Nancy Gillen ©ITG

Monte Carlo towers above the Mediterranean, its steep and winding roads full of flashy cars and lined with casinos and designer clothes shops.  

All year round the sun shines on this scene of opulence and wealth, although many of the area’s inhabitants leave to second homes in the Caribbean or the like during the winter months.

It seems a strange place to hold an event where the plight of refugees and the world’s most desperate is up for discussion. Yet, over the past few days, that is exactly what was happening on the French Riviera. 

With the Peace and Sport International Forum setting up shop in such venues as the Monte-Carlo Bay Hotel, One Monte-Carlo and the Opéra de Monte-Carlo, figures from across the sporting world came together to discuss how to improve the lives of others.

Peace and Sport was founded in 2007 by Frenchman and former modern pentathlete Joël Bouzou, who also wears the hat of World Olympians Association President. His organisation has grown in size and influence year-on-year. It now boasts of a dazzling array of sporting ambassadors, or Champions for Peace, including Ivorian former football Didier Drogba, Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic and British Olympian Paula Radcliffe.

This year, discussions on human rights, urban sports, gender equality, technology in sport, refugees and philanthropy were on the agenda. A range of speakers were invited to share their expertise, from International Federation Presidents to representatives of non-Governmental organisations.

There is the risk, when talking about subjects such as these, that things may stray into the realm of politics. Peace and Sport pitches itself as a neutral organisation, however, supposedly using sport as a "neutral tool".

This is what Bouzou claimed anyway, when asked about the tricky tightrope act of remaining politically neutral.

"We are always respecting neutrality, always acting within the neutrality of sport, from the neutrality of Peace and Sport,” he said.

"We are very pragmatic.

"We are not here to change or to judge people, we are here to make kids play with sport as a neutral tool. What we want is to foster dignity, foster the equality of chances, make sure that at the individual and collective level these values can apply, and we use our tools, we use our neutrality, and we use champions.

"We think that that sport is outside of traditional politics. We are absolutely conscious that we have a political line, but this political line is neutrality. We can play with everybody, we can run programmes, wherever it is possible.

"Whatever the regime is, we can come and make kids enjoy the neutrality and universality of sport."

The 2019 Peace and Sport International Forum took place in the glitzy location of Monte Carlo ©Twitter
The 2019 Peace and Sport International Forum took place in the glitzy location of Monte Carlo ©Twitter

The statement comes at a time when the role of politics in sport, and vice versa, is being widely discussed. Such is the prominence of the issue that a declaration was issued by the Olympic Summit, who met recently in Lausanne.

"The Summit called on public authorities and governments to respect the mission of the Olympic Movement to bring the world together in peaceful competition through sport," the statement read.

“In this respect, the participants expressed serious concerns over the growing politicisation of sport. Examples include: Governments calling on athletes and teams not to participate in competition in specific countries; calls for boycotts; the non-issuance of visas for athletes wanting to participate in international competitions; the resistance by organisers to raising particular national flags and to playing national anthems; and the repeated interference of governments in the basic operations of national sports bodies. 

"All these measures disrespect the political neutrality of sport.

"The growing politicisation of sport prevents events including the Olympic Games or World Championships from realising their mission.

"All the participants restated their determination to convince governments to respect the political neutrality of the Olympic Movement, which must be strictly maintained in order to guarantee the universality of the Olympic Games and international competitions.”

Posted on Twitter, these words caused much derision. Various instances where the Olympic Movement has previously got involved in a political situation were raised. It begged the question - are sport and politics too intrinsically linked for complete neutrality?

Let’s go back to Peace and Sport. Here, it seems as if sport can really transcend politics. Everyone is treated the same, regardless of where they come from or what kind of regime they reside under. All that matters is that sport is used to improve their circumstance, whatever that may be. In this sense, sport is used as a vehicle for peace.

The nominees at the award ceremony, held at the conclusion of the Forum, demonstrated this. The diplomatic action of the year award showed in particular the ways in which sport can transcend international politics and deep-rooted division.

The Olympic Committee of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the cities of Sarajevo and East Sarajevo received the accolade, having successfully organised the Winter European Youth Olympic Festival in February.

It was the first time an international multisport event had been held in Bosnia and Herzegovina since the Bosnian War from 1992 to 1995, a brutal and devastating conflict that still haunts the region. It was therefore a significant achievement that both cities came together to host the competition.

The Olympic Committee of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the cities of Sarajevo and East Sarajevo won Peace and Sport's diplomatic action of the year award ©Twitter
The Olympic Committee of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the cities of Sarajevo and East Sarajevo won Peace and Sport's diplomatic action of the year award ©Twitter

World Taekwondo (WT) was nominated for the award following their work with the International Taekwondo Federation (ITF). The two federations, once rivals, are using their recent rapprochement to try to heal the greater divide between North and South Korea.

WT are based in the South Korean capital of Seoul, while the ITF are traditionally rooted in North Korea, despite their headquarters being in the Austrian capital of Vienna. Initiated by WT President Chungwon Choue, the two federations organised a series of joint demonstrations from a WT team made up of South Korean athletes and an ITF team of North Korean athletes.

The most significant of these took place in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang in November last year, before the teams performed at Lausanne's Olympic Museum in front of International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach and at the United Nations Office in Geneva for general secretary Michael Møller.

Again, the conflict between North and South Korea was vicious, and is technically still ongoing. The joint demonstrations did show, however, that it is possible to ignore politics and unite for sport.

It is possible for sport to move past politics then, but at the same time, did these initiatives not alter the political landscape in some way? The taekwondo demonstrations, along with the appearance of a joint North-South Korean women’s hockey team at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games, have been credited with easing the diplomatic tension between the two countries. It seems difficult in these situations to completely separate sport from politics.

The main issue, however, particularly regarding the Olympic Summit statement, is when sport is used as a political tool.

It could be said that holding a major sporting event is of benefit to any Government, with a sense of unity and pride fostered in the host country if all goes well. It is when an authoritarian regime uses a sporting event to improve the image of their country that things become more dubious.

A savvy use of soft power at its best, sportswashing at its worst.

The examples of this are endless. Most recently, Britain’s Anthony Joshua overwhelmed Mexican Andy Ruiz Jr. in the Saudi Arabian desert, with the clash billed as one of the biggest boxing matches of the decade.

Saudi Arabia, with their poor human rights record and the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at their consulate in Istanbul last year still fresh in people’s minds. Joshua even posed for a photo with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who the CIA believe was responsible for ordering the death of Khashoggi.

This summer, the second edition of the European Games was held in the Belarusian capital of Minsk, while the first was hosted by Baku in Azerbaijan four years ago. Numerous events have taken place in Russia, with the 2018 FIFA World Cup the most significant. All three countries are somewhat repressive with an obvious disregard for human rights.

Looking to the future, the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics are becoming increasingly controversial as more details emerge of the detention camps holding members of the Muslim minority in Xinjiang, a region in the northwest of China.

British boxer Anthony Joshua took part in a controversial fight in Saudi Arabia ©Getty Images
British boxer Anthony Joshua took part in a controversial fight in Saudi Arabia ©Getty Images

The same year the FIFA World Cup goes to Qatar, yet another country with a poor human rights record. In July, Middle Eastern news service The National reported that more than 1,400 migrants had already died working on World Cup-related projects due to poor conditions. Yet this will all be forgotten if Qatar hold a successful World Cup, with their image suddenly becoming a lot rosier.

There is the point that an increase of scrutiny and an influx of visitors from around the world can help a country become more progressive, but that is a debate for another day. These examples are just there to show that sport is being used widely as a political tool, and the sporting world is happy to accept this as long as events are organised successfully and on budget. Subsequently, the Olympic Summit statement calling for political neutrality smacks of hypocrisy.

Yet another problem with the declaration is that it views sport as a homogeneous entity, seemingly forgetting that is actually made up of millions of athletes, each with their own opinions and views. The Olympic Summit can call on Governments to stop getting involved on sport, but how much control can they have over athletes who want to use their platform to send a political message?

Podium protests are nothing new in the world of sport. Two most recently came at the Pan American Games in the Peruvian capital of Lima. American fencer Race Imboden took a knee during his country’s national anthem in protest at racism, gun control, mistreatment of immigrants and President Donald Trump. The next day, his compatriot Gwen Berry raised a fist after finishing on the hammer throw podium.

Both incidents made headlines back home while the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) pondered over a suitable reaction. Under Panam Sports rules, Imboden and Berry should have, in theory, faced sanctions for their actions, with “no kind of demonstration” allowed at a Pan American Games venue. They got off scot-free from Panam Sports but were reprimanded by USOPC.

Interestingly, USOPC chief executive Sarah Hirshland warned future athletes of harsher punishments if they repeated the stunt, presumably with the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in mind.   

What is interesting here is that the exact issues Imboden and Berry were protesting over is exactly what the IOC and President Thomas Bach supposedly values. The hypocrisy of this is pointed out in a blog by colleague Michael Pavitt.

How can Bach say in a speech, "we are standing against mistrust, we are standing against selfishness, we are standing against any form of discrimination, we are standing against isolation, we are standing against division, we are standing against fragmentation,” but then punish athletes that do exactly that?

American fencer Race Imboden was reprimanded after taking a knee at the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima ©Getty Images
American fencer Race Imboden was reprimanded after taking a knee at the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima ©Getty Images

The IOC has been on the wrong side of history before after American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos were expelled from the Olympic Games following their famous podium protest at Mexico 1968.

This has been a black mark next to the organisation’s name ever since, showing that a fresh order to demonstrate political neutrality is a risky game. It will put the IOC under incredible pressure if an athlete is to protest at Tokyo 2020, anyway.

In other areas of the sporting world, athletes seem to be able to take a political stance as long as it does not affect the commercial interests of the club or organisation they are representing. This most recently happened at the Premier League football club, Arsenal.

Mesut Özil, who plays for Arsenal and is Muslim, criticised China and its treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang in a post on social media. Arsenal felt the need to release a statement distancing the club from these comments. 

"Arsenal is always apolitical as an organisation,” it read.

"Following social media messages from Mesut Özil on Friday, Arsenal Football Club must make it clear that these are Mesut's personal views.”

But what of Hector Bellerin’s recent post? The Spanish defender, another Arsenal player, recently urged British people to vote in the country’s general election, ending his statement with the hashtag F*** Boris, referring to the now Prime Minister.

This was not an overt declaration like Özil’s, but it was quite clear what message Bellerin was trying to get across. It did not elicit a response from Arsenal, however, with the club not feeling it necessary to confirm that they did not share the views of the player.

So why did they respond to Özil’s statement? Arsenal’s commercial links with China is the most likely explanation. The club has recently launched a restaurant in Shanghai and is planning to open many more. Özil’s criticism of the country threatened to derail this relationship, and so Arsenal had to shut it down, and quickly.

Therein lies the whole issue with political neutrality in sport. It seems that it is only maintained when it suits. Otherwise, political breakthroughs created by sport are celebrated and regimes are able to use sporting events as a political tool, as long as they are well-organised and paid for. 

It is understandable that the Olympic Summit does not want politics to affect sport in a negative way, whether that is through Government interference or boycotting of events. Through issuing their statement, however, they have sunk lower in to the complex quagmire of political neutrality and risk setting themselves up for an almighty fall.