By Kevin Roberts, Editorial Director, Sport Business Group
Here’s a refrain we’ve heard before. “Let’s keep politics out of sport and sport out of politics.”
It’s been a theme that’s cropped up with regularity over the years, often in conjunction with the nature of sporting links with apartheid era South, and it was back on the conversational agenda at this week’s Peace and Sport Regional Forum in Dubai.
Peace and Sport, which runs projects in post conflict nations and regions and in deprived and under-privileged areas elsewhere, uses the positive values of playing sport to create harmony and drive positive social change and is a strictly neutral , non-political body.
But while the organisation itself may be able to retain its independence, others in the world of sport in the Middle East are not so fortunate. One delegate from Syria told how she was barred from a position on a National Federation because it was in the grip of a particular political party and wanted to appoint one of its own kind to the role.
“How can we talk about peace when our lands are under occupation and when, in the Arab world there is poverty, unemployment and violence, when millions go to sleep without food and million more live in shanty towns or are homeless,” lamented another delegate.
This provided a reminder that Dubai and its energy rich neighbours are not typical of the Arab world and that the problems experienced in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Palestine, Yemen and even Saudi Arabia seem as though they belong to another world.
The problem is that these are all issues which have politics at their heart and any group which wants to create change has, to some extent, acknowledge the political realities of every situation then enter and develop strategies accordingly.
More often than not, it is governments – which are of course innately political – which provide the money to pay for sport and sports related projects. Many nations see the value of sport to society and investing in infrastructure and facilities is a key plank of their political programmes.
The fact is that so long as sport remains high profile, so long as it is seen as part of developing society and nation branding, it will remain inherently political because that is the environment its paymasters inhabit.
And experience suggests that politics is only a dirty word when you happen to disagree with whatever is being said or proposed. One’s own politics are, naturally, just fine. We also have to acknowledge that sport and politics is a two edged sword. Deciding whether or not a national team should or should not play another can always be seen as a political decision by one side or another.
In the real world, it is impossible to divorce the two and the ability engage with politics without becoming its slave is the fine line which organisation like Peace and Sport has to tread day after day.
So when Syria’s Arab neighbours barred its national teams from competing in regional events, it was a political act with significant sporting repercussions which were aired at the Forum by a Germany-based Syrian athlete who called for a neutral sports passport which would allow bona fide athletes to travel and compete anywhere in the world.
It’s an interesting idea and one that is not too far removed from the use of an Olympic Flag under which stateless athletes are able to compete at an Olympic Games.
But back to the real world. Deciding on the criteria and which athletes would qualify for a passport would itself become a political issue ….so back to square one.
The reality is that sport and politics cannot be divorced but they can learn to live together in more positive ways and that is a significant and very current challenge.