Should sport succeed when politics fail?

Politics can influence divide within a nation, whilst sport has the overriding power to unite, but when these two worlds collide, should players and teams make 'political' decisions?
Youth teams in Zambia celebrate sport and culture under the theme "Youth changing the world" at the Cup of Heroes tournament in Lusaka.

In sport and development, we teach young people sports skills and life skills, encourage role modeling and hope that our programmes develop coaches, players and communities. Our sports events are themed to address social issues and promote inclusion and those involved in our programmes are advocates for change, but sometimes in the wider world of sport, upscaling these values isn't of interest to sponsors and fans. But in sacrificing these opportunities to use sport as a platform to promote global issues we are devaluing the core values of sport.

Politics and sport
"Sport and politics generally shouldn't mix but ... what kind if signal does it send to the world when this grand prix goes ahead, given the concerns there are and the continuing issues around human rights," said British politician, Ed Milliband, to the BBC, ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix last weekend.

His views were echoed by other politicians, human rights groups and media worldwide but the race went ahead and track owner, Zayed Alzayani, said, "I think we have proved to the world that whatever is happening on the political scene has nothing to do with what is happening on track."

But politics in this sense was not about siding with a political party, but about basic human rights issues, directly in line with two key sporting values - equality and teamwork - therefore it has everything to do with what is happening on the track, field and court.

When sport has the power to foster relations, it should
History is glittered with success stories of sport paving the way for political change. In 1971, Ping Pong Diplomacy set the stage for the resumption of diplomatic ties between the USA and China and  continues through the Peace and Sport Table Tennis Cup. In 1978, Pakistani dictator, Ziaul Haq, visited the Prime Minister of India, to watch the two countries compete against each other in cricket, a sport which continues to foster political relations in South Asia and Afghanistan.

When sport has the power to unite a nation, it should
Infamous social divisions were broken in South Africa, when Nelson Mandela befriended National Rugby Capitan, Francois Pienaar, in the run up to the Rugby World Cup in 1995 and again football brought the host nation together during the FIFA World Cup in 2010.

As Egypt prepares to play Iraq ahead of the 2014 World Cup qualifiers in the United Arab Emirates this summer, one blogger in the CNN forum commented, "Soccer is the only thing that will bring Egyptians together." Another comments, "Sports play a huge cultural role as ritualised combat strangely enough. They have a uniting quality for a region or nation, so yeah, if the Egyptian soccer team heats up, it could really pacify the internal divisions in the country."

When sport has the power to pressure governments, it should
It doesn't stop there. Sport also has the power to put pressure on governments. Prior to China hosting the Olympic Games, the International Olympic Committee president, Jacques Rogge, said "The staging of the Beijing Games will do a lot for human rights and social relations." Though the Chinese government are still criticised over their work to support this, the country became the spotlight for human rights groups around the world.

As Myanmar begins a new political chapter, the role sport can play in conflict resolution and rebuilding the nation is a promising one. Organisations such as Right to Play continue to reach thousands of young people through sports activities in refugee camps in Thailand and the government show signs of supporting sport in school and communities. It seems the easing of international sanctions in the Myanmar will bring grassroots sport back to the arena and unlock the true potential of sport to bring the country to the forefront of Asian sport once again (journalists were banned from reporting the downfall of the national football team as international relations decayed). 

Ultimately, its not individual players and teams that make these decisions (the reputation of certain sports stars could be another article), but the responsibility of sports federations and governing bodies to uphold the values of sport in every arena where sports and politics collide.

Sam Tomlin, of Sports Think Tank incorporates music into this debate. Read about how Sport like music should always play a role in politics.

sportanddev also highlights the legacy brought from Ping Pong Diplomacy with as Peace and Sport bring together ten nations for The first Peace and Sport Table Tennis Cup and the links between Nelson Mandela, the Rugby World Cup and social change.

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