James Walker’s dream was stolen. In July 1980, the 23-year-old American athlete was awaited in Moscow to participate in the 400-meter hurdles Olympic event, the great event for which he had been preparing for more than two years. He did not need to renew his passport: he stayed in the United States and ended up competing in Philadelphia, in a mock alternative Olympiad dubbed the Liberty Bell Classic. Walker won the gold medal with a respectable time, 48 seconds 6 tenths, but he hardly celebrated. He was aware that he was participating in a geopolitical charade, a sad substitute. Eight days later, an athlete from the German Democratic Republic, one Volker Beck, took gold in Moscow with a mark two-tenths worse than James’. “Why didn’t we go to that Olympiad?” Asked this anonymous athletic hero 40 years after the American boycott of the Moscow Games. “I suppose it would be for some serious moral or political reason.”
The compelling reason Walker says he ignores is that the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. In response to the deployment of Warsaw Pact troops to Central Asia, the United States adopted a series of retaliatory measures, including boycotting the Games, also supported by nations such as Norway, the Federal Republic of Germany, Japan, Argentina, Turkey or the People’s Republic of China. Four years later, in 1984, the Soviet Union and its allies turned the tables by not attending the Los Angeles Olympics.
Large-scale sports boycotts became a weapon in the final stretch of the Cold War, but they were already being practiced in the mid-1960s. They are a form of extreme interaction between politics and sport that, on certain occasions, have also functioned as an effective tool for social change. For example, the racist regime in South Africa was subjected to an almost universal blockade that included the prohibition of organizing and participating in international sporting events and that Nelson Mandela himself ended up considering one of the direct causes of the transition to a true democracy that took place. in the country in 1992.
In recent months, activists, fan groups and the media in Western democracies have begun to persistently raise the need for an ethical and humanitarian boycott of the Qatar Soccer World Cup, which is scheduled to take place in November and December. of 2022. Some of them wield a very striking fact, made public by the newspaper The Guardian on February 23: 6,500 migrant workers, mostly from nations such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Nepal, have died in the Arab country since the organization of the World Cup was granted to the Persian Gulf monarchy, now ten years ago . The players of the German national team formed hugging in line each wearing a shirt with a capital letter to compose the words “human rights” before a match against Iceland.
The Guardian became interested in the subject after the death of a British citizen displaced to Qatar who was working on the construction of the new stadiums. The figure was not obtained with an independent investigation on the ground, but by consulting and extrapolating official Qatari sources. For Toni Padilla, head of sports at the newspaper See and founding member of the magazine Doll, “It is highly unlikely that there will be a significant boycott of the Qatar World Cup.” The reasons for doing so exist and would be, in his opinion, “very solid and completely legitimate”; however, “there is now, unlike what happened in the 1980s, any world superpower interested in using the boycott as a tool of political retaliation.” The willful and disorderly efforts of groups such as the group of German fans ProFans, who ask their national teams not to go to Qatar, will, in any case, serve “for the players to put on a protest shirt.” “Qatar is a feudal dictatorship that has a disastrous humanitarian record,” argues Padilla, “and that is hardly debatable, beyond controversies about whether or not the massive death of immigrant workers has to do with the conditions of job security in the works. construction of stadiums ”. However, the ethical bar is very low. “Countries like Russia or China have recently organized Olympics and World Cups without committing themselves to anything other than cosmetic concessions to the supposed values of the international democratic community,” Padilla recalls.
The emirate is right now one of the richest countries on the planet, “and it is injecting quintals of fresh money into the world of sports, where it has found a way to legitimize itself and whitewash its image.” Elite footballers like the Dutch Geoginio Wijnadum have already spoken. They want to go to Qatar. They are not willing to have an excess of humanitarian zeal rob them of their dream. Others, like the ilerdense Roberto Martínez, Belgium coach, believe that you cannot give up an appointment of such importance and that, in any case, it is better to go and contribute to cultural exchanges in the country that open it up to the world . Padilla sees in this arguments “between naive, willful and cynical” that hide a reality: “Sport is politicized from the roots and without remedy, perhaps since, already in 1906, the Olympics stopped being events amateurs and they became competitions between nations ”. Qatar would deserve a boycott if sport were for a moment to take seriously its supposed role as a tool for social change in the service of universal values. And, as Padilla warns: “It will not happen.”
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.