Not that you’d know it from the peculiarly damp and dismal weather that has afflicted Brussels over the last month, but summer is rapidly approaching. In two months time politicians and hacks will be on their holidays or (in my case at least) enjoying the London Olympics and Euro 2012 football tournament.
Sporting festivals are not really complete without a couple of diplomatic rows to fill up newspaper column inches over the silly season, but the political wrangling over Euro 2012, which will be co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine, has much more substance to it.
The European Commission and other political leaders are planning to boycott the event because of the alleged ill-treatment of the country’s former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko who has been on hunger strike for several weeks after photographs were circulated of a battered and bruised Mrs Tymoshenko – allegedly at the hands of her prison guards.
Awarding co-host status to Ukraine along with Poland must have seemed like a great idea for UEFA back in 2007. Poland was and is still one of Europe’s fast growing economies, bucking the trend in a continent wracked with recession and, back in 2007, the 2004 Orange revolution which brought a pro-Western government to power meant that EU-Ukrainian relations were strong.
Then things changed. Yanukovych took power and Mrs Tymoshenko was jailed for seven years after a trial that, if not a bona fide show trial, at least gave a pretty good impression of being politically motivated.
Lots of people say that sport and politics shouldn’t mix. But the reality is that they very often do and not, it has to be said, to the credit of sport’s governing bodies. Euro 2012 is not the first and will not be last. Last month, the lucrative Formula 1 circus arrived in Bahrain and, despite the continued wave of anti-government protests and police violence, motor racing’s millionaires got on with their race, oblivious to what was going on around them.
Famously, the Cold War meant that the Olympic games of Moscow in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1984 were boycotted first by the US and then by the Soviet Union, but the most obvious case of a sporting event that should never have been allowed to take place is surely the 1978 World Cup.
Football’s biggest event went ahead in Argentina against the backdrop of General Gaultieri’s brutal fascist regime. One of the chapters of Simon Kuper’s wonderful book “Football against the enemy” details the lengths that the military junta went to giving the appearance that everything was peaceful, fine and dandy, even though thousands of political prisoners continued being tortured or ‘disappeared’ while the football was going on. There is also pretty convincing evidence that at least on of Argentina’s matches hinged on a massive bribe paid to Peru. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Argentina won the World Cup and the generals had themselves a wonderful sporting success to keep some of their people happy. It was not football or governing body FIFA’s finest hour.
It would be nice to say that sport learned its lesson. But the reality is that the 2004 Olympics were held in China, while last year, FIFA awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar – a country not known for possessing either a football heritage or a rosy human rights record.
What impact would a boycott of Euro 2012 by political leaders have? The most likely answer is: a bit of embarrassment but little lasting damage. It would obviously be embarrassing for Ukraine, and also for Poland who are understandably keen for their day in the sun not to be ruined.
As a result, Ukrainian’s are now pleading their country’s case. Heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, who leads one of the main opposition parties, had an op-ed in yesterday’s Times calling on international leaders to come and show solidarity with Ukrainians. Meanwhile, Oleg Voloshyn, spokesman for Ukraine’s foreign affairs ministry, complained less honourably that “Euro 2012 is sport, not politics” adding that an EU boycott would be like “employing Cold War methods”.
It’s a slightly disingenuous position. The Ukrainian government has spent an estimated $10 billion on co-hosting the tournament and Mr Yanukovych will have been desperate to get some photo opportunities with world leaders and the footballing great and good.
But to boycott or not to boycott is a difficult question. Ukraine should not be hosting the tournament just as the Grand Prix in Bahrain should have been cancelled. And if there are no other more effective ways to pile pressure on Mr Yanukovych and his thuggish regime – which I am sure there are – then the boycott should go ahead. But we shouldn’t expect the sport to stop. History suggests that boycott or no boycott, the beautiful game will still carry on.