The Games and South Africa: What is the central issue?

By TONY SEED, Nova Scotia Cricketer, 1986

THE question of sporting links with South Africa has been a source of fierce controversy and clash in the international cricketing world for over a decade.

What has been obscured in all the hue and cry over whether Canadian athletes ought to compete in the Commonwealth Games is the central issue: where you stand.

Everyone from Otto Jelinek, the Cabinet Minister, to Alex Baumann, the swimmer, the local sports boo-hahs have spared no syllable in declaring the sports and politics do not mix. They are opposed to racism and fascism in South Africa. But international athletic events are for friendship and peace and boycotts never help anyone. That is why, they suggest, it is useless to think that athletes can take any stand which will contribute to the battle against apartheid and for social progress.

Mr. Jelinek states, “Nobody gains. South Africa won’t change … I, for one, and the Prime Minister, feel as the athletes do: Nothing is resolved by boycotts … I still believe that sport should be in a position to override any political and ideological differences.”

Then the Conservative sports minister cited the 1980 Moscow Games, from which the United States and its bloc, including Canada, withdrew, and the Los Angeles Games, boycotted by the Soviet Union and its bloc, as proof positive.

Which, or course, is itself a political and ideological position. This absurdity of sports being above politics, which contradicts what everyone sees in front of their eyes, is openly asserted as official dogma. In the name of the athlete – ”only the athletes get hurt” – it reduces the athlete to a political and commercial pawn. This dogma promotes a selfish and apathetic indifference amongst sportsmen and women to the major questions facing society and their duties and responsibilities to mankind.

Now let’s look behind the clichés at the reality.

Arrogant “arbitrators” of international sport

First of all, the “Commonwealth Games movement” is clearly in crisis. So too is the “Olympic Games movement,” as are many, if not all, sports.

Sport – like other fields of international life – has been turned by the two superpowers and the old colonial powers into a major weapon in the struggle for world supremacy. As a result, the crisis of international athletic competition has become a permanent crisis.

Now from Edinburgh and other venues, the howls of the great powers, from the biggest on down, can be heard in which they issue their demands for “punishment” and to “pay the bill” for multimillion dollar deficits in the most self-righteous manner – as if they are the victims of the crisis and it is the smaller and poorer countries who are responsible and thus it is they who must be made to pay for it.

Furthermore, they are demanding that “independent” and “non-aligned” sports and games federations be established in the different countries so that no future “political” boycott can take place.

But what the great powers are seeking and intending to do is something else: to force the other countries to entrust their fate to them so that they become not only the umpires of all international athletic events but also of their internal affairs, such as the stands of the different Commonwealth Games federations.

This constitutes the most arrogant interference in the internal affairs of sovereign countries.

Boycotts of the superpowers

Secondly, it is known what this argument about boycotts represents. It has a pronounced anti-African and pro-South African character. It places the 1980/84 boycott adopted by the Carter Administration who tried to profit from exploiting the indignation of world opinion against the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and, at the same time, divert it from it’s own backing of the Shah of Iran on the same plane. It turned out that the sanctions were also aimed against the trade of its allies. The U.S.A. boosted its own trade with the USSR and gave de facto recognition to the Soviet occupation.

For its part, the Soviet Union boycotted the 1984 Games allegedly in protest against “anti-Sovietism” and lack of security. The Soviet media blacked out all news of the athletic events, while the American and other Western media in turn blacked out all information of the so-called “Friendship Games” held in Moscow.

Neither boycott “worked.” What the world saw was a drama of competing sets of massively expensive spectacles in which both superpowers were equally guilty of the charge which they level at each other – namely of using international sporting events as levers of political maneouvre, propaganda and profit – contrary to the ideals of the development of physical culture and the desires of people around the world.

In the process, “amateur” sport at the Olympic level has become a byword for “shamateurism” – a reflection of the rot and corruption of professional sport today.

In the process, both superpowers seek to impose their will and dictate on the sportsmen of the entire world in the most destructive and self-interested way, posing as leaders of the world in every conceivable sphere of activity – from politics to culture to sports.

Both boast how they have “wiped the floor” and “cleaned up all the medals” – not from each other so much as from those they count on as allies and friends, for instance, East Germany, Australia and so forth. On this basis, they claim not only material but also moral superiority over other countries by which to justify their claims to “world leadership” in every other field as well. in every other field as well. Athletic prowess is openly equated with military power, not to speak of economic power.

Britain and South Africa

But what is going on now has nothing to do with the selfish pursuits of the superpowers. This time, the emancipation of an entire people is the issue. Because of the support of the Anglo-American powers for South Africa, thirty two states boycotted the Commonwealth Games.

The Commonwealth Games became a symbol of where a country stands on the issue of racism and fascism. It became a symbol of the crisis of the Western powers before a growing storm of world opinion. The central issue is not whether or not boycotts work: the central issue is where you stand.

Britain claims the right to determine the destiny of the people of South Africa by virtue of its investments. The maintenance of the status quo there is high on its agenda. And then two South African athletes – the runner Zola Budd and the swimmer Annette Cowley – were given membership on the British squad. Cowley, a student in the USA held a press conference in which she talked of South Africa as “my country.” And this is not merely a single case of provocation. The argument that they were “Britons” evokes memories of the inclusion of Rhodesian and South African crickets on English test tours.

It must also be mentioned that in June, 1985 the British Sports Minister, Neil MacFarlane, was discovered playing golf with the SA Open Champion, Gavin Levenson, at Europe’s biggest Pro-Celebrity Tournament in Hertfordshire. Far from repentant, he issued a statement saying he had played with South Africans in celebrity golf events before – and cricket matches too. He “fully intends to continue to take part in such charity events if and when invited to do so.” Attempts were made for the British Lions rugby team to tour South Africa this year, after the New Zealand 1985 All Blacks tour, the 1984 England rugby tour (and the 1981 Springbok tour to New Zealand). It was Britain that gave itself the right to violate the Gleneagles Agreement. In her visit to Canada Margaret Thatcher openly said that it would have been better if South Africa had stayed in the Commonwealth. Reagan, in a televised speech, endorsed Thatcher.

Nor was the action of the African countries hasty and precipitous. In June, 1985 the chief African delegate to the planning meeting for the Games, Chief Abraham Ordia of Nigeria, refused to give any assurance that the African countries would participate, warning that they “reserve the right to take whatever action is appropriate” if, for instance, the rugby tours proceeded. This could include boycotting New Zealand’s 1990 Games.

New Zealand in turn has vowed to sponsor an international spectacle in 1990, “whether they are the commonwealth Games or not.” The implied threat is to run a rival Games, inviting teams from the USA, the USSR, Europe and Asia.

Behind the Canadian stand – other motives

And it is from this point that the hollowness of the Canadian stand on the “Friendly Games” springs, showing that its “opposition” to South Africa is self-serving rhetoric.

Mr. Jelinek has not only issued the outrageous demand for “punishment” of the African, Asian and Caribbean countries and people, but it has also endorsed New Zealand’s gambit. There is another motive. The government is vying for the 1994 Games, for which it has already pledged $50 million – equivalent to the annual budget of Sports Canada.

The stakes are very high in this “competition.” Remember the lucrative TV and advertising rights to be sold. That’s why a great international sporting event has ended up as a commercial circus. That’s why the medalists and heroes are marketed with a vengeance. That’s why we have Australian swimmers whose most salable feature is their name – ”the mean machine,” under which they have even incorporated themselves. That’s why we have the spectacle of the gold-medal Alexander Baumann, who saw this entire participation at the Olympics in terms of parlaying his showing into doing advertising and corporate promotions for oil and chemical companies, and Timex watches. His trust fund now amounts to some $850,000. This is the “role model” held up for emulation and worship by Canadian and world youth.

Moreover – even before the Games opened in Edinburgh – politicians and media alike claimed that the mass boycott, with the exception of a few “low profile” sports, would “not hurt the competition.” Three countries, Britain, Australia and Canada, had won 82 per cent of all previous medals. Canadian athletes were ordered to go all out not only to win events, but to set new records. Mr. Jelinek crowed at the Games’ end that “from the gold-medal standpoint, we’ve won these Games.” It was seen as a sign of great national accomplishment, indeed of national superiority, making a mockery of the professed desire to “promote excellence” and the cause of friendship and peace among nations and peoples. It does not seem to occur to these bigwigs that these victories only further serves to show the unequal character of the real political, economic and social relations in the Commonwealth and on the world scale.

Naturally, the issue of the apartheid regime will be settled by the Azanian people themselves and not by those without whose support the Pretoria regime could not have lasted for a single day

But that is also why all honest sportsmen and sportswomen can take a stand. To defend the true ideals of international sports competition, one must also reply to the intrigues and maneouvres of the superpowers, old and new.

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