Tom Hall | Sportscene - Out of respect for the 298 killed when pro-Russian rebels shot down flight MH17, Sportscene will report in a certain, limited fashion on the upcoming Sprint Canoe/Kayak World Championships in Moscow.
The decision was not taken lightly by Sportscene co-founder and director, Rob van Bommel, a native of the Netherlands living in Australia. But the magnitude of the tragedy can’t be ignored, and a message from a retired Ukrainian athlete urging the boycott of the Championships highlighted the trauma being felt by our friends there.
Here is Van Bommel’s stance on the power and responsibility of our sport and being an athlete:
"An important element of sport and to perform as an athlete, is to relate well with your environment and the situation you are in. Self-focus 'in the field' is an absolute must, self-obsession and ignoring (the people in) your environment of-the-field is questionable. Maybe it's possible that athletes can find the right balance and the right time for self-focus versus empathy. Sport in general and athletes in specific are in a unique position to develop a greater cause that can be achieved for our sport and wider community, which goes above and beyond the celebration of success. Maybe that's the difference between a successful athlete and a Legend.
A similar responsibility as explained in the above applies to Sportscene as one of the leading platforms in the world of competitive paddlesports. Amongst other themes we support gender equality in our sport (for which we were retributed and have paid a price), we stand against any form of discrimination, including on grounds of sexual orientation, and also looking away from this conflict between 'East and West' during the Worlds in Moscow is not an option. On the contrary: it's our moral and social responsibility to create awareness and constructive discussion."
He and I had a brief chat about this, and I mostly agree with him. Athletes shouldn’t have blinders on when it comes to the world around them, particularly when it comes to the people in the countries where they compete. But, I also understand that it’s easier said than done. With nothing to lose, I find it difficult to comment on this year’s worlds without it sounding disingenuous. But an event I can comment on, that is different in scope but nonetheless somewhat comparable in terms of the burden placed on athletes, is the Beijing Olympics.
In 2008 I briefly pondered the boycott question, but chose to believe the story that is often used to justify major events in places that shouldn’t be awarded the honour of hosting them. I believed that by going I would help trigger a discussion on the issues that gave me pause. I believed the Olympics would be an instrument of change. Six years later, I’m not convinced the Beijing Games were anything more than a spectacle made at great cost and without much of a legacy for the people of Beijing—humanitarian or otherwise.
Debate about whether certain competitions should be allowed, discontinued or boycotted is of all times. The 1936 Berlin Olympics was certainly one of the first major modern competitions that led to intense debate, and since then every Olympics has had its detractors. And rightly so. Some argue that politics has no place in sport, but with an Olympics costing $50 billion and potential host countries holding plebiscites to decide if they will host or not, it’s never been more clear that sport and politics are inexorably intertwined.
[RIGHT - Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta prints front-page asking Netherlands for 'forgiveness']
Yes the Olympics and the World Championships are wildly different in size, and I’m not drawing direct comparisons between any of the Olympics mentioned above and this year’s World Championships. I’m illustrating the point that sport is now inherently political and it’s incumbent upon whatever organization is in charge to ensure the safety of those participating in an event AND, within reason, the well-being of the people affected by the event.
I think the international sport community needs to take a good long look in the mirror to see what it really stands for, to ask if it is promoting positive change when it bestows the honour of hosting a major event in a less than democratic country. To be clear, I don’t think athletes should boycott anything (expect for the occasional really hard practice). It would never be an issue if the organizations that govern sport never put an event in an area where the politics are so raw that an athlete will feel uncomfortable competing there.
In the long run what will really hurt international sport (including paddling) and the athletes involved, is ignoring humanitarian or other kinds of issues that the community, fans and sponsors care about. What do you think?