Yulia Tymoshenko & The People’s Republic Of Sport

Yulia Tymoshenko waves to supporters from her prison cell. Image via huffingtonpost.

Rumours that several nations are considering a boycott of EURO 2012 games to held in Ukraine have given rise to questions about the role of politics in sport once again. At the beginning of May it was reported that Austria would not be attending  fixtures held in the country as they were “concerned …  about the prison conditions of the former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.” Yesterday, the BBC confirmed that the venue set to host the final, the Olimpiysky stadium in Kiev, has received just 50 bookings for VIP seats.

Tymoshenko was jailed last year after a trial condemned for being politically motivated.

Politics in sport has been a concern of commentators for many years, with George Orwell highlighting the issue of rising nationalism in competition as far back as 1945. He observed in his essay, ‘The Sporting Spirit‘, that it is virtually impossible to separate politics from sport, simply because “as soon as you feel that you and some larger unit will be disgraced if you lose, the most savage combative instincts are aroused“.

The Sporting Spirit’s principle observation was the impact that nationalism was having on the ability of the ordinary citizen to enjoy it. Those who feared for their personal safety would be less likely to attend live events, and sport would gradually become the sole province of thugs who hid behind team colours as they fought for the right to brag.

It wasn’t the only one of Orwell’s dystopian predictions to come to life in the last decades of the 20th century.

In Orwell’s lifetime, it would have been difficult to imagine the influence that money would have in both politics and sport in the future. Back then, it must have seemed like the ability to break down geographical boundaries through global communication and the subsequent freedom to watch sports and competitors from every country in the world on TV would dissipate the redundancies that cause nationalism forever. Sport would be free from politics and available to for the enjoyment of everyone.

If Orwell had known this, would he have realised that the consequences of such technological advancement would lead to sport becoming less accessible to the ordinary person? His understanding of the workings of the media, the corrupting influence of power and propaganda suggest so, although the extent of the problem is so ludicrous, he may not have believed it.

Today, every decision regarding who will host a forthcoming Olympic or World Cup tournament is dogged by allegations of corruption, with stories of bribery regularly circling the governing bodies’ committee members.  Budweiser reportedly”pushed” the Brazilian government to pass a bill allowing the sale of alcohol during World Cup 2014 matches. Stories of human rights abuses dogged the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, protests are taking place on the streets of Ukraine over the extermination of stray animals in preparation for the EURO 2012 competition and it’s fair to say interest in the London Olympics has been muted by the austerity measures in place across most of Europe.

At the other end of the spectrum, rising ticket prices, the increasing trend towards events moving from free-to-air stations to subscription channels and inflated merchandise prices all conspire to make it more difficult for the average spectator to participate.  A glance at the list of corporate sponsors for various upcoming tournaments doesn’t bode well either; if the advertising from Coca-Cola, McDonalds and the aforementioned beer brand works in the upcoming months, the population will be in no condition to take advantage of the Olympic legacy. They’ll be permanently trapped in their own sofas.

Far from being separate entities as we apparently would like to believe, Orwell was right when he made his assertion that sport and politics have been, and will always be inextricably linked. While operating at a grass roots level, neither can function without the full participation of the general public. But globalisation has extended the power wielded by each field’s leaders, throwing both wide open to corporate manipulation. They no longer have to court the public because they trade off history. The less the public are involved, the better.

Occasionally an event like the Tymoshenko boycott will prompt the odd minor skirmish, but the political and sporting big wigs know one thing for certain. It won’t stop the punters from turning up to see their teams play in Ukraine, London or Brazil.

It’s the people’s game, after all.

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