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When politics and sports collide

The imprisonment of ex-premier, Yulia Tymoshenko, has led to growing calls for boycotts of the Euro 2012 soccer championship in Ukraine. Similar boycotts have a long history, but their utility is disputed.

Each day brings more calls from politicians and personalities in sports, media and culture not to take part in certain Euro 2012 soccer championship matches. Many have urged a boycott against all matches slated to take place in Ukraine, a 2012 co-host along with Poland, which would include at least all of the preliminary matches of Germany's national team.

The threats to boycott are in response to the seven-year prison sentence of Ukrainian opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko as well as to her treatment in jail. Her imprisonment has been seen as politically motivated.

So far Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has refrained from getting involved in the debate raging abroad.

Looking back

Boycotting sports events as a means of exercising political pressure is not a new development. The games held during Nazi Germany offer one example.

Wolfgang Grenz of Amnesty International

No calls to boycott: Wolfgang Grenz of Amnesty International

"There was debate about the 1936 Olympic Games," noted Wolfgang Grenz, Secretary General of Amnesty International Germany, but the discussion came solely from the USA.

Ultimately America took part in the contest, sending their competitors to Germany. Discussions never developed beyond the threat of a boycott.

Threats became reality at the Olympics in Melbourne in 1956. A number of countries boycotted the event, citing reasons that had nothing to do with the host country, Australia. Spain and Switzerland cancelled their participation in light of the Soviets crushing a popular uprising against the government in Hungary. Egypt, Cambodia, Lebanon and Iraq refrained from participating to protest Israel's occupation of the Sinai Peninsula.

A much more widespread boycott occurred in South Africa during the peak of apartheid in the 1970s. The country had been prevented from taking part in a number of international sporting events. And that prompted the government to think things over, says Jürgen Mittag, a professor specializing in the intersection of sports and politics at the German Sport University in Cologne.

"Statements from South African politicians are documented that suggest that the sports boycotts damaged the country's reputation and political situation more than the not entirely mild economic boycotts," Mittag told DW.

The boycott in South Africa, in contrast to in Melbourne, had an impact, even if it is difficult to quantify or measure just how large it was. However, South Africa was not just boycotted at a single event or by just a handful of countries, which offers a possible explanation for the significance the protests took on.

Boycotts escalate in the 80s

Sports and politics intersected again as Soviet troops marched on Afghanistan at the end of 1979. More than 40 countries called off their participation in Moscow's Olympic Games in 1980, including Germany and the USA. Ultimately just 81 countries took part in the event in Russia's capital.

Michael Vesper

Vesper of the German Olympic Sports Confederation also opposes a boycott

A short time later, the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles offered a chance for revenge. The Soviet Union, together with around a dozen allied states, refrained from participating in the sporting event on America's west coast. Officially, the Soviet Union cited concerns that not enough security was provided for Olympic athletes at the games.

Two massive boycotts - with limited effect, experts say.

"We know in the case of the 1980 games in Moscow and the 1984 event in Los Angeles, that sports boycotts tend not to have a big effect," Jürgen Mittag said.

The General Director of the German Olympic Sports Confederation, Michael Vesper, spells it out more clearly: "A boycott does not help. The Olympic boycotts in 1980 and in 1984 in Los Angeles proved that. It accomplishes nothing."

Perhaps that explains why no large-scale boycott has taken place since, even though there have been many calls not to participate.

Beijing 2008

Many argued that the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008 should be cancelled due to the Chinese government's violence against opposition groups in Tibet as well as other human rights violations in Asia's emerging superpower. Protests and demonstrations in a number of major cities around the globe ultimately changed nothing.

Performers at the Beijing 2008 opening ceremony

Beijing 2008: No improvements on human rights

"There were certain hopes when it came to the Olympic Games in Beijing. They died out," reflected Michael Rediske, a spokesman for the board of Reporters Without Borders in Germany.

In selecting Beijing as a host, the International Olympics Committee pushed for stronger human rights protections there, Wolfgang Grenz of Amnesty International adds.

"China told the International Olympic Committee that it would improve the rights situation. But the committee overlooked making that agreement binding and establishing criteria by which it could be judged," Grenz said.

Neither the calls for boycotting the event nor the committee's wishes could persuade the Chinese government to enact lasting change.

Boycotting Euro 2012?

Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych

Viktor Yanukovych has not yet moved to address the boycott calls

The question remains: will current efforts at boycotting parts of the Euro 2012 championship encourage the Ukrainian government to rethink its treatment of Tymoshenko? Amnesty International does not believe a boycott would do much and has not issued an appeal to refrain from participating. It would be more significant if "the people that come to Ukraine highlight the situation and create public pressure to improve the human rights situation," said Grenz.

Michael Vesper of the German Olympic Sports Confederation finds it "better to attend and make contact with opposition forces, talk with the people who visit Tymoshenko. I think that is more uncomfortable for those in power than if people simply stay away."

Author: Marco Müller / gsw
Editor: Neil King

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