Play by the rules

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 February, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 February, 2003, 12:00am

When the first ball of the World Cup cricket tournament is bowled at the Newlands wicket in Cape Town today, the capacity crowd will try its best to forget that sport and politics are too often one and the same.

Like many previous sporting events, it has been soured by political interference.

Sports and politics sometimes do overlap for the common good. Mainland basketballer Yao Ming, the 226 cm-tall centre for the Houston Rockets, is as worthy an ambassador for his country as its senior leaders.

But in the case of the World Cup, politicians from three of the 14 participating nations - England, Australia and New Zealand - have been their own worse diplomats. They have turned what should have been a sporting celebration into a political scandal.

Because of the British government's ongoing push for Zimbabwe's dictatorial leader Robert Mugabe to resign, it has expressed political and security concerns and pressured the English team to forfeit its fixtures in the country. Zimbabwe, South Africa and Kenya, are hosting matches during the six-week tournament.

Although the sport's governing body, the International Cricket Council, has ordered England must play the matches, it seems unlikely the demand will be adhered to. Australia's team is also eyeing Zimbabwe cautiously, but for now, its matches will go ahead.

New Zealand has opted not to play its fixtures in Kenya's capital, Nairobi, for security reasons. Last November, Israeli tourists were killed in a terrorist bombing in the port of Mombasa.

At the World Cup seven years ago, Sri Lanka were gifted two matches when Australia and the West Indies declined to travel to Colombo after a suicide bombing in the city.

An international sports ban was imposed against South Africa for three decades from the 1960s because of the then-white government's apartheid regime. The sporting community, not politicians, suffered.

The Olympic Games have also been used to show displeasure with other nations. In the end, though, only the nations who chose not to attend lost out.

In the case of the World Cup, the International Cricket Council has made its position clear. It and the host countries have guaranteed security and sports people have an obligation to follow its judgment.

The fiasco exemplifies why sports and politics should not be mixed. There will be little - if any - gain for dissenting nations and sports will suffer.