DERVAL O'ROURKE: Sport and politics a delicate mix

I had no intention of writing about this topic until I saw a former basketball legend singing Happy Birthday to a North Korean dictator.

DERVAL O'ROURKE: Sport and politics a delicate mix

When Dennis Rodman took to the court to serenade his friend Kim Jong Un, I found it incredibly uncomfortable watching and made me wonder how sport can get so caught up in political and social issues.

Dennis Rodman visiting a country to promote the sport of basketball seems like a tame thing to do but when it’s Dennis Rodman visiting North Korea, with its current political backdrop it’s a different situation.

Last year Kim Jong Un’s exploits included executing his own uncle and holding an American citizen hostage. Rodman travelled to North Korea several times in the past year and has developed an unlikely friendship with their leader. Rodman has tried to describe it as an act of political peacekeeping, using sport to create ties with the country calling what he was doing “basketball diplomacy” but that is hard to swallow.

The one positive from all of this is that Rodman has brought a huge amount of attention to events in North Korea and I personally have a far greater understanding of their human rights violations since his visits.

Whilst Rodman may have done some good by bringing more attention from people who would normally not be informed about this, what he didn’t do was perhaps more damaging. He didn’t help the cause of Kenneth Bae, a former Washington resident who is serving a 15-year sentence in a labour camp. Bae is accused of “hostile acts” towards the North Korean government. Rodman did not use his influence to help this man, nor did he engage in any discussion regarding the horrendous human rights issues in this secretive state. In my opinion, the Rodman situation is sport and politics at its worst.

As an athlete, it is a really tough position to be in when your sport and wider issues clash. Even without choosing to engage in politics, sometimes people are forced to condone, condemn or comment on political situations. I remember in the lead up to the Beijing Olympics there was lots of discussion regarding China’s human rights history. I was going to Beijing to try to run as fast as I could in the hurdles and that had to be my sole focus. I think people forget the athletes are not involved in decisions about where events are held. Those debates happen far away from the track. I found myself answering questions in the lead up to Beijing about all kinds of things.

I heard Olympic sailor Annalise Murphy interviewed on the radio a few months ago and the discussion turned to the Rio Games in 2016. Murphy was questioned on whether or not it was right for Rio to host the Olympics considering it’s high level of poverty and the amount of money they were spending on the Olympics. Murphy answered well but I felt it was a little harsh to be questioning her on such topics. She works extremely hard and the location of the Olympics Games or the money spent is not something she can influence.

It can be a frustrating position to be in. I’m a person who has opinions and I definitely had certain opinions about the choice of Beijing as an Olympic host city but athletes have a job to do on the track and getting caught up in these situations can be an added stress to an already stressful situation.

Last summer Moscow played host to the World Athletics Championships as the country’s controversial anti-gay propaganda laws were creating major headlines. Swedish high jumper, Emma Green Tregaro, competed in the qualifying round with her nails painted in rainbow colours to support gay rights. It was a subtle and in my opinion, fair display of the distaste felt by a lot of people regarding the Russian laws. I felt Green did something good with the gesture.

But it turned rather sour when Yelena Isinbayeva, Russia’s pole-vaulting queen and sporting superstar, criticised the gesture and expressed her support for the law and what she termed ‘normal’ heterosexual relationships. She later said she was misunderstood due to English not being her first language but for me the damage was done.

Sport in many ways is wonderful, partly because of its inclusion of so many people from vastly differing backgrounds but someone expressing ugly views can quickly tarnish it. I think sport is a force that should only be used for good, I realise that this is very naïve of me but that’s how I feel. My coach likes to tell me that my biggest issue is thinking that everything should be fair and just, but honestly I believe in a fair and just world, as simplistic as that view may be. Equal treatment is a basic human right.

I’m really excited about the Sochi Olympics. There are so many stories and events that make me a huge fan of winter sports. Plus it’s hard to resist the drama that comes every four years with an Olympics. Yet there is a little voice in my head that feels uncomfortable that it is on in Sochi, Russia. This Games is a major personal project of President Vladimir Putin. He has done little to help the image of this games with his comments, the most recent being his assertion that gay visitors “can feel calm and at ease but they must leave the children in peace”.

Personally I think that Putin has enough to deal with regarding security at the games, after recent suicide bombings in the region, rather than making such comments.

Treating sport and politics as separate entities is unlikely to ever happen. Sport can be an amazing tool in unifying people and my hope is that Sochi will do this. Even if this is perhaps another example of my naïve wish for fairness!

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Saturday, January 23, 2021

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