Politics and Sport   April 9th 2008

"There is no place for politics in sport".  Oh no?  Then why did the Olympic torch visit Downing Street at the weekend to be greeted by Gordon Brown and Tessa Jowell? A goodwill gesture or a PR stunt that went badly wrong?  Make up your own minds!

Politics and sport have been intertwined since Pheidippides ran the first marathons from Athens to Sparta and back The embargo on sporting links with South Africa during apartheid and the reluctance of many sportsmen and women to visit Mugabe’s Zimbabwe are just two examples of how political pressure may be brought to bear upon regimes considered to be beyond the international Pale.

In Olympic terms there are those who can still remember Hitler's failed attempt to hijack the Berlin games in the interests of the Nazi cause and the tension that surrounded the Olympiad held in Moscow when the fall of the Berlin Wall was still a dream. And who, having watched them, can forget the Black Power salutes upon the podium in Mexico City?

Huge political and sporting guns were brought to bear to enable London to steal the 2012 Olympics from under the noses of French aspiration. The staging of the Games and the massive financial commitment necessary to deliver requires considerable political will. Could anyone seriously doubt that the combined efforts of Olympians like Seb Coe and Daley Thompson and cross-party support from both Houses of Parliament and the Government, culminating in the personal intervention of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, did not tip the scales in London's favour?  Of course they did.

Let's not kid ourselves. The Olympics are, and always have been, at one level a political platform. That is why the Chinese were so anxious to secure the games and that is why, between now and the summer, and as legacy once the athletes have departed,  the spotlight of the World must remain upon the human rights record of the regime in Beijing.

A week ago I would have opposed the torch relay through London. With twenty-twenty hindsight it is, I think, clear that the day-long democratic protest in the interests, particularly, of the people of Tibet and the television pictures that were seen in virtually every country in the World (except, of course, in China!) will have sent a very clear message that, without the relay, could not possibly have been transmitted.

The relay itself was a ludicrous parody of the event that the spin-doctors had dreamed of, was it not?  The sight of phalanx of Chinese security goons in turn surrounded by the Metropolitan constabulary jogging in bicycle helmets in a frequently vain endeavour to protect a torch that was itself often invisible from protest demonstrated for all the World to see the contrast between democracy and oppression. That process must not stop.

We now have to hope and expect that the relay, as it moves around the globe, transforms into a marathon of demonstration that will culminate in a realisation that the real torch, of liberty, may be suppressed for generations at a time but can never, ever, be extinguished.  We cannot, and must not, in the interests of political expedience or business interests, ever be prepared to tolerate the intolerable

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