#08 sport
Wolfgang Grenz / Sarah Klein / Eva-Maria Verfürth

Interview: "The Games Alone Are Not Enough"

Boycotts of large sporting events, especially the Olympic Games, are almost as old as the Games themselves. Many people who follow sports are likely to remember the 1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow – right in the middle of the Cold War – which over 60 countries refused to send their athletes to. In retaliation most of the Eastern Block states did not participate in the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. But sport events are not just used by superpowers to thwart each other. They are frequently used to draw attention to human rights abuses – like in Argentina in 1978, that year's host of the FIFA World Cup, where protest was directed against the brutality of the military government. In the run up to the European Football Championship, the General Secretary of Amnesty International Germany, Wolfgang Grenz, expressed his conviction that boycotts aren't effective. In this interview we ask him: Is sport political?

How long have you been using large sporting and cultural events to draw attention to human rights abuses?

Back in 1978 Amnesty used the World Cup to draw attention to the situation in Argentina with the slogan "Football Yes –Torture No". This year the 2012 Formula 1 Grand Prix in Bahrain was an issue for us. We were also active around the Eurovision Song Contest in Azerbaijan and the European Football Championship in Poland and Ukraine.

What do such campaigns look like? You just mentioned the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) in Azerbaijan – a lot of organizations were active there.

A large event like the ESC is certainly analogous to comparable sporting events – here too millions of people suddenly become aware of a country. We starting working well before the actual event and contacted not only German participants, but also everyone who had anything to do with the ESC from the German side. Our campaign was entitled "Human Rights for Azerbaijan" and consisted primarily of protests via the internet.

Amnesty International called for protest emails to be sent to Azerbaijan's president asking for 14 imprisoned demonstrators who had been arrested a year before at protests in Baku to be set free ...

We also spoke with ARD coordinator Thomas Schreiber. From the very beginning, ESC organisers made it very clear to us that the ESC could not – and would not – be used to transmit a political message.

And yet Germany was the only country that decided to use the opportunity for a political dig: Anke Engelke, who announced the results of the German vote, accompanied her announcement with the words: "This evening no one was allowed to vote for their own country. But it is good to be able to vote. And it is good to have a choice. Good luck on your journey, Azerbaijan! Europe is watching you!" – in English in front of around 100 million television viewers.

She really used the moment well! She was moderating from the Reeperbahn in Hamburg. We were there too. There was also "Toast to Freedom", Amnesty International's song for Azerbaijan. That was our song for the ESC in Baku, but it was released on May 3, World Press Freedom Day.

Originally though Amnesty International's 50th birthday was the reason 50 international artists came together to record "Toast to Freedom" – including such greats as Ewan McGregor, Jane Birkin, Marianne Faithfull and Gentlemen. But what could be more appropriate than to dedicate a song to the country hosting the ESC? What was the message behind it?

"Toast To Freedom" is our demand that Azerbaijan uphold human rights in their own country. The fact that visiting journalists are guaranteed their right to freedom of expression on the one hand, while citizens are being repressed at the same time, is a completely unacceptable state of affairs.

Let's return to sport: "We are not a political body, we are a sporting body," is how Fédération Internationale de l'automobile (FIA) president Jean Todt expressed his organisation's position on the Grand Prix in Bahrain when the race was held there as planned despite massive protests.

The fact that the Grand Prix was held in Bahrain came as somewhat of a surprise to us too. This year the media often asked us what we would advise the responsible parties at the Formula 1 to do – our advice was: take a wide detour around Bahrain. This was not meant as a call to a boycott though. Bahrain is a special case: Last year the Grand Prix was cancelled due to human rights abuses, this year – although the situation remains unchanged and the events of the past year have not been dealt with yet – it was not. This makes it seem like the situation has changed through, like it has improved.

But in China too there are and were (unresolved) cases of human rights abuses. Yet when the race was held in China one week before Bahrain, there was no outcry whatsoever.

Well, if the race in Bahrain had not been cancelled the year before for the reasons already named, we would not even be having this conversation today. No Formula 1 race was cancelled in China, so there was no debate about the human rights abuses there with respect to the race.

So Formula 1 is also political?

Of course! Sports and politics are inextricably linked. The days are over when one could say these two things had nothing to do with one another. Sport has infiltrated so many areas of society. Take the European Football Championship or the Olympics for example – all of the sudden people who are otherwise not interested in sports are captivated. Sport does not exist in a sociopolitical vacuum; it is a part of social life. This means that these large events have to contribute to our general concept of human rights – and this applies to more than just national governments. Ultimately each and every individual is charged with doing something to ensure that human rights are upheld.

Can you understand the FIA's position? The cancellation itself was a political act and completely contradicts Todt's assertion.

Maybe the events of the Arabic Spring also played a role in last year's cancellation, so the decision not to hold the Grand Prix there was made. It is a fact that while the king of Bahrain appointed an Independent Commission of Inquiry to look into Human Rights abuses, the commission's recommendations were ignored. So there was really no reason to assess the situation today as any better than before. But ultimately the FIA is acting primarily based on hard, cold economic interests, something we should not forget.

Do you approach the athletes themselves to sensitise them to the problems?

Let's take football: Of course we met with the German Football League (DFB). The DFB is considerably more sensitive than UEFA. UEFA president Michel Platini has also expressed the opinion that football is not political. In the run up to the Euro 2012 the players received a summary of human rights violations in Ukraine and Poland from Amnesty International. This is a very challenging situation for the players. They prepare all year for this competition, focus on it to the exclusion of all else. We cannot expect some sort of decisive action from the athletes. The responsibility and pressure is really on the sports officials here.

If we take the intensive preparation out of the equation – how willing are athletes to take a political stand?

There are athletes who want and have wanted to get involved themselves. If we look at the Olympic Games in Peking, some of the athletes were willing to wear badges with slogans like "Respect Human Rights" and "Human Rights in China Now". But the Olympic Committee strictly forbid it – the athletes were faced with a choice: If they wore the badges, they would either be disqualified or barred from the event. The institutions here exert a kind of pressure that really should not be tolerated in this day and age.

What is your take on it?

The officials and their organizations approach the problems from a position of fear. The majority of athletic associations feel that they can only be successful if they refrain from political action of any kind. But how do they think this can ultimately work? Human rights violations in host countries cannot simply be swept under the rug – that in itself would be a very political approach to take.

The organizations are worried that events are becoming too political – do you recall the Olympic Games in Mexico in 1968 when at the awards ceremony for the 200 meters, the two American runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists to the sky, the symbol of the movement...

...Whereupon the International Olympic Committee (IOC) gave the US Olympic Committee (USOC) the choice of either sending both athletes home or withdrawing the entire track and field team. The USOC decided in favour of the former...

That is exactly what everyone seems determined to avoid – these very explicit political statements. But the current state of political statements is heading in another direction – absolute silence. That cannot be the right path to choose either. When games are awarded to countries whose human rights record is questionable, athletes should at least be given the chance to take a position regarding the state of human rights in these countries. The organizations have a lot to learn in this area.

History has demonstrated that the Olympic Games in particular have always been linked to political messages. Boycotts have been a tried and true method of taking a political position. But you claim that boycotts are useless.

A boycott alone is useless and beside the point. When a "politicians' boycott" as it is known today is announced, concrete deeds need to follow. Simply staying away from an event does nothing to improve the situation. When a politician travels to that country and meets with the representatives of that country, he or she should clearly state that the current situation is unacceptable. Furthermore a politician can initiate contact with human rights groups and enhance their status. Much more important than the question of whether or not to boycott is ensuring that Germany and the EU develop a long-term strategy for improving the protection of human rights and implement it consistently.

Do empty tiers even have an effect; can they still exert political pressure?

If UEFA is in charge of the cameras, then it might not even be noticeable on the broadcast – then only the full tiers would be shown. As long as Yanukovych and Platini continued to sit harmoniously together in the VIP box, viewers would not even notice that a "politicians' boycott" was in effect.

Well, Ms Tymoshenko was on everyone's lips...

The focus on Tymoshenko really distracted from the key facts. Of course we advocated for her release because the proceedings were neither fair nor did they follow the rule of law, but there are also other completely different problems in Ukraine. The treatment of Tymoshenko is just one facet, and reporting has to move beyond it. What is the situation concerning torture in police custody? In Ukraine there are no independent courts or judges. How are critics who denounce corruption in the administration and police force dealt with? They are often overrun with spurious complaints and accusations, to name just a few examples. This is where we need to start and that has not been emphasized enough by German politicians.

Ms Tymoschenko is likely to stay with us in the press, the spotlight of public attention will continue to shine on her at least. What about other victims? Take the human rights groups that dared go public in China in the run up to the Olympic Games for example...

When the Olympic Games were awarded to Peking in 2001, China expressly agreed to improve the human rights situation. The IOC allowed itself to be content with that promise for the most part and did not set out any clear indicators that needed to be fulfilled. It is hard to understand, since these are clearly set out in other areas. Whether it is the guidelines for building a stadium – the number of seats, security measures, food and beverage – or in the expansion of infrastructure – streets, access roads, public transport: Here there are clear requirements that the international sports associations are prepared to demand from the countries which want to host the games. So clearly the sports associations need to be held responsible here too. If concrete objectives can be realized in the construction guidelines, why couldn't they be regarding human rights?

To put it another way: Human rights guidelines need to be clearly defined when the games are awarded?

Right. There is no other option that to directly link respect for and compliance with human rights to the framework conditions for hosting large sporting events. In China for example freedom of the press and freedom of opinion should have been guaranteed – and not for foreign media alone, but for domestic media in particular too. But too little pressure was brought to bear back then.

It sounds good in theory– but how do you put it into practice?

By agreeing to a catalogue of measures with concrete steps that must be taken by a certain date. And if this does not happen, the reaction must be swift and unyielding: the games are withdrawn from the country. The closer the games get though, to more the hands of the sports associations and officials are tied when they discover human rights abuses. After all millions in funding have already been spent on construction and the games cannot simply be called off again. Of course the sports associations want to annex new markets, but that would be possible even if demands were made more vigorously.

The next thing that should not have occurred in the manner it did was the awarding of the Ice Hockey World Championship to Belarus. It was not dependant on sociopolitical demands of any kind, which can be viewed as increasing the status of the regime. To put it bluntly: this was a case of sport-political stupidity.

So the hope that large events can change the state of human rights in a country is a fallacy? Can large events then even be entrusted to questionable states?

Yes, unfortunately that is simply wrong. China is an excellent example: Olympia was a pure demonstration of the strength of a rising global power. After the games the human rights situation even worsened a bit. To keep this from happening, a clear analysis must be made before an event is awarded. Would the games enhance the status of the country? Would we ultimately be supporting the current regime? Or could the games or events actually bring about positive change? Smaller countries react to pressure as a rule – but everything just bounces off China.

Have large events – as far as you know – ever contributed to a concrete improvement in human rights?

Oh boy – if we were to go through them all, I think we'd have to concede: no, unfortunately not. So we are back to where we started: the Games alone are not enough.

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