Ukraine boycott is simple hypocrisy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 June, 2012, 12:00am


What gives with the pompous UK government's Foreign Office and the other bombastic European leaders snubbing Ukraine's Euro 2012 contribution and staying away from matches?

The British have decided to join France and Germany and protest about the Ukraine government's treatment of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister jailed for alleged abuse of office, and what London describes as 'selective justice'.

In the parlance of a football terrace chant, I ask of my government: 'Where were you four years ago at the Beijing 2008 Olympics?'. What makes Tymoshenko so different from and more deserving of diplomatic intervention than the Tibetans, Uygurs and scores of Chinese political prisoners?

Why should the ordinary Ukrainians suffer embarrassment and humiliation during their historic sporting party and not the 1.3 billion Chinese, who were applauded from beginning to end four years ago?

Why are F1, tennis and golf other international sporting events allowed to make a bee-line to the big money in China without so much as a whiff of protest?

Politicians are hypocritical by nature, but the UK's Euros stance takes the half-time orange slice.

Crucially, does boycotting a sport event achieve anything other than to make a lame political statement?

When I covered the preparations for the 2008 Beijing Olympics I was swayed by the belief that a staunch, upright protest by governments including Washington, Brussels and London was desperately needed to make the Beijing administration fall into line and introduce a civil state run by the rule of law.

But the more I witnessed how the Olympics and the power of sport was forcing engagement - especially at grass roots - I soon deflated my bloated righteousness and changed my tune. I nodded in agreement with those, including the International Olympic Committee, who argued shared experiences and knowledge is the most productive way to introduce new ideas into a complex nation and gain understanding.

Sport can achieve this, but boycotts have long been proven to be a blunt instrument and have no affect. What was the outcome of the tit-for-tat LA and Moscow snubs? At best, such ostracising can be seen as a vain political stunt by the protesting politicians to try and impress their own constituents.

Ahead of their first group B clash in Kharkiv, the governments of Denmark and the Netherlands sent their sports ministers to meet victims of alleged police torture. During their talks they discussed homophobia, corruption and the need for an independent judiciary.

Honourable, noble stuff and at least these politicians showed up to not only represent their member states but also the conscience of all Europeans, many of whom - including myself - are mixing it up shoulder to shoulder in the stadiums and public squares of Poland and Ukraine.

I have yet to travel to the second co-host and will head across the border later in the week. But if the fan zones and stadiums there are anything like the ones here in Poland then sport is obviously doing what politics rarely does, which is to bring unity, even if a few hooligans will unsuccessfully attempt to prove otherwise.

Do these conceited European powers think the Ukraine government will care too much about the absence of an unknown sports official or two? Not a jot. What sense is there in singling out Ukraine for its democratic deficiencies when Russia and China are handed the rights to host premier sporting events without question?

What matters most is the impression the Euros will have on the public of the Ukraine, who believe it will offer a rare moment of global recognition and help shift attitudes among the ruling elite in the right direction, if only by a centimetre.

Bringing the Euros this far east and dunking it in the tangled nest of the history of European politics is shining a spotlight on Ukraine like never before and might aid progress towards democracy. That's a major goal to try and score and China is a case in point where it remains 1-0 to the power of sport; as hard as it tries, Beijing cannot roll back the Olympic effect on the Chinese, who since 2008 are more inquisitive about the world they live in and question their government more.

Boycotts have no place in sport and with the Olympics just 46 days away, this particular stunt by London risks retaliatory snubs from Ukraine and its allies, including Russia, whose relationship with the UK is already strained. Far better to let sport reign and continue to engage our lofty ideals with gentle pressure off the pitch and let events on it do most of the sensible talking.