Friday, January 13, 2006

Sport as a Political Lever

A British politician has called on FIFA to expel Iran from this summer's World Cup in punishment for Iran's decision to resume its nuclear program. Using sport as a political tool is nothing new. The US boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow to protest the invasion of Afghanistan, the Soviets protested by skipping the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. Iran athletes, especially wrestlers, frequently forfeit their matches rather than wrestle Israelis. The US recently announced that Cuba will not be allowed to travel to the US to play in the World Baseball Classic. Sport can be used in the opposite direction as well...who can forget Olga Korbut or Nadia Comaneci changing our opinions of Communists or the role of ping-pong in easing US-Sino tensions?

A part of me would very much like to keep sports out of the political arena. I like the idea (though I fully realize it will never happen) of the Olympic truce, and there's something noble about political enemies competing in the ring, letting the better athlete win, and then shaking hands.

On the other hand, there's no question that for many countries, participation in -- and especially hosting -- the Olympics, the World Cup, or other international games is an important source of national pride. Proponents of the US strategy of engagement, for example, point to the carrot of hosting the 2008 Olympics as an important determinant of Chinese restraint and reform. If states want to play with the others, then they have to behave according to international norms.

So, should Iran be permitted to play in the World Cup? It seems a small price to pay if there's any way that ostracising the country could lead it to restrain itself. As Dan Drezner points out, "there's a scholarly literature out there that argues the apartheid regime in South Africa lost its base of support once they were banned from various sporting events, including the Olympics." So since Iran seems to be garnering near-universal condemnation and doesn't seem to want to follow their legal obligations or the will of the international community, why not keep them out of the Cup?

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Please consider adding a feed to your blog! :^)

Seth Weinberger said...

There is an RSS feed already set up...it's down in the bottom right corner of your web browser. I'll look into other types of feeds....

Lisa said...

I think it depends what FIFA says about its own membership criteria. Members of good standing in the organization should be able to send athletes to competition. If FIFA states that members cannot be in good standing if they are under U.N. sanction or otherwise violate norms of "international society" then I think the ban is OK. I agree that barring athletes can be a potent, politically-relevant message, but it needs to be applied fairly (that is, with some sense of impartiality).