The manipulation of sporting events by politicians is as old as sport itself. The ancient Spartans were certainly at it and so, much more recently, were various Soviet bloc leaders. The astonishing thing about the debacle surrounding the African Nations Cup is not so much what the Angolan authorities were up to but the reckless irresponsibility they demonstrated in pursuit of their propaganda goals.
The attempt to showcase their success in pacifying their war-torn country by staging a major sports event in a separatist hotbed has only proved the opposite. Three people who happened to be on the Togolese football team bus when separatist militants opened fire, meanwhile, have paid for this folly with their lives.
The Angolan authorities are not the only ones to blame for this shambles. The managers of the African Nations Cup have questions to answer. Why did they allow such a high-profile event to go ahead in such a fragile, disaffected place as the Cabinda enclave? They can hardly plead total ignorance about the seething state of the region or its recent history of armed revolt. It would appear that they supinely caved into the Angolan government's agenda, whether or not it was obvious that the latter were aiming to use the tournament to score a crude publicity coup.
No wonder the authorities in Togo are furious at having been caught up in this murky drama. The assistant coach and spokesman of their team are now dead, and their goalkeeper is in hospital. But while their anger is completely justified – they clearly feel hoodwinked – their response is the wrong one. They should not have ordered their team to come home, after the team players made it clear they wanted to stay.
We cannot stop all terrorist attacks on sports events. Indeed, these outrages are becoming more frequent. What we can do, however, is demand that politicians start leaving the final decision on whether teams should attend major sporting events to the players themselves.
It is shameful that sports men and women still experience pressure from politicians to take part in events, even when they feel their security is at risk. Likewise, they ought not to be ordered home unless that is their wish.