Henry Olonga: I protested. But they should walk

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The Independent Online

Sport and politics mix, like it or not. But sport can be a tool for good or evil. Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and Mobuto all used sport to attempt to curry favour or manipulate public sentiment. The black power salute by Tommy Smith and John Carlos, the boycotts of apartheid South Africa and Nelson Mandela holding the World Cup wearing a Springbok jersey in a unified South Africa, they all "made a difference".

Sport and politics mix, like it or not. But sport can be a tool for good or evil. Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and Mobuto all used sport to attempt to curry favour or manipulate public sentiment. The black power salute by Tommy Smith and John Carlos, the boycotts of apartheid South Africa and Nelson Mandela holding the World Cup wearing a Springbok jersey in a unified South Africa, they all "made a difference".

So isn't the England cricket tour of Zimbabwe a missed opportunity to score political points against the despotic Mugabe regime? I would say an emphatic yes, that the English (and I'll come to exactly which English in a moment) should not be turning out at the Harare Sports Club today. I can't blame the players for being there. Two I spoke to feel, more than a little reluctantly, that they are just professionals fulfilling a contract to play for their country.

That is their right. I know that when I was a player I rarely thought of the things I think of now, but knowing what I know now, if I were in their position and I were English, I wouldn't dream of touring now. I applaud the decision of Steve Harmison for refusing to do so.

For most Zimbabweans life gets increasingly difficult. Inflation has cut into most of what they earn; they live with an ailing health sector. Donkey-drawn carts were recently introduced as ambulances in the rural areas. Aids has left a generation of orphaned children who take to the streets. But at the heart of the Zimbabwean crisis is the rampant state-fuelled corruption that has seen one of the bread baskets of Africa reduced to a basket case. And I barely need to mention the lack of press freedom, the intimidation of the opposition, the police brutality, the human rights violations and so on.

But what can sport do about it? The players I spoke to both asked me if I thought it would make any difference either way if they did or didn't tour. I confess I ask myself how much difference my puny effort - when I, with my team-mate Andrew Flower, wore black armbands as an anti-Mugabe protest - was able to make to such an uncompromisingly brutal regime. (That is not to say that I wouldn't do it again, but I do ask myself the question.) Who knows? But what I do know is two things. First, that a boycott by a team carries far more weight than that of one or two individuals. And two, that this sort of decision should not be left to the players. The authorities are washing their hands if that is the case.

Here in the UK they say that sport and politics don't mix, that the Government cannot tell sportsmen where they can and can't play, but I notice that doesn't stop Peter Hain saying the tour ought not to happen. Conversely in Zimbabwe, it is OK for the government to appoint its politically minded elements to run the cricket, to choose who will practise journalism, who will be deported, imprisoned and tortured. The politicians are hopelessly compromised, so what of the cricket authorities?

The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) says it decries Mugabe's politics, but is forced by a contractual commitment to the International Cricket Council (ICC) to send a team to Zimbabwe. Our hands are tied, they say, echoing the cry of the British Government.

But is that good enough? The weight of their argument would be greatly increased if they could display rather more consistency than they have. Last year, when there was a possibility of the Zimbabwean team not coming to England for its summer tour, the ECB told us that English cricket could barely cope with such a blow to its coffers. Yet they have shown far less concern for the financial wellbeing of grass-roots cricket in Zimbabwe, which really is close to the breadline. If the ECB has aspirations towards taking a moral stand against Mugabe, which I would applaud, it needs to realise that with that comes some sort of financial sacrifice. It's a matter of morality or money. To pretend otherwise is hypocritical, and it is no surprise if Zimbabwe Cricket, with whom I have little sympathy, gets a bit peeved.

The buck, though, ought to stop with the ICC, but for its own reasons, to do with its political composition, it won't. Like the UN, it is only as good as its members, but that is no excuse for inaction. Cricket needs moral leadership from the top, and it isn't getting it. There has been an acutely evident vacuum caused by the ICC's seeming apathy and inaction in the face of some of the sport's most divisive confrontations. Now we are told that Zimbabwe Cricket wants compensation for the cancellation of one game of the current tour. This does yet further damage to the game's reputation. The idea that it was a gentlemen's game wasn't built on nothing. We can do better than this.

Henry Olonga played for Zimbabwe from 1995 to 2003

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