution from cheering on its national cricket team, any less than the pain of Brazil’s semi final world cup capitulation to Germany would’ve eviscerated the hopes and dreams of countless numbers surviving in Brazil’s favelas.

If the debate on life imitating art or vice-versa lingers on, then the rhetoric on sport and politics could bore even the chicken and the egg?

Rio joins a well sourced list of “troubled Games”. In 2004, Athens was the IOC’s problem child, in what was perhaps a precursor to their current debt crisis, whilst Beijing in 2008 was beset with human rights controversies. Even the resounding success of the London 2012 Olympics, was greatly predicted to be tainted as a target of terrorists, no doubt channelled from the horrors of 2005.

But even though sport can be so cruel, mankind continues to be besotted by it, and for the myriad of tangible issues Rio might present us, come August 5th, 2016 – the World will join united in anticipation of the peerless talents of Usain Bolt, or Jess Ennis-Hill, and if you’re anything like me, it’s that one time in every four years, that you assume the mantle of armchair expert on the modern pentathlon.

The first fundamental principle in the Olympic Charter reads:

“Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.”

The cynic amongst us might argue that in the days of the Olympics being branded by a sporting company tick, of a crimson-canned soft drink or indeed harvested by a multi-national chain store, spruiked by an unendearing clown, that these words should hold no currency.

If I could present you one tale to counter, it would be of the legendary Jesse Owens’ success in the long jump at the 1936 Berlin Games, one of four Olympic gold medals he won in a single day.

Owens, having fouled his first two attempts, was approached by Luz Long, the Arian poster boy and reputedly, Hitler’s favourite. The blue eyed, blond haired Long – according to Owens himself – suggested he move his run up a foot further back, noting that he effortlessly possessed the distance required to qualify for the final.

Owens heeded his advice and qualified, and would later that day jump 8.05m in the final, in what was then known as the “broad jump” to claim a symbolic gold within the swastika adorned Berlin Olympic Stadium.

Long won silver, and the men were photographed leaving the arena, linked arm in arm.

Owens was quoted as saying many years later:

It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler. You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-carat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment.

Poignantly, they never met again, with Long killed in service during World War II.

Sport and politics may indeed indelibly mix, but it shouldn’t dilute sport’s worth to humanity.