Mike Rowbottom: When sport meets life and asks, "Is it right to play on?"

Thursday, 03 January 2013
Mike Rowbottom50Covering the Olympics as part of the media, one operates in, effectively, a bubble. And the Games themselves are in a kind of bubble. But the bubble, inevitably, is compromised, impinged upon, by outside forces.

The Mexico 1968 Olympics were distorted by the shooting 10 days before the Games got underway of protestors against the Government who had gathered in the Tlatelolco area of the capital.

The Munich 1972 Olympics were brutally marked by the seizure and murder of Israeli athletes by the Black September group. That, inevitably, led to the classic quandary as far as the sporting activity was concerned - was it appropriate for the Games to go on, or not?

Among the many thousands of athletes caught in the middle of the Munich debacle was British sculler Ken Dwan, who vividly recalled the doubt and anxiety of that time in the Athletes Village, where the Israeli athletes were initially held in their apartment, as he spoke in the office of his shipping company on Eel Pie Island 40 years later.

The Munich 1972 Olympics were brutally marked by the seizure and murder of Israeli athletes by the Black September groupThe Munich 1972 Olympics were brutally marked by the seizure and murder of Israeli athletes by the Black September group

"We used to walk from our apartment through the square to get to the restaurant. And the first thing we knew was we got up one morning and there were lots of armed people around and they had barricaded some of the apartments off and we had to walk round to get some food. And then we all had television in our rooms so obviously we picked up what was going on with the Israeli team.

"We were all watching what was happening on TV. And the people holding the athletes were watching what was happening on TV. It was madness.

"And the whole atmosphere of the Games - it put it into question. What is this really about? We are here to do a sport, and we've got this happening next door. It did knock the stuffing out of you. It knocked a lot of motivation out of you. You started to question, well, 'Is this really worth it?' And once they had shot the athletes, it was debateable. Was it worth racing or not? I know the feeling I had was 'all I want to do is go home.' But you were out there...

"They held a memorial service in the Olympic Stadium and I felt I had to go. I felt it was madness that it should come to that situation. It was a very emotional thing to be involved with. It was strange. We were there for a reason, in an Olympic Stadium with a torch burning, and it was all laid out like a church. We were all sat on chairs on the grass of the infield. You looked round and it was weird.

"Quite a few of my British teammates were there. The Games had stopped. The discussion was: what do we do with it now? And the powers that be decided it would be better to carry on, although the athletes were given the option of going home.

"The right decision was made I think to carry on with the Games. We didn't want it to stop - but it knocked a hole in it. From the party happy atmosphere of what an Olympics is - to be hit like that was strange. Everyone appreciated that 'there but for the grace of God' sort of thing...it was sombre."

The Olympic flag flies at half mast at the 1972 Games in respect of the slain 11 Isreali athletesThe Olympic Flag flies at half mast at the Munich 1972 Games in respect of the slain 11 Isreali athletes

The Munich Olympics offered the starkest and most painful example of the problem sport has in determining its proper place in the broader scheme of things. Down the years, those involved in sport have always striven to keep it separate, in a world unto itself. But sport is always being impinged upon by other factors, other forces.

In the footballing world, a similar debate is currently underway as to what the best response should be to the incursion of racism. This week the footballers of AC Milan walked off the pitch during their friendly match against Italian lower division club Pro Patria because of persistent racist chanting from a small section of the crowd directed at their black players.

Ghana international Kevin-Prince Boateng set the walk-off in motion halfway through the first half when he picked up the ball and kicked it into the crowd before removing his shirt and leaving the field of play, followed by players and officials. There had already been appeals on the public address system for the chanting to stop.

In the meantime, the majority of the crowd made their feelings of anger clear at the minority which had wrecked their entertainment in an incident characterised by the Italian Football Federation's (FIGC) President, Giancarlo Abete, as "unspeakable and intolerable".

Kevin-Prince Boateng ac milan walk offKevin-Prince Boateng leads his fellow AC Milan players off the pitch during their friendly against Pro Patria because of persistent racist chanting

Milan's coach, Massimiliano Allegri, commented: "We promise to return, and we are sorry for the club and players of Pro Patria, but we could not make any other decision. We hope it will be an important signal."

However, Milan's illustrious former player Clarence Seedorf was more cautious in his reaction to the walk-off. "I don't feel it's such a fabulous thing," he told the BBC. "These people will feel empowered now. They should just be identified and kicked out of the stadium."

UEFA's President, Michel Platini, made his position clear last year before the 2012 European Championship when he said that any player who walked off the pitch because of racist abuse would be booked.

As Boateng and other black players have to listen to the bigotry cascading down from the stands, Dwan's question looms again: Is this worth it?

Boateng and his teammates made their choice this week. But if it happens again – where do they go? To the touchline once again? You like to think there has to be another way, both for their sake and for the sport which gives them their living.

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, covered the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics as chief feature writer for insidethegames, having covered the previous five summer Games, and four winter Games, for The Independent. He has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian.
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