Philip Hensher: Some things are more important than sport


Related Topics

It's unusual, to say the least, to hear a sporting figure advising fans not to go to a sporting event. But Sol Campbell, the footballer, had reason on his side for telling people to give Euro 2012, held this year in Poland and Ukraine, a miss.

He was being interviewed by BBC's Panorama programme, which had easily found footage of Ukraine's football fans making monkey noises at black players and singing anti-Semitic songs, and of Asian fans being savagely beaten by white Ukrainians. "Stay at home," the estimable Mr Campbell said. "Watch it on TV. Don't even risk it ... because you could end up coming back in a coffin."

Campbell had non-white fans in mind, but he could have gone further and told gay people not to go – they suffer routine persecution in Ukraine. Comically, in 2007, the leader of a committee on human rights in the Ukraine parliament called gay men "perverts" to be prevented. In a poll that year, 81.3 per cent of those Ukrainians asked said that gay relations were "never acceptable". Perhaps, too, women might want to avoid the country – Mykola Azarov, the Prime Minister, explained in 2010 that he wouldn't want to appoint any women as ministers because "reforms do not fall into women's competence".

All this raises two questions. First, how bad does a situation have to be before sport stops considering itself the most important, or the only, question? Secondly, what on earth was Uefa thinking of in awarding a tournament of this sort to a nation where the safety and dignity of many thousands of ordinary people are not respected?

The same day as Mr Campbell's comments, a remarkable photograph was published of climbers ascending Mount Everest. One had heard, anecdotally, that the number of people ascending the mountain was now so great that, in suitable weather, climbers were forming queues. One might have thought that was an exaggeration, but this photograph showed dozens of climbers forming an orderly queue. The numbers involved now give a different aspect to the dangers of climbing the mountain. In one notorious case, a British climber, David Sharp, who had collapsed and was dying, was passed by 40 other climbers who refused to help. Sir Edmund Hillary called their attitude "horrifying". One more modern mountaineer, Dan Mazur, has said: "There are times when you literally have to step over somebody's body to get to the top."

Have to? The demands of sport have grown excessive, so that it seems remarkable, and even rather distinguished, to abandon a sporting goal to help the dying, or to decide not to go to a sporting competition in a barbaric country. The pinnacle of this extraordinary attitude is going to come with the Olympics. Shortly, Syrian athletes and officials are to be admitted, and may even compete under their flag. "Only the [Syrian] Olympic officials have been invited because they are independent," a spokesman implausibly said. The Syrian Olympic Committee has yet to be banned, and the international organisation is still keeping up its pretence that, where it says so, sport has nothing to do with politics. "We will do everything we can to ensure athletes are not affected by these events," one international spokesman said.

All too late, and missing the point. The significance of sports has a limit, and beyond that there is something – or there ought to be something – called humanity.

Calm down Gareth, it's not an insult to be gay

The choirmaster Gareth Malone – married with a child – has spoken of his irritation and embarrassment at being taken repeatedly to be a gay man. "Any display of emotion, crying, heart, feeling" mark out a man as gay, he said – something which he wanted to put right.

It happens to me, too, without causing any annoyance. People regularly make the assumption that I'm heterosexual. The other day, a children's novelist naively asked me what my non-existent wife thought about something. More unexpectedly, sometimes in Germany I'm asked if I'm Jewish – my name has a Yiddish flavour to German ears. In these circumstances, I say in a tranquil way, "No, I'm not heterosexual" or "No, I'm not Jewish", in much the same way that you might say: "Actually, I was born in London." At some point, no doubt, being mistaken for a gay person will not be the cause of annoyance to heterosexuals. It will be just like saying: "Oh – I thought you were left-handed for some reason." But for the moment, it does seem to cause rage in even very well-meaning people like Mr Malone.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Welsh Teacher Year 2 required in Caerphilly

£100 - £105 per day + plus Travel Scheme: Randstad Education Cardiff: The Job:...

Year 4 Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Would you like to work in ...

SEN Teaching Assistant Runcorn

£50 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN Teaching Assistant EBD , Septemb...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Pro-democracy protesters fill the streets in front of the Hong Kong government offices on a third day of the Occupy Central campaign  

Hong Kong protests: Why are we obsessed with the spread of democracy abroad when ours is failing?

Amit Singh

Daily catch-up: ugly buildings, fighting spirit, and a warning on low pay

John Rentoul
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?