In the midst of everything else to talk about, one of the stories of 2020 has been the rise in the number of athletes, singly and collectively, asserting their citizenship – often labelled athlete activism and derided by the ‘keep politics out of sport’ brigade.

We’ve seen it in the active role in the USA the WNBA has taken as a league and in its players urging US citizens to vote, and taking a clear stance on who to vote for. We’ve seen it in Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford twice shaming Johnson’s Tory cabal over the provision of meals over holiday periods and the summer to children who receive free school meals; I can only imagine they’re furious he didn’t shut up when they gave him an MBE after the first time. We’ve even seen the NFL’s leadership, in the wake of widespread civil and political recognition of the structural racism highlighted by Black Lives Matter and other anti-racism activism including by athletes such as Naomi Osaka (along with the WNBA’s lead), admit that perhaps they ‘should have listened’ to Colin Kaepernick. We’ve seen athletes taking leading roles in the struggle in Belarus, and paying the price of exile or imprisonment.

Yet, in the face of all this, the myth of apolitical sport continues to rear its head – most recently in International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach’s recitation of the brigade’s shibboleths of his organisation’s ‘political neutrality’. It is not entirely clear what prompted this litany now, but its appearance in The Guardian website was linked to a story about the UK’s Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, suggesting that Britain might support a boycott of the 2022 Games over China’s abuse of the Uighur national minority.

Bach’s response shows either how little the IOC’s establishment understand international politics and policy tools, or how far it will go to obfuscate, confuse and dissemble in an effort to protect not just its business interests but its model of corporate elite sport.

There are several obvious ways Bach’s claims can be critiqued. His suggestion that the games are not about politics because, he claims, the IOC is “strictly neutral at all times” and that awarding the games is not “a political judgement regarding the host country” is fatuous. If the IOC in not aware that its awards are presented by host cities and nations as an endorsement, its members are more out of touch than I fear even at my most sceptical. On top of that, the political nature of allocations is obvious to even the most casual observer in the way, as decision-time approaches, there is a rising discussion of whose ‘turn’ it is to host. But this is a well-trodden terrain.

More notably and less obviously, his myth-making relies on the equation of three types of protest. In invoking the provisions of Article 50 of the IOC Charter outlawing ‘political statements’ as ‘rules protecting the spirit of sport’, he invokes the image of John Carlos, Tommie Smith and Peter Norman on the podium in Mexico in 1968. Less obviously, he also invokes the image of Věra Čáslavská at the same games, although her subtle anti-Soviet podium protest after the crushing of the Prague Spring attracted far less attention. In more recent iterations, he calls to mind the image of Cathy Freeman carrying both the Australian and Aboriginal flags at the Commonwealth Games in Victoria, Canada, in 1998 or Damien Hooper’s (Australian) Aboriginal flag T-shirt in London in 2012. These actions by athletes, collectively and individually, are not the same as the two distinctly different forms of boycott Bach invokes and seem to have nothing to with his ‘boycotts don’t work’ rhetoric, but are fundamental to the myth of the apolitical nature of corporate commodified sport.

Turning to boycotts Bach invokes two fundamentally different actions as if they are the same, equating athlete distress at exclusion with ineffective geopolitical tactics. In the first, he identifies as his formative moment in global sport politics the boycott of the Montreal games by states protesting against New Zealand’s presence after its national rugby team’s flagrant violation of the embargo on sporting contact with South Africa just weeks before the games and at the height of the 1976 revolutionary rising led by school pupils that transformed the anti-apartheid struggle. In this boycott we saw states respond to a violation of the embargo imposed internationally as part of a call to action from the South African liberation movements speaking for the oppressed of South Africa. This was a global campaign that had been building since the 1950s. The boycott tactic was promoted by the leaders inside and outside South Africa of the struggle for justice, equality and liberation as part of a global campaign to fully isolate socially, culturally, politically and economically the apartheid regime. This campaign finally paid off in the later 1980s as growing isolation forced the South African regime to act and eventually to collapse.

Bach then equates this, through the invocation of athlete exclusion, to the respective boycotts of games in Moscow in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1984. There was little more to these boycotts than posturing by states. To be fair to Jimmy Carter, the USA in 1980 had very few tools at its disposal to pressure the Soviet Union in the wake of the war in Afghanistan – although the Reagan (and other) Administration’s tactics of arming the groups that went on to become Al Qaeda and the Taliban turns out to have been a much worse option. Similarly, there is quite a bit to be said for the Soviet and Eastern Bloc assessment that their athletes would be at risk in the world of the febrile anti-communism encouraged by the Reagan regime.

If this response of Bach’s is prompted, as The Guardian implies, by Raab’s suggestion then he’s not wrong to invoke 1980 and 1984. Raab’s call seems as isolated from any mass movement as those events were, even as the 1980 boycott was ignored by many athletes even if their national teams were depleted. This is not to deny that there are international movements calling for boycotts of corporate links exploiting Uighur labour, the Olympics at present do not seem to be a focus. Raab’s rhetorical call is closer to others for boycotts isolated from the political demands of activist movements (as we saw in some of the debates around the Sochi games in 2014). Boycotts work best as parts of long term, coordinated movements (the South African campaign lasted over 30 years; the Palestinian-led Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) campaign is beginning to have an effect 15 years after it was launched; in Montgomery Alabama it took over a year to get the bus company to change its practices in 1955/56 – that was one company, albeit with active State support). One off calls by governments and NGOs for boycotts isolated from any other kind of action or activism do not have a record of being effective – on that Bach correct, but he fails utterly to understand the tactic or the politics of the situation.

To be clear, the USA- and USSR-led boycotts in 1980 and 1984 were not the same kind of thing as the anti-apartheid struggle, or the current BDS campaign. There was no mass movement, there was no alternative sports system, there was no long term campaign calling for those boycotts – these were acts of state diplomacy, not of athletes struggling for social justice or of a long running mass movements in anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggle. Yet Thomas Bach, who given his years of involvement in sport politics and reputed political savvy, could reasonably be expected to recognise the difference seems blind to these distinctions. But then although he professes to be discussing boycotts as political acts, he seems in reality to be protecting the IOC’s model of the political economy of elite, corporate, commodified sport.


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