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Who says sport and politics don't mix?

Sportsmen and women may not be renowned for being politically outspoken. The most notorious example of pressure being applied to British sportsmen was in 1938 when the English football team was ordered by the FA and the Foreign Office to give the Nazi salute before a friendly match in Germany.

However, there are also exceptions. In 1968, at the Mexico Olympics, two black Americans, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, and an Australian, Peter Norman, protested at racism in the USA. Smith and Carlos gave black power salutes while Norman wore a human rights badge in support of the Americans, as the three of them stood on the podium for the 200 metres medal ceremony.

Footballers have organised a number of protests, notably Serb and Montenegrin players, including Sasa Curcic of Crystal Palace, who protested against the NATO bombing of the remains of the Yugoslav Federation; the Norway national team, who demonstrated against French nuclear testing in the Pacific and Robbie Fowler of Liverpool who wore a jersey in support of sacked dockers.

Now as a row has broken out over the British Olympic Association gagging clause a British badminton player, Richard Vaughan, who is expected to be selected for the Beijing Games, has spoken out against the Chinese policy on Darfur.

"While many nations have tried to isolate Sudan by breaking economic ties, China has significantly backed the government of Sudan with trade particularly in oil," Vaughan said in the statement released by campaigning group Crisis Action.

"It has major influence in Sudan and could help to end the suffering of millions of people affected by the conflict in the Darfur region ... In the spirit of the Games, I would ask China as all nations to help Darfur, so that athletes can compete safe in the knowledge that everything is being done to stop the conflict."

Vaughan is a member of Team Darfur, a group of athletes who highlight the situation in Sudan. Team Darfur was started by the American speed skater Joey Cheek, who won the 500 metres speed skating gold medal at the Winter Olympics in Turin in 2006. He used the news conference after the event to talk about Darfur and hopes to persuade others to do the same in Beijing.

He is quoted in the Times as saying: "I would love to have several hundred more athletes in Team Darfur by Beijing and I see no reason why we can’t recruit a few hundred more."

In 2000, an Canadian athlete, Kaliya Young, wrote her own criticism of the Olympic Movement which was published in the San Francisco Chronicle (see below) describing why she no longer wanted to pursue her Olympic ambition.

So much for the tired old mantra, sport and politics don't mix!

Why I'm Skipping the Olympics

by Kaliya Young; Sunday, September 17, 2000 - San Francisco Chronicle

I WAS A THREE-TIME All-American at Cal in women's water polo and left college for a year to prepare for the Olympic Games with the Canadian National Team. In July, after the Pan-American Games, I had a change of heart about this decision. I walked away from the opportunity to go to the Olympics and returned to my studies at the University of California at Berkeley.

Everyone who knew me asked the same question: "Why?" After all, I had played for 13 years, and been part of the national team program for six years.

During my last year on the team, I looked deeper into the Olympic movement. I was deeply troubled by the corporate sellout of the event, by the hollowness of Olympic environmental claims and by the blatant lie that the competition served to "bring the world together."

Like all other hopefuls, I gave up a great deal to make the Olympic team. I moved away from friends and family, lived well below the poverty line for years and put my education on hold in order to hone my athletic skills. I made these sacrifices because I loved playing water polo and because I wanted to compete with the best.

My perspective on the Games gradually shifted. I began to see that my sacrifices were going to be used by the Olympic Games and their sponsors for ends that conflicted with my fundamental values. My competitive performance would not just be a part of a world community gathering to compete in the spirit of fair play, good will and global unity, but rather it would be sold to the highest corporate bidder for their own commercial gain. The profits of this sale would not go to the performing athletes, but rather to [the] International Olympic Committee, national Olympic committees and sponsors.

The spirit of the Games has been diminished by becoming a platform for multinational companies to promote their unhealthy products to the world, with the Olympians as their unwitting promoters. Coke is not what athletes drink, and McDonald's hamburgers are not what they eat. They are not part of an athlete's healthy diet. I began to question whether I could commit myself to promoting these kinds of products by performing under their logos since, by doing so, I was suggesting that they were "healthy" and commendable.

The environment became the third pillar of the Olympic movement in 1994, along with culture and athletics. The IOC also signed an "Earth Pact" with the U.N. Environmental Program and changed its charter to include sustainable development as a goal. The goal was to have the Olympic movement play an active role in helping sustainable development occur throughout the world. I question the ability of "the movement" to do this when it does not question the consumption patterns that they are ultimately promoting via their corporate sponsors.

This pact, called Agenda 21, is rhetorical [in] nature and reflects more generally the rhetorical shift of the corporate world, which pays for the staging of the Games to "Green-wash" their images. A deeper look at the games and the corporate system that supports them is needed. The Olympic movement is a "light" green movement that has raised some public awareness of environmental issues and environmentally friendly alternatives. The Olympic villages use solar water-heating, do water remediation and recycling. While these initiatives address the technical problems of being environmentally friendly, they do not address the truly fundamental value system changes that are needed to prevent global environmental disaster.

The 2000 Games were awarded to Sydney, in part, because of its environmental platform. Part of the platform was that an independent monitoring body, Green Games Watch Inc., ensure that they fulfilled the promises that earned them the Olympic bid. Report cards were issued during the lead-up to the Games, and it became clear that their own ecological criteria might not be met. In the fall of 1999, the government funding of Green Games Watch Inc. was cut off. The detailed environmental platforms of Sydney's Olympic Games and the criteria set out for all games in the IOC's Agenda 21 are completely meaningless without independent monitoring.

The Games themselves create villages that are supposed to reflect the real world. However, only those with credentials (elite athletes, coaches, managers, officials and volunteers who serve the aforementioned) are allowed in, and then only after a security search. Enormous resources are required to feed and care for the athletes, officials and media. The underlying culture is elitist. The Games ironically reinforce nationalist, ethnocentric feelings, imperialistic attitudes and promulgate a culture of consumption.

What this world needs is a festival of true cooperation that brings a diverse mix of rich and poor together -- not to compete against each other -- but to find common ground and to work together to imagine a brighter, fuller future. If this celebration of all that is best in humanity emerges, I will then seek to be a participant.

Kaliya Young, of Vancouver, will graduate from UC Berkeley next May.

©2000 San Francisco Chronicle


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