Oh, someone took up the call I made last week - last week? I need to post more often, it was only three posts ago - about mixing sports with politics.
The Egypt Friendly and Why Politics Matter in Sports. Sounds promising. Think I'll go read it.
*three minutes later*
...wait, how did this gun get into my mouth?
Let's skip to the end:
Okay, well, it's a start.
Now, how do we decide what matters enough to let it spoil our fun?
Let's take the Egypt example for a second. If the riots had not occurred, or if they had been put down with force and alacrity, very few people would have blinked if the US friendly had been played as scheduled. I wouldn't have.
SHOULD the US play dictatorships? Probably not, but that horse sailed a long time ago. Democracies meet dictatorships in sports so often that only extreme circumstances does it even register.
You would think there would be a spectrum of reasons to boycott stretching from the inarguable (South African apartheid) to the petty (the Communist world snubbing the '84 Olympics). Yet there have been plenty of examples of political boycotts over the years - which, taken in total, are confusing and useless as far as precedent is concerned.
You would think more countries would have given Adolf Freaking Hitler a miss, but Spain and the Soviet Union were the only ones who skipped the 1936 Olympics - although Spain would soon have bigger problems. The United States, of course, attended, and the victories of Jesse Owens led Hitler to see the fallacy of his racist policies, and changed the course of oh wait.
(Not entirely fair, because Owens' victories did provide anti-fascists and anti-racists some ammunition. Whether that cancelled out the propaganda Hitler received from hosting the Games can not be guessed at - although it's probably a very good thing Owens won.)
Fine, so the Berlin Olympics looks worse in hindsight than it might have done at the time. Kristallnacht was still two years in the future, and after all, Fascist Italy hosted the World Cup in 1934. Which we didn't boycott either, and got waxed by the hosts something like 7-0. The 1930's were a poor decade for sportsmanship.
The British, of course, snubbed the early World Cups, including Mussolini's - because they thought they were beneath them. There are dumber examples. Scotland and India skipped the 1950 World Cup - not because Brazil was an unpleasant military dictatorship. In a story that reeks of the apocryphal, India quit because FIFA would not let them play barefoot. A decade later, let alone several decades later, Nike, Puma and Adidas would have certainly made it worth their while.
Scotland, meanwhile, said they wouldn't go if they didn't win the British Home Championships. Argentina's reasons for skipping the tournament were more understandable - they detested the Brazilian FA. One imagines their schadenfreude as the 1930 final was re-enacted at Brazil's expense, but when when you read Galeano's "Soccer in Sun and Shadow," you have to wonder how the great Argentine players of that era would have performed.
So by 1950, we had a long and glorious history of tournaments that should have been boycotted, but weren't, along with tournaments that weren't boycotted, but should have been. EDIT - I mean, boycotts that were, but shouldn't have been...I mean, vice versa. And contrariwise.
Then along came apartheid. Suddenly, the moral link between sports and politics was made clear to all but the most dangerously obtuse.
Well, "suddenly," "after a decade or two of newly-independent post-colonial nations getting pissed off enough to embarrass the so-called civilized world," same difference. (An enthusiastic leader of the anti-apartheid sporting boycotts, by the way, was the Soviet Union. The USSR saw apartheid as a handy shorthand to criticize Jim Crow America - rightly, by the way, although that was just a delightful coincidence.)
Anyone who said that South Africa should be re-invited back into the fold on the basis of sportsmanship was denounced as racist. (Mostly because, well, anyone who said that probably was.) By, to pick a date completely at random, 1980, the political boycott was entrenched in the sporting world.
While we're strolling through 20th century international sports history, this old CBC article on past Olympic boycotts is worth whiling over. Yes, Australia was boycotted in 1958, because of the Russians.
The World Cup, as we've seen, suffered its share of boycotts - if "boycott" can stand in for the word "snit." That changed in a big way in 1966. This Two Hundred Percent article from last year tells the tale about how fighting apartheid helped bring us Joao Havelange. (Um...racism is bad. I feel I should make that clear.)
It might be churlish to point out that a BBC reference to this same boycott says it was mostly about qualification spots in what was then the final 16. Not so romantic. But it probably didn't help that South Africa's kind offer to send an all-black team to the 1970 tournament, provided an all-white team was fielded in 1966, was championed by Sir Stanley Rous.
Havelange doesn't seem so bad now, does he?
Another reason to quit the World Cup was having to play Israel - this tended to happen uncomfortably often (scroll down for the hilarity. This is why Israel plays in UEFA these days. (That, and the Munich Olympics tragedy helps push this particular case into the realm of safety of the athletes concerned.) Israel was tossed out of the AFC in 1974 - they had already failed to qualify for the tournament in West Germany that year, which would have been a political and security nightmare of the highest order.
The Soviet Union also skipped the 1974 tournament - well, recognizing the Federal Republic of Germany would have been extremely awkward, but then again, East Germany made the short trip over the wall. The USSR actually declined to play Pinochet's Chile. Maybe it's a little hard to take Soviet moralizing in this era seriously, but David Goldblatt's "The Ball is Round" gives the Russian point of view very strongly.
GOD, this has taken too damn long already, and I'm nowhere near finished. As you might have guessed, the next chapter concerns the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Well, if I've learned one thing from the British, the Russians, and the United States, it's that tackling Afghanistan has no downside. See you on the flip side, true believers.
...hey, it's this, or yammer some more about Beckham.