Liam Morgan

The taking part that counts mantra is often derided by those among us who feel sport is about competition rather than participation.

While there may be an element of truth to that, merely competing at the European Championships in Novi Sad in Serbia was almost certainly the principle aim of the Kosovan karate team.

Kosovo were never going to win a stack load of medals but the country taking part would have meant so much more than that.

But then they got to the border with Serbia in Merdare on Wednesday (May 9) and were refused entry by police on orders of the country’s Government.

The exact reason has not yet been disclosed, although it is thought they were denied access to Serbia as they were wearing kit displaying Kosovan national symbols not recognised by Belgrade.

A second attempt to enter Serbia was made by the delegation, who by this point had replaced their team uniform with their own clothes, but the outcome was the same.

Inevitably, the blame game followed. Serbia said it was Kosovo’s fault for breaching an agreement brokered between the two countries amid ongoing political tension - present ever since Kosovo declared independence in 2008 - and the identical accusation was levelled at the European Championships host nation.

What cannot be disputed is Kosovo’s athletes were not afforded their basic right to compete at a major sporting event.

Step forward the International Olympic Committee (IOC), ever the bastion of athletes’ rights, to launch an investigation into the whole unsavoury incident.

Kosovo's team was twice barred from entering Serbia to compete at the European Karate Championships ©NOC Kosovo/Twitter
Kosovo's team was twice barred from entering Serbia to compete at the European Karate Championships ©NOC Kosovo/Twitter

The agreement cited by both Serbia and Kosovo had been facilitated by the IOC, according to the affable deputy director general and head of National Olympic Committee relations Pere Miró, following extensive talks between the relevant parties in recent weeks.

The probe, and the preceding meetings involving the likes of the Serbian Government, the World Karate Federation (WKF) and the respective NOCs, stemmed from the IOC commendably taking the lead in these sorts of cases in a bid to sure athletes are not prevented from taking part for political reasons.

Sporting bodies are often guilty of launching investigations purely as a stalling tactic. If you are unsure what you are going to do about it, say you will conduct an investigation to find out what you are going to do about it to avoid the inevitable prying questions from us nuisances in the media.

While the IOC deserve praise for stepping in to deal with a mess which has overshadowed the event in the Serbian city, what their probe will actually uncover remains to be seen.

After all, Miró inherently admitted Serbia’s guilt when he said yesterday that "in principle, access should have been given to the Kosovo delegation, following all guarantees obtained through the agreement”.

Serbia’s Government claim, however, that the sport was of “secondary importance” to Kosovo, implying the Kosovan team were more concerned with pushing their own message than taking part in the event.

It has also been suggested that it was a retaliatory act after the Football Federation of Kosovo refused to allow Serbia's Red Star to play a match in the mainly ethnic Serbian town of Gracanica last week, although those on the side of Kosovo may point to how the country has been subjected to a concerted campaign of restriction and ostracisation by their neighbours in the sporting arena for quite some time as a reason for this.

Should the IOC find Serbia at fault, surely that constitutes Governmental interference, something frowned upon by the IOC and other sports organisations across the world.

Sanctions should then follow. A call from President Thomas Bach for sport to “show its teeth” and take action in these types of cases has already been heeded by the IOC, who confirmed last week that Tunisia’s bid for the 2022 Youth Olympic Games was on hold until they have taken steps to end the restrictions on Israeli athletes competing at their events after competitors from the latter nation were denied access to the country for the World Junior Taekwondo Championships in Hammamet.

IOC deputy director general Pere Miró confirmed an investigation into the incident had been launched ©Getty Images
IOC deputy director general Pere Miró confirmed an investigation into the incident had been launched ©Getty Images

On the surface at least, this seems the right way to go. Preventing countries from entering the race for major sports events hits the nation concerned where it hurts most - the pocket - and may force the offending Government to sit up and take notice.

Another possible option would be to stop such nations from hosting events in the first place, thus depriving them of the opportunity to use their political agenda to harm athletes.

Miró admitted the IOC were aware of the “problematic participation” of Kosovo at the event, presumably from the moment the European Karate Federation (EKF) awarded their flagship tournament to Serbia, so they cannot have been surprised when they were informed the team had not been let in.

Concrete, iron-clad guarantees should have been given long before the Kosovan team arrived at the border. Perhaps those outlined in the original agreement highlighted by the IOC did not go far enough.

Or perhaps the claims of retaliation are true, in which case where do the IOC go from here?

“We have opened an investigation in the matter, and depending on the results, the IOC is ready to take the necessary measures to avoid this situation being repeated, totally consistent with our policy of zero tolerance in these kind of situations,” Miró said.

The consensus in the sporting world is that this type of scenario provides a nightmare for all involved as there is no straightforward resolution.

The issue has been thrust into the spotlight recently owing to the spike in the number of examples of undue political influence, forcing the IOC to intervene in a problem which shows little sign of going away.

There have been several occasions in recent months of politics and sport mixing amicably but this certainly was not one of them.

After all, it is the athletes, and not the politicians, who are the real losers here.