Tymoshenko and Football: The Case of the Sporting Boycott

A familiar battle is unfolding between sports and politics, with various countries taking a stance on Ukraine’s treatment of ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko.  The choice of battleground is the Euro 2012 championships which are being co-hosted by the Ukraine this year, along with Poland.

Various members of the EU have already taken steps to boycott the state, heeding the position of Eugenia Tymoshenko, daughter of the imprisoned opposition leader.  “European leaders can’t be seen to support this repression by standing next to President (Viktor) Yanukovych”.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has added her voice to the chorus about the plight of the former Ukrainian leader.  Tymoshenko, in her eyes, is becoming something of a wounded, brutalised heroine – and one who has gone on a prolonged hunger strike.  She also has the bruises to show it.  “The photographs of Mrs. Tymoshenko released by the Ukrainian Human Rights Ombudsman further call into question the conditions of her confinement” (Voice of Russia, May 2).  Penal colonies have a habit of turning their inmates into luminary martyrs.

And the fuss? A cruelly administered seven year sentence, being served in Kharkov for Tymoshenko’s signing of a lucrative gas contract with Russia.  She has also been forced to pay an amount of around 1.51 billion hryvni (the equivalent of 200 million dollars) to Neftegaz Ukrainy.  Dealing in energy resources is a hazardous pastime in the former Soviet bloc.  The result of the treatment of the high profile inmate is that countries such as Austria and The Netherlands have refused to send government ministers to the tournament unless an improvement is made in the treatment of Tymoshenko.

The authorities in Kiev have taken the familiar view that such a sporting boycott unduly politicises the non-political.  The Ukrainian foreign ministry was even touching in its statement.  “We view as destructive attempts to politicise sporting events, which since ancient times have played a paramount role in improving understanding and agreement between nations”. (ABC, May 4).  This view might mimic the aching sounds of violins, but it hardly stands to reason.

The statement sees such politicisation as regressive, a well directed blow to development. This, in itself, would suggest that the authorities are aware of the potential sport has – far from being a hermetically pursued, self-indulgent escape from the political, it embraces it.  “An attack on this big dream undermines the chances of… all the former Socialist Bloc members to prove that their economic, human and scientific potential can turn them from the debtors of Europe to its engine of growth.” Sport is hardly going to put food on the table, but it may well feed the spirit.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin is similarly of the view that football and politics don’t mix. “Leave sports alone!” he exclaimed, citing the principle of the International Olympic Committee that sports is a province beyond the political.  This is a good vintage of nonsense.  The Cold War itself demonstrated that sports was yet another frontier in the culture wars between the West and the communist bloc. Far from being separate from the field of human conflict, it was integral to it.  Sporting boycotts are simply another weapon of war, as the old ostracised apartheid government of South Africa could attest to.

This stands to reason.  By 1930, the Spanish writer José Ortega y Gasset would state that modern life had “become universalised”, an age of the masses which made cultural and political phenomena an intertwined entity.  And that culture, whatever the merits of the EU’s position on football and the Ukraine, is here to stay

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.