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Politics in Sport: Does It Belong There?

In light of the attack on ex-Russian double agent Sergei Skripal, will England be making an appearance at the 2018 World Cup?

For an age, it seems that sport has always had an influence on what is said and done in the political world. From the time America almost boycotted the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Germany, to the 1982 South African Grand Prix drivers’ strike, politics – any form of such – has always had some sort of impact on the sporting world. Now we find ourselves in another, highly-strung and tense political atmosphere of which we don’t have a single idea of what will happen next.

Since the attack on former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, the United Kingdom and its government have accused Russia as the culprits behind the incident. According to BBC Sport, the two were poisoned by a “military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia” which, as such, can only lead to fingers being pointed in Russia’s direction, with Prime Minister Theresa May claiming that it was “highly likely” Russia were responsible.

With this turn of events, many are now questioning just how much this politically heinous act will influence the upcoming FIFA World Cup, which is being held in Russia.

Russia have recently expelled 23 British diplomats, which according to Chronicle Live, is “the largest mass expulsion of diplomats since the Cold War”, so it seems like the situation won’t be resolved any time soon. Prime Minster Theresa May has also stated that Russia will be suspended from having any high-level contacts with Britain, and that many ministers will be boycotting the World Cup this summer. The situation doesn’t stop just there, however, with news that members of the Royal Family will also be refusing to attend the World Cup after showing their support at the tournament in previous years.

As far as we are aware at this current time, the England football team will be going. However, only time will tell if this decision changes despite the Football Association (FA) being in close contact with the UK Government regarding England’s involvement with the tournament. The opinions of some Members of Parliament are certain. In a statement to BBC Radio 5 Live, Labour MP John Woodcock believes that “England’s participation in the World Cup ought to be in question” and that there “should be no question of government officials, dignitaries or senior members of the FA going over there.” While on the other hand, former FA executive David Davies informed BBC Radio 5 Live that he was against any boycott that didn’t have the support of the international community. However, Davies did assure us that the FA will “want to be convinced of the safety” for the England team and their supporters during the tournament.

“If we argue that politics have no place in sports and their respective representative boards, then we must consider what positives we would lose when it comes to how sports engage politics in a way that brings countries closer together”

From Chronicle Live, a statement from the FA reads: “The FA will continue to work closely with the UK Government and relevant authorities regarding our participation in this summer’s FIFA World Cup and the Women’s World Cup Qualifier in June. Our priority for all England matches is to ensure the safety and security of the fans, players and staff. As is standard practice, we will take all travel guidance from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.”

With all this speculation and the missing faces of ministers and royalty, is sport becoming too involved with political battles? In years gone by, governments and their countries have attempted to, and successfully used, the power of sports and their corresponding events to make statements. It would not be the first time that England makes a political statement using sport if they did have England withdraw from the World Cup. For example, the apartheid in South Africa led England’s cricket team to cancel their tour due to the racism that was being experienced in South Africa.

Rarely do we hear about sports events being boycotted as of late, with relationships amongst countries being amicable enough for competitions and tournaments to go ahead without issue. Nor do we hear problems and accusations outside of the sporting world influencing the actions of athletes and sporting teams. Even the Russian doping scandal was not enough to hurt athletes who had remained clean for their respective competitions, despite it being understood as a state-wide sponsored doping. Clean Russian athletes were still able to compete in Summer and Winter Olympics, even if they were unable to do so under their Russian flag.

If we argue that politics have no place in sports and their respective representative boards, then we must consider what positives we would lose when it comes to how sports engage politics in a way that brings countries closer together. We can see this through the unity showed between North and South Korea as they walked out together at the recent Winter Olympics. Or the moment when World War I came to a halt for some soldiers in the trenches as British and German soldiers celebrated Christmas Day with a game of football. Not to mention the Ping-Pong Diplomacy” between China and America, which allowed US players to enter China for exhibition matches in 1971. This would be the first time any Americans entered China since 1949. In these positive moments of sport related politics, nothing else mattered but good relations and creating more amicable futures.

Politics and sport will always have a “Call Me When You Need Me” relationship, with politics becoming involved with sport as and when diplomacy needs to take place or concerns are at the forefront of government minds. Sports shall always help influence the course of politics either through a positive outlook with bringing countries together and creating openings for better future relationships. Or they will be there ready to make statements through withdrawing teams, boycotting tournaments, or potentially even through the uniforms designed for major competitions.

Only time will tell how politics will effect the England football team’s appearance in the World Cup, with officials, ministers, and members of the Royal Family already deciding they will no longer be attending such a prestigious and historic event.