As SportsBusinessJournal (SBJ) wrote in its October 14-20, 2019, issue, the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) China crisis was not the first time an American sports entity had to apologize for comments backing a totalitarian regime’s laws, instead of standing up for American values.
The lede of the article recalled that “Scott Blackmum, then CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee, said U.S. athletes should ‘comply’ with Russia’s anti-LGBT propaganda law as Team USA prepared for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.” Of course a clarifying statement was issued a few days later.
The “I didn’t express my self correctly” script was followed by NBA’s Commissioner Adam Silver, after his initial comment expressing remorse for a tweet by Daryl Morey, then the general manager of the Houston Rockets, backing freedom for Hong Kong. Silver had to “clarify” his statement because of condemnation in the U.S. (Because of negative media and political reaction Silver eventually spoke out strongly about the league’s commitment to freedom of expression, but like a shot that would win a game after the buzzer sounds, it was a little too late. As followers of the political situation know, many people are cynical about “walking back” statements, as they should be).
The SBJ article questioned where the line should be drawn between sports figures offering political statements about situations in the U.S. and commenting on foreign matters.
As far as I’m concerned, that’s the wrong question. The question, as I see it, should be: Should international sporting events be given to totalitarian governments providing them with a word-wide propaganda spectacle?
The next world mega sporting event to be held in a totalitarian country, the Winter Olympics, will be held in Beijing in February 2022, a city controlled by China’s totalitarian national government. The International Olympic Committee, (IOC) the organization that decides where their games will be played, see nothing wrong about that. But political and human rights protests about the game have been on-going for more than a year, with the crescendo still to come.
For years the IOC’s story line has been that sports can bring people together. The NBA has said the same thing. But the history of international sporting events shows the opposite, despite what the moguls of sports say.
A few examples:
- “The 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City were the most politically charged Olympics since the 1936 Games in Berlin. Ten days before the Games were to open, students protesting the Mexican government’s use of funds for the Olympics rather than for social programs were surrounded in the Plaza of Three Cultures by the army and fired upon. More than 200 protesters were killed and over a thousand injured.” (Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica.)
- The IOC’s brand of apoliticism is, in fact, deeply political — the IOC needs a walk-in closet for all of its political skeletons. It staged the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin with full awareness about Adolph Hitler and the Nazis policies and ignored its “Aryans-only” policy within German sports organizations. It allowed an all-white apartheid South African team to compete until it grudgingly banned the country in the 1960s in the face of worldwide pressure. For two decades, the IOC’s president was Juan Antonio Samaranch, an unrepentant functionary for the Franco regime in Spain. The list goes on. (Source: Jules Boykoff, author of “Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics.”)
- Athletes from Arab countries have refused to compete against Israelis several times without the IOC taking disciplinary action.
Despite the IOC’s insistence that politics has no place in the Olympics, political boycotts have been a frequent event of the games. Political disputes led to various countries boycotting the games in 1936, 1956, 1965, 1976, 1980, 1984 and1988. And many U.S. politicians and social rights groups asked for the U.S. to boycott the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
As the world knows, the Olympics has always been the source of political controversies because of the IOC’s awarding its games to totalitarian governments, most recently to China and Russia, which uses them as propaganda vehicles.
It’s not that I’m against having an event like the Olympics that invites athletes from every nation that wants to compete. In fact, I think the Olympics is the most important sports event ever. But having it used as a propaganda tool by undemocratic countries that enslave people and prohibit the freedom of expression troubles me.
As was evident during the recently concluded Tokyo Olympic Games, even though the IOC says their games are free of politics, countries who are awarded the games or who have athletes participating in them think otherwise.
Despite Russia being caught in a state-run doping scandal dating back to the Sochi Winter Olympic games in 2014, the IOC permitted Russian athletes to compete in Tokyo as the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) but said it’s athletes could not use identifying markers like a flag or stand on the podium after a victory while the Russian national anthem was being played, saying in fact that Russia isn’t officially competing in Tokyo as a country, but fooling no one as was evident when journalists referred to winning ROC athletes as representing Russia and Russian athletes wore Russia’s national colors, even though they weren’t permitted to have “Russia” on their uniforms.
But as William Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” because, as reported in the Wall Street Journal on July 25, Russia’s sports minister Oleg Matytsin agreed with the Bard, saying that the uniform “beyond doubt is associated with our country.”
“I am sure that all spectators of the (Tokyo) Games will understand that these are representatives of Russia,” Mr. Matytsin said.
And now, surprisingly, the Taliban take-over of Afghanistan has become a sports story. The Afghan men’s cricket team’s tour Australia this fall might be cancelled by Australian cricket officials as a protest against the Taliban’s treatment of women.
Not everyone feels that way. In the September 14 Wall Street Journal, an essay by Tunku Varadarajan, a Journal contributor, who is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and at New York University Law School’s Classical Liberal Institute, writes that “Afghan cricketers play for Afghanistan, not for the Taliban. If they are barred from world cricket, the people of Afghanistan will lose their last source of pleasure, their last shred of joy. Let us keep them on the field of play.”
But if the Afghan cricket teams tours Australia, the distinction between the players and the Taliban government will be minimal, just as teams from Russia, China, and Nazi Germany were and are perceived as representatives of totalitarian regimes.
It would be great if international sporting events could be separated from politics. Maybe some day a way to do that will be invented. But for the present, international sporting events and politics are entwined.
As for me, I agree with what Shaquille O’Neal, the former NBA star, who is now an NBA basketball analyst, who unlike other NBAers who kept quiet during the NBA-Hong Kong controversy said,” Whenever you see something wrong going on anywhere in the world, you should have the right to say, ‘That’s not right.’”
And I disagree with Mr. Varadarajan’s opinion regarding the Afghan cricket team’s tour of Australia and with NBA star LeBron James, who had a different take than O’Neil regarding the Hong Kong situation, saying “We all talk about this freedom of speech. Yes, we all do have freedom of speech, but at times there are ramifications for the negative that can happen when you’re not thinking about others, and you’re only thinking about yourself. I don’t want to get into a word or sentence feud with Daryl Morey, but I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand, and he spoke. And so many people could have been harmed, not only financially, but physically. Emotionally. Spiritually.” (According to Forbes, James makes $60-million a year from sports marketing sponsors, some Olympic sponsors that “just follow the sport,” even though they are played in anti-American and totalitarian countries.)
If more athletes would have as much courage as O’Neil and Morey, future Olympic games and other international sporting events would be played in cities where people have the right to protest their government’s actions without fear of reprisals.
About the Author: Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and nonsports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.