Following the questioning of England captain Andrew Strauss over the tour to Sri Lanka, Ben Mitchell looks at what happens when sport and politics collide.
As if having to contend with another tricky Test series on unfriendly wickets and the inevitable trial by spin wasn’t enough, Andrew Strauss, England’s cricket captain, spent Wednesday fielding questions about alleged human rights atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan government during the final throes of its quarter of a century civil war with the Tamil Tigers.
Coming off the back of a Channel 4 exposé due to be shown later that evening, which itself followed a series of programmes broadcast last year detailing abuses throughout the war, Strauss was forced to be at his diplomatic best.
When asked to comment, he gave as honest an answer as he probably could:
“It’s a bit of a tricky one. All around us we see atrocities taking place all over the world and in war a lot of unsavoury things happen on both sides.
“I personally think the political issues are dealt with by the politicians and administrators. But that doesn’t mean we should stick our heads in the sand.
“If the British government feels there is a case to answer to a great enough extent that the England team shouldn’t be touring somewhere then that is a call they need to make.
“Until that is the case, it would be wrong for us to focus on anything other than cricket.”
No doubt Strauss would have preferred not have had to talk about this, but credit to him for not ducking the issue.
The question of how far sport and politics should mix, if at all, crops up every time England, or other nations, find themselves face to face with some of the world’s most unpleasant regimes.
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In fact, the question is largely a redundant one because sport and politics do merge, regularly, whether those in sport like it or not.
Long gone are the days when sportsmen and women could just go about their day jobs and be done with it; they’re now ambassadors, role models, and sometimes most awkwardly, diplomats.
2003 and the cricket world cup was a fine example of where sport and politics collided, with politicians leaving their sport stars hung out to dry.
An exercise in farce, leading to utter confusion and bewilderment, played havoc with England’s preparations. The question of whether they should or shouldn’t play one of their group matches against Zimbabwe, the tournament’s co-hosts, and a country run by the tyrannical leader Robert Mugabe, dogged the team for several months beforehand.
In the end, England decided to forfeit their points and not play in Zimbabwe, citing security concerns and fears over player safety – but it was the handling of this affair that did few favours to cricket’s administrators.
The players could have been forgiven for feeling like they were caught in the crossfire as the ECB, those responsible for running English cricket, the ICC, cricket’s world governing body, and the British government, spent several months coming out with contradictory statement after contradictory statement.
Finally settling on the view that England should not play in Zimbabwe, the then prime minister, Tony Blair, issued this wholly unsatisfactory statement:
“There are no legal powers available to the government to ban a sporting team from participation.
“However, in the light of the deteriorating political and humanitarian situation in the country, ministers have made clear that if the decision were for them, England should not play in Zimbabwe.”
To which a baffled Nasser Hussain, the then England cricket captain, responded:
“It is faintly ridiculous to suppose that the England captain and management have the time to come to the informed moral judgment which it is necessary to make about going to Zimbabwe.”
The government’s stance had only served to leave its cricketers “in the lurch”, as Strauss put it some years later:
“In the past there’ve been chances to show the strength of feeling here and the government chose not to.”
If the England cricket team wanted to see an example of moral courage, they only had to wait until the tournament began, and a look to their future coach, the Zimbabwean, Andy Flower, for inspiration.
Along with team mate Henry Olonga, they both took to the field, for the match between Zimbabwe and Namibia, wearing black armbands to “mourn the death of democracy in Zimbabwe”.
In contrast to the dithering and spinelessness of the ICC and ECB, they were praised as players who:
“Shine out like diamonds in a pile of mud.”
Showing that they had learned the lessons of 2003, five years later, the government finally showed some backbone and, together with the ECB, spoke as one in cutting ties with the Zimbabwean cricket board and cancelling Zimbabwe’s summer tour of England in 2009.
Andy Burnham, then in his role as culture secretary, said the government’s actions had lifted pressure off the players:
“It was quite unfair [in the past] to leave individual players in the position of having to make a moral judgement in the context of an awkward and uncomfortable position.
“The right thing to do was to provide clarity. We made the decision after giving it the longest possible time for the situation to change in Zimbabwe.”
Away from cricket, the decision to award the 2008 Olympic Games to China was not without controversy. Another country with an appalling human rights record was, to its critics, handed sport’s premier stage to embark on a two-week propaganda exercise for the government.
Boycotts were proposed but never carried through.
Ahead of this summer’s games, a whole litany of athletes from repressive regimes will descend on London. Saudi Arabia will arrive minus any female competitors, banned by their government from taking part; to what extent the UK is indirectly endorsing this policy by allowing Saudi Arabia to come at all is a point worth asking, if perhaps unfair.
As to whether England should be touring Sri Lanka, I would say yes, they should be. As much as some of us might like our sportsmen and women to behave like moral crusaders, the reality is we’d also like them to do what they do they best: entertaining (and frustrating) us.
The lesson learned following the 2003 Zimbabwe fiasco is that it is simpler, and more desirable, for governments to take a lead and sport to follow. English cricket has certainly benefited from this.
And, like everything else in the world of politics, politics intervening in sport has, and always will be, an exercise in selectivity.