The tricky business of trying to mix sport and politics

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The Independent Online
In Troon last week an American I encounter regularly at the big fights, Olympic Games, international sweat festivals of every kind, sought confirmation of his quaint belief that our elected representatives see sport for what it is, not a vehicle for political advancement.

He had in mind President Clinton's notion of restoring some order to professional boxing through discussion with the four main international organisations, the World Boxing Council, the World Boxing Association, the International Boxing Federation and the World Boxing Organisation. As an exercise in futility this would take some beating but, more to the point, it implies expedience.

Although holding no great faith in politicians generally, my friend could not imagine Tony Blair being advised to take up a similar initiative. This is probably so but sport matters more to the government of the day than it has ever done and not merely in matters of health and efficiency.

The collapse of Communism put paid, more or less, to the idea of sport as a means of promoting ideological superiority, but democratically elected governments are not blind to the effect of international sporting achievement on national morale.

Having made a commitment to England's bid for the 2006 World Cup in their manifesto, Labour enjoyed the happy coincidence of British sporting success shortly after returning to power.

Leaving aside football, which may well be in the process of spending itself to death, and bearing in mind past criticism of state-aided sports programmes, I'm not entirely sure about where I stand in all this.

It has always been daft to suppose sport and politics don't mix (sports sanctions helped greatly to bring down the evil of apartheid), though I am reminded of advice that an American political columnist offered Jimmy Carter, who was about to begin his first term as President. The last three of 20 points were about sport.

Carter was urged not to use football lingo by way of encouraging his party, not to talk about team play, or coming through in the last quarter, or giving it that old one-two. Don't invite athletes to the White House for dinner. Don't invite athletes ever. Have the courage to decide with Harry Truman that "Sports is a lot of damn nonsense".

It is not a question of whether a government should become involved in sport but where the line should be drawn. At what point should sport be left to fend for itself?

By now Labour's minister for sport, Tony Banks, has had time to look back on the history of his office and arrive at a few conclusions. Unquestionably a sports enthusiast - more than could be said for the majority of his predecessors - Banks is learning on the hoof, a process that guarantees a few tumbles.

I was mentioning this the other day to a veteran sports official. He was not greatly moved. "Whoever has that job, and let's face it, there have been some real duffers, soon realises that there are any number of people pulling in different directions. It's been that way for a long time and it isn't going to change."

One thing running around in Banks's head is the real possibility of a bid for the 2008 Olympic Games, which depends on whether the 2004 Games are held in Europe. I am not alone with the belief that this would be asking for trouble. Getting the Olympics for London may sound like a grand idea but, as a colleague grunted the other night, who needs it?

The logistics are frightening: accommodation for 15,000 athletes and officials and as many media representatives; transportation through a city threatened by gridlock; training facilities; indoor arenas to hold 20,000 spectators. I have no idea of how far down the road Labour have gone with this notion but they are running the risk of embarrassment.

One of the things in the back of my mind when I began, what helped me get off on this theme, was the fact that politicians can be as naive about sport as the most innocent punter.

Take, for example, the belief shared on both sides of our legislative chamber that England have more right to the 2006 World Cup than Germany. What these people choose to ignore, Banks among them, is the extent of Germany's ongoing authority in football. Three times world champions, six times finalists, the reigning European champions. On the basis of comparison, England's right doesn't come into it.