Alan Hubbard

No one should be surprised to learn that Lord Sebastian Coe is vehemently opposed to boycotts. He made this abundantly clear yet again in a recent interview with the Today Programme when asked whether the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing should be shunned because of China's wretched record on human rights, culminating in the ongoing mystery over the welfare of its leading female tennis player, Peng Shuai.

It is 41 years since the then plain Sebastian Coe defied the stance taken by the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, for who's Conservative Party he would later become an MP, and went to Moscow to win the first of his two Olympic 1500 metres gold medals.

He said then that he felt sporting boycotts achieved nothing and clearly has not changed his view.

Coe, who masterminded the acclaimed London Olympics of 2012, also includes a diplomatic boycott which some nations, including Britain are hinting at (i.e. not sending any political dignitaries) as a "hollow, meaningless and damaging gesture."

While acknowledging, as did Nelson Mandela, that sport is a very powerful vehicle for driving through change, Coe argued that it was important to have Ministers from overseas in attendance who could ask "tough questions of the hosts." In this case those hosts are under fierce criticism globally because of the oppression in Tibet and Hong Kong, and other issues. In the end, he says, it is only sport itself that will be damaged.

The man who now presides over World Athletics is a powerful figure both in sport and sports politics and it is obvious that he is doing his bit for diplomacy.

Like Coe, I am opposed to sporting boycotts but my dilemma is that I do not agree that they do not achieve anything. There is little doubt that establishing South Africa as a sporting pariah helped expedite the abolition of apartheid.

World Athletics President Sebastian Coe has spoken out against any boycott of Beijing 2022 ©Getty Images
World Athletics President Sebastian Coe has spoken out against any boycott of Beijing 2022 ©Getty Images

And maybe, just maybe even the half-hearted boycott of the Moscow 1980 Olympics may have assisted in eventually bringing down the Iron Curtain.

As I say, his lordship’s stance was predictable. What was not was the reaction from another former British Olympian, albeit one not quite as successful as Coe - one-time British number one table tennis player Matthew Syed, who made a blistering attack on Coe and the BBC interview in his own column in The Times newspaper, calling Coe's view "chilling" and "duplicitous".

Rather like Coe himself, Syed is an intriguing character, a highly articulate figure who has dabbled in politics, once standing unsuccessfully in a general election as a Labour candidate.

However the 51-year-old Oxford graduate has gone on to become an author and award-winning newspaper sports columnist. He writes with considerable intellect and his observations on Coe's views make powerful reading.

Syed opines: "It is rare to have a firm opinion overturned by a single short radio interview. But listening to Lord Coe’s duplicitous performance on the Today programme did a very good job of making me think again about the question of whether nations should boycott the Winter Olympics in China, whether by withdrawing athletes, political and diplomatic attendance, or both.

"Coe, one of my favourite athletes, a silky runner in his day, was equally smooth in cravenly insinuating that no sanction should be applied to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the light of the sinister disappearance of Peng Shuai, a tennis player who made allegations of sexual abuse at the hands of one of the CCP‘s most senior figures."

He adds: "Until listening to Coe I had been against a boycott. As a former Olympian I feel distinctly uneasy at the idea that an athlete's many years of sacrifice, their one shot at a gilded podium, be rendered worthless by political decree. If we are to stand up to a foreign power we should do so robustly with a range of security, economic and other measures, not just a sporting one. To use the latter without the former risks the most flimsy kind of gesture politics.

Peng Shuai appeared at three Olympic Games ©Getty Images
Peng Shuai appeared at three Olympic Games ©Getty Images

"But the more Coe talked the more I glimpsed the fraudulence of the stance of so many sports governing bodies. He did not acknowledge that the large scale of events are a measure for dictators to bolster their legitimacy in the eyes of the domestic audience and distract from abuses - for why else do they invest so heavily in them?

"Sportswashing is the contemporary phrase but the phenomenon stretches all the way back to the ancient games themselves." The only way to stand up to China, says Syed, is through a rock-solid alliance of free nations.

"We have to hang together lest we hang separately. It is in the interest of the CCP to divide and rule, to deal with each of us on a bilateral basis, this is why the only way a boycott would have potency is by securing the broadest possible alliance of free nations.

"On balance I feel that it would be unfair as well for democratic states to compel athletes to withdraw from the Games without a broader strategy of containment already in place. In the meantime though a diplomatic boycott might be a wise alternative, sending a message to Beijing while offering Western nations a chance to get back in the habit of acting in unison. For too long the only thing we have managed to do as a group is squabble among ourselves while a new shattering hotel aquarium power is rising."

While Coe might argue that Olympic participants may not give a damn whether their diplomats attend or not, surely Syed has a point. The Olympic Games - Summer or Winter - provide a perfect platform not just for sport but to demonstrate the power it holds to change the world.