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January 27, 1999


E-Mail this column to a friend Arvind Lavakare

It's cock and bull, all this talk of separating sports and politics

Whatever it was that made Bal Thackeray stay his opposition to Pakistan's cricket tour last week, it wasn't cowardice as was hinted at by sections of the press. A man who openly advocates strong-arm measures and defends his party's resort to them can hardly be given that ignominious label.

Nor did his adversarial stance against the Pakis playing here deserve the opprobrium of him being called "Traitor" --- the word used for him by Jyoti Basu, Bengal's chief minister. Imagine a CM of the political party which assisted our British rulers during the Quit India movement of 1942 calling Thackeray a traitor ---that surely is the tragi-comic irony of this century in India. And to think that Basu considers himself so civilised that he often uses the word "barbaric" to describe the BJP.

The appropriate tag for Thackeray should, rather, be that of being realistic-cum-passionately nationalistic. On the opposition to Pakistan's present cricket tour, his thinking was right, his tactic was wrong.

His decision at the eleventh hour to let the tour proceed at least this time around is certainly pragmatic and in the nation's interest. For there's no knowing what the BJP-led coalition's blunder in welcoming this tour could have led to in the teeth of the Shiv Sena's determined protests; just one clash inside or outside a venue could have led to yet another bout of Hindu-Muslim riots which may have ultimately devoured the Vajpayee government. However, that danger is not ruled out yet despite Thackeray's go-ahead, there's no knowing what a defeat on the field could lead to.

Yes, it was naïve of the Vajpayee government to believe that cricket between India and Pakistan can thaw relations between the two countries as long as Pakistan's fanatic obsession with obtaining possession of Kashmir stokes the "hate India" feeling in every successive government that comes to power in the country which Jinnah's obsession created in the first place.

For the record, India and Pakistan have exchanged nine tours in all between October 1952 and December 1989 during which 44 Tests have been played by their teams against each other; what has been the result in terms of "friendly relationships"? Three full-fledged wars, all started by Pakistan. After 1989, India has played against Pakistan dozens of times at Sharjah and Toronto. What has been the outcome? Increased ISI-sponsored terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir resulting, among other calamities, the Kashmiri Pandits becoming refugees in their own motherland.

It's cock and bull, really, all this talk of separating sports and politics, and of sports being an instrument for improving relations between countries. When Mamata Banerjee, our former minister for sports, talks of it being criminal to mix sports and politics, she exposes her ignorance of sports history. When Kirti Azad, a former India cricketer and an ex-BJP MLA, pleads on television to keep sports and politics apart, he displays how superficial his knowledge is about India-Pak relations and of the history of sports.

Azad should even now talk to former Test umpire Gothoskar of Mumbai. Always frank in his views, Gothoskar reminded all Indians the other day that it was Imran Khan, the earlier Pak skipper, who had refused to play any match in Kashmir saying that it did not constitute Indian territory. "Should we invite for dinner to our home those who throw stones at us?" asked Gothoskar. How's that Kirti?

In an emotional article the other day, Pritish Nandy put even more difficult questions to those superficial people like Kirti Azad. Asks the poet-cum-journalist member of the Rajya Sabha: 'Will you shake hands with someone who kills your father, rapes your sister, sets fire to your village and, at the same time, smiles and tells you that cricket is above politics?'

The history of sport's links politics goes much further in the past, over half a century before Jinnah forced the carving of a great land of sages and ancient civilisation. Those links are documented by erudite writers in a 1978 publication of 627 pages titled Sport And International Relations; that thoroughly researched, highly intellectual compendium was edited by Benjamin Lowe of Governors State University,Illinois, David B Kannin of Boston College, Massachusetts, and Andrew Strenk of University of Southern California. The Introduction to the book's section on Olympism states as follows:

In an international sense, sports were basically apolitical as long as they were conducted by the English upper class on a club basis As soon as the International Olympic Committee came into being on June 23, 1894, sport changed its character radically.

Politics has always been a part of the Olympic Movement, even from its inception, something which many have chosen to ignore.

The IOC, with its claims to internationalism, independence and moralism, injected itself into the realm of politics. Indeed, the IOC was born in political intrigue surrounding the personal machination of de Coubertin, and so could hardly avoid political involvement.

The institutions of sport followed Western politics. From the time of the first Olympic Games, the units of sports corresponded in name and territorial jurisdiction to states. While the ideology of sport put forth a program calling for peaceful gatherings of the youth of the world, the organisation of sport made the states represented more important than the athletes themselves…State representation has created state interest. Athletics have become political extensions of states.

Examples abound to prove that the social role of sport becomes sublimated when "broader" issues are at stake. Those that readily come to mind are:

1. The Melbourne Games of 1956, which closely followed the Hungarian revolution, became an unarmed extension of hostilities between members of Hungarian and the Soviet Union water polo teams.

2. Ever since the Supreme Council for Sport was formed in 1962, the African countries fought for a ban on South Africa from competing in the Olympics. Their argument was that sports links helped strengthen the apartheid region of South Africa and gave it respectability.

3. US and Canadian diplomatic relations were seriously strained when Canada refused to the American demand to let Taipei participate in the Montreal Olympics of 1976 under the name and flag of Republic of China rather than as Taiwan. So obstinate was Canada over excluding Taiwan's participation that it even chose to breach one of the conditions for hosting the Games laying down that all IOC members -- including Taiwan -- are to be allowed to participate. The cause of Canada's obduracy lay in the fact that it had severed ties with Taipei in 1970 when it recognised the Peoples Republic of China with whom it wanted to cultivate better relations.

4. The Montreal Games were boycotted by 30 countries including 28 from Africa, which protested over New Zealand's continued sports contact with apartheid South Africa through rugby union.

5. Though the annual US-USSR track and field meets (held in each other's territory alternately) which were begun in 1958 drew fans, commercial sponsors and a great deal of television coverage, they were suddenly stopped in 1966 for undisclosed reasons; the most plausible explanation, however, was the great embarassment caused to the Soviet Union by its inability to halt the American offensive against North Vietnam despite the harsh Chinese reaction to the lack of aggressive Soviet action in the area. And while those eight annual athletics meets had done nothing to improve relations between the two superpowers, it should be remembered that China itself practised "Ping Pong" diplomacy for long.

6. In the 1969 World Ice Hockey Championships, the Soviet Union was, for the first time in a decade, defeated by title-winning Czechoslovakia which, in the August of the previous year, had been invaded by the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact troops. The result was something between a riot and a revolution. The streets of Prague filled with rioters, rocks, bottles and anti-Soviet placards. It was a classic example of a sporting victory making up for a military defeat in the minds of the people. The riot was used as the excuse the Soviets needed to rid themselves once and for all of Alexander Dubcek

Conclusion: Those who believe that Indo-Pak cricket can be a part of the solution to the political problems between the two countries are ignorant of Indo-Pak history; those who believe that sports and politics are like oil and water are ignorant of sports history as well; both groups talked and are talking a lot of cock and bull.

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