The Nick Townsend column: World looks on in disbelief as sport is hijacked again
Blue Peter badges of shame all round while elite athletes are made to carry a torch for oppressive political regime
Sunday 13 April 2008
Well, she said it. Out of the mouths of TV babes, so to speak, as the red-tops prefer to portray Konnie Huq. "I am not sure why I was asked to take part," she said in advance of her participation in Sunday's torch relay through the capital. But for most of those watching, she will now be known as the woman who would have finished last had there been an Olympic Torch Keepy-Uppy competition, the Chinese minders determined to urge her to keep that symbol of "harmony" suitably raised while also avoiding a protester who was attempting to grab it.
It was London, though it could have been Paris, San Francisco, anywhere en route to the torch's destination of Beijing and an event the London 2012 chairman, Lord Coe, claimed was "a reaffirmation of the international values espoused by international sport".
As you watched in disbelief, it was tempting to speculate that to make the whole day even more engaging the torch should have been transformed into a version of Darth Vader's light sabre. It would have had the added benefit of deterring protesters in rather more lethal fashion, such was the simplistic notion of good versus evil that bedevilled the somewhat bemused bearers.
Presumably the presence of Ms Huq, whose modest claim to fame is to have been the longest-serving Blue Peter presenter, was a transparent attempt to engage with the capital's youth. But that does not explain Denise van Outen's participation. Nor that of Chelsea's chief executive, Peter Kenyon. Nor, indeed, the involvement of Gordon Brown who, having "welcomed" the torch, but not actually touched it, outsideNo 10 before the start of this protracted pageantry – which originated, significantly, in Germany in 1936 – has belatedly let it be known that he will not be attending the opening ceremony. Though heaven forbid it should be regarded as a boycott.
When politics and sport spy each other on opposite street corners – the former opportunistically, the latter warily – the ensuing confrontation is rarely an attractive spectacle. Sir Steve Redgrave, who was effectively barred from competing in the 1980 Moscow Olympics (a consequence of the US boycott and the Thatcher government's disapproval of Great Britain's athletes attending the Games) and was this time criticised for taking part by pro-Tibetan groups, would attest to that.
Yet the image of participants ranging from Ms Huq to decidedly unathletic individuals being accompanied by a phalanx of Chinese "volunteers" – in fact, specially selected members of China's paramilitary – and bicycle-helmeted London cops was an even more ludicrous one than we could have imagined. When Lord Coe said: "This is not China's Olympic torch, it is an Olympic festival", he was being disingenuous. He was as aware as anyone how the 2008 hosts viewed the series of torch relays. As a former sports minister, Kate Hoey, rightly argues: "The Chinese government will exploit every gesture as support for their regime."
Some will see the participants as unwillingly ensnared in politics. Others will see them asunthinking, obliging dupes. Therein lies the perennial dilemma for sport, whose elite performers are so eagerly pressganged into the service of the good ship Humanitarian Ideals because they are highly visible and will not damage, in any tangible sense, the populace of the targeted country. In contrast, a thousand draconian sanctions may have a profound effect on that nation's people but are not necessarily obvious – in terms of leading the news bulletins – to the outside world.
If there is real concern at China's human rights record, it should be expressed at a political and business level. But that might affect the T-word. No, not Tibet, stupid. Trade. You can understand why Redgrave and others are so exercised by the hypocrisy of it all. But then, as he puts it, "People have realised athletes are a cheap hit".
So where does this leave the International Olympic Committee, and their decision to award Beijing these Games, apart from in a gymnastic contortion of part optimism, part denial? They will claim that while there's an Olympic flame there's hope, just as the British Olympic Association's chairman, Colin Moynihan, has declared that "this Olympic torch will shine a powerful light into the recesses of the host city and China". Somehow it is unlikely that is how China sees it.
Reds win battle but may lose war
In the irrational rush to condemn Arsène Wenger, do not forget this was to have been a transitional season. Arsenal began the campaign with limited expectations, flattered briefly and have found their rightful level as Premier League contenders. They will probably finish third. In Europe, they could still have Moscow on their minds but for injuries to key men, dubious refereeing and brilliance from Fernando Torres in the Champions' League quarter-final.
Given that there is apparently £74 million available, many say Wenger should have bolstered his rearguard and increased the depth of his squad. Too late now, but the suspicion is that for all his words, "I will buy, but not too much", he is aware of his squad's deficiencies and will respond. But what of Liverpool?
This was supposed to be the season. New owners, considerable money invested in players. The reality is that even fourth place in the League is not certain. And to secure Champions' League success, Rafa Benitez's men must overcome Chelsea and maybe Manchester United.
They do so with a boardroom in which Tom Hicks and George Gillett are at each other's throats and the chief executive, Rick Parry, says he has been in fear of the sack for months. No wonder the previous chairman, David Moores, says: "It is embarrassing and not an acceptable way of doing things." Liverpool may have got the better of Arsenal in their European skirmish but, longer term, in whose red army would you enlist your faith?
Will caring mean sharing?
It's as well that rugby commentators tend to be a forgiving lot. Having been summoned to Twickenham on Tuesday, they were told absolutely zilch about the structure of England's future management by the one man who has all the answers, the RFU's elite rugby director, Rob Andrew, who was not even there.
If Andrew's absence was due to him finalising the installation of the new messiah, perhaps he could be forgiven. Yet it is hard to escape the conclusion that for once the RFU can give a lesson to their FA counterparts in how not to manage the hiring of a new general manager if, as expected, the role goes to Martin Johnson – particularly when you have a head coach already in situ, and the new man's responsibilities could encroach on him.
Martyn Thomas, the chairman of the RFU's management board, does little to dispel the impression that Brian Ashton would have done everyone a favour if England had not reached the World Cup final and finished runners-up in the Six Nations.
"Brian has done incredibly well," he said, before a pointed addendum: "There are no prizes in life for finishing second." There should be recognition for reaching the World Cup final whenall but the most sanguinebelieved that England could be eliminated prematurely.
Johnson may well be the man to restore England to No 1, with overall control and with specialist coaches under him. But where does that leave Ashton, who was apparently assured by Andrew in December that any manager would be of the coach's choosing?
The RFU's chief executive, Francis Baron, speaks reassuringly of "evolution, not revolution" and insists "we are a caring organisation". When Andrew puts his recommendations to the management board this week, we will see just how caring they are.
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