James Lawton: BOA's attempt to muzzle athletes ignores fact that they rarely shout about politics

You don't have to be too cynical to speculate on the influence of the government
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One question looms above all others in the strange and clumsy affair of the British Olympic Association's attempt to muzzle its Beijing team against even a hint of criticism of China's appalling record on human rights and environmental Doomsday.

It is simply: why did they bother? Why did they, alone among the Olympic rulers of major nations, provoke the moral outrage of such celebrated liberals as David Mellor?

Surely it cannot have been out of any serious fear that large sections of the team will don their blazers, pick some of the summer flowers not yet choked to death, and, with the help of those local dissidents who have somehow managed not to be locked up for the duration of what some still like to describe as the festival of youth, confront the tanks and the firing squads.

Nothing like this happened in Mexico in 1968 despite the fact that an undisclosed but very large number of students had been shot dead in the main square for protesting against an oppressive government. Tommie Smith and John Carlos did put on black gloves and give the Black Power salute but their argument was with despots a lot nearer home.

Nor was there anything in the way of dissent organised in the Olympic village against the continuing of the games of Munich four years later when Israeli athletes and coaches were slaughtered by Black September. Instead, International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage, a plutocrat American, got up on the podium and said that nothing could be allowed to interfere with the purity of the Olympics. So, while much of the world, not to mention Israel, was still in the deepest of shock, they sent up a great host of pretty balloons at the closing ceremony.

We've all seen the picture of England's football team giving the Nazi salute in 1938 – two years after Hitler had turned the Olympics into some pagan tribute to the Aryan master-race, a whim which received its most serious opposition from the brilliant Jesse Owens, who was later obliged to make ends meet back home in America by running against a horse. He didn't wear a black glove in Berlin. He just ran for what he hoped was something like a life.

History would be harsh indeed to judge too critically those football players who found themselves in a strange and intimidating world and did what they were told to do. All they surrendered, unlike their government a little while later in Munich, was some of their dignity.

Nowadays the doctrine of the separation of sport and politics is considered sacred in many quarters and it has to be conceded that major sport played only between nations of unsullied morality, who have not voted cynically in the United Nations, have never traded with pariahs like Robert Mugabe and who never even considered waging illegal wars or compromising basic human rights, would probably have its main arena in somewhere like Easter Island.

Of course the BOA is wrong at every level to issue its official muzzling order but you have to say the furore is a bit like one than might follow the prescribing of fish and chips and fried Mars Bars in the dressing-rooms of supermodels or jockeys.

Athletes tend to live, we know well enough now, in their own world. Much of it is surrounded by the denial of a drug culture that reaches into the very bones of the sport. In the early Eighties a psychologist asked athlete students at the University of California in Los Angeles what their reaction would be if their coaches offered them drugs that would ensure an Olympic medal but might seriously threaten their health in later life. A majority said they would take their chances on a medal.

This is the kind of reality which for many will surely inform the muzzling debate which is essentially spurious.

You don't have to be too cynical to speculate on the influence of the government, real or inferred, on the BOA's concern about the impact on the London Olympics if British athletes were to break ranks in Beijing. When you consider the paymaster role of the government, and quite how strenuously the prime minister has urged us all to be nice to our great trading partners China, perhaps the need to protect training grants and general funding needs really precludes any requirement for written instructions when the team alights in Beijing.

Meanwhile, it is maybe helpful to recall all those supreme acts of conscience by individual athletes that have marked the history of the Olympics. It is not too much of a time-consumer. There was that defiance of Smith and Carlos in Mexico and 44 years earlier in Paris, Eric Liddell, the son of a Scottish missionary in, ironically enough, China, refused to compete in his best event, the 100 metres, because it was staged on the Sabbath. Instead, he won the 400m while clutching a piece of paper handed to him just before the gun. On it was written, "Those who honour me, I will honour – 1 Samuel, 2:30."

Such are the few headline protests that apparently fill today's BOA with such trepidation. It might have more legitimate cause for concern if Debbie Brill, a Canadian high jumper of the Seventies who went on to a break a world record, was a member of their Beijing team.

Many years after Munich, she recalled how she and a few team-mates felt at the closing of the Games which had so resolutely refused to recognise politics and the death they had brought.

"We were sitting on a roof in the athletes' village, talking, passing around a joint. I walked off to the side of the roof and just then a giant plastic rainbow was being raised over the stadium. Flying over the rainbow were hundreds of plastic balloons. We didn't leave a note for the team administrators. We went to the big station in Munich and got the first train out. It took us to the Adriatic. When we got there, I walked straight to the beach and lay on the sand. I kept thinking, 'Thank God, I escaped.'"

Who knows, at this late hour, how many British Olympians will feel this way at the end of the Beijing Olympics? But will they say it, with or without official restraints?

The record says almost certainly not.

Gatland proves that there are substitutes for success

When you remember it has the highest playing population in the world, and that it embraced professionalism with absolute zeal, English rugby union's failure to build on its power base is becoming ever more bewildering.

Whatever you think of Jonny Wilkinson's continued right to be an automatic selection, replacing him at such a late stage of the match in Rome – and after a sharply improved individual performance – could only add to current confusion about the direction and the imperatives of the team.

This was surely, surely underlined by the collateral damage. Danny Cipriani is widely considered to be the most exciting prospect in the English game but the foundation of his confidence must surely have been shaken by the serious error that came after his long-delayed immersion in a game he had done nothing to shape. It was a critical misadventure and one thrown into an even more dubious light by the smooth substitution of the highly promising young Welsh half-backs Mike Phillips and James Hook the day before.

The Wales coach, Warren Gatland, brought on Dwayne Peel, still the best scrum-half in these islands by some distance, and the composed and richly experienced Stephen Jones. It was a brilliant, seamless exercise – a model in how best to use all your resources.

England, for the moment at least, can only pine for such certainties.

Chambers return gives more cause to weep for athletics

Dwain Chambers, who lied so relentlessly until he was caught with the drug that was supposed to be beyond detection, confidently expects selection in the British athletics team for the World Indoor Championships.

He has produced an impressive time and asserts: "Drugs are wrong and I feel I have served my time and shown that I can win races clean, so I feel I am a good example to people. I want to win a medal for my country."

It is just a quirk of circumstances that since serving his suspension – and attempting to make a career in gridiron football – he enjoyed a break from mandatory drug tests.

Chambers' lawyer has also, apparently, done his homework on his client's legal rights, and noted that Christine Ohuruogu has been allowed into the Beijing Olympics despite being suspended for missing three drugs tests.

Athletic fans cheered Chambers when he sped to victory in Sheffield at the weekend. You may say this displayed a fine quality of forgiveness. Or just another reason to weep for the oldest of sports.