Philip Barker

It is well over a century since Rudyard Kipling wrote The Islanders. It was a poem which spoke of "flannelled fools at the wicket or the muddied oafs at the goals".

It is not a charge that could be levelled at the current generation of sportsmen and women who have demonstrated a willingness to speak out on social issues.

In little more than 12 months, we have witnessed the imprisonment and eventual exile of Belarusian basketball star Yelena Leuchanka for suggesting that a Presidential election in her homeland was fixed.

"I couldn’t be quiet and ignore or make it look like nothing was happening in my country," Leuchanka told Associated Press. "I used my voice to support the people of my country and to stand with them."

The volte face which triggered the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics gained traction after four-time gold medallist Hayley Wickenheiser, a doctor away from the ice hockey rink, branded Olympic organisers "insensitive and irresponsible".

Manchester United star Marcus Rashford confronted British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to change Government policy on the provision of school meals for those most in need.

Most recently, Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai voiced accusations of sexual assault by a senior Chinese official. There were widespread concerns for her safety, not least from the Women’s Tennis Association, in the days which followed.

Although International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach spoke to Peng this week by video, the episode prompted further calls for a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing 2022 Games.

Those who supported the decision to award the Games to Beijing saw it as an opportunity to engage and open doors. Yet the "No Beijing 2022" protest group insists that the 2008 Beijing Olympics only served to convince the Chinese Government that the international community accepted their policies.

More recently, protesters have highlighted a perceived unwillingness by the IOC to confront the Chinese Government over their treatment of Uyghur Muslims and other minorities.

The IOC has faced worldwide protests over its decision to host the 2022 Winter Olympic and Paralympics in Beijing ©Getty Images
The IOC has faced worldwide protests over its decision to host the 2022 Winter Olympic and Paralympics in Beijing ©Getty Images

It has been a well-trodden road for the IOC and other international sporting organisations in the last century.

In 1933 the University Games were held in Italy and opened by Mussolini's fascist henchman Achille Starace.

IOC President Comte Henri Baillet Latour also met the Italian dictator.

"The progress attained in the realm of sports in Italy is but the just result of a marvellous organisation," Baillet Latour said.

The IOC did not award the 1936 Olympic Games to the Nazis, but Hitler inherited them when he came to power in 1933.

The regime change and the impact it might have was on the agenda when the IOC met in Vienna later that year.

"All laws regulating the Olympic Games shall be observed," Berlin Organising Committee President Theodore Lewald insisted. "As a principle, German Jews shall not be excluded from German teams at the Games of the XIth Olympiad."

William Garland admitted that the Americans "would have had to give up participation altogether if German Jew athletes had not been assured the same terms as members of the same faith in other countries".

The IOC discussed the matter again at its 1934 Session in Athens.

Britain’s Lord Aberdare asked his German colleagues if the pledge given in Vienna last year had been given practical application.

The 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin went ahead despite fears about the ill-treatment of Jews in Germany ©IOC
The 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin went ahead despite fears about the ill-treatment of Jews in Germany ©IOC

IOC minutes show Germany’s Karl Ritter von Halt "declared emphatically that the pledge given in Vienna had been loyally kept. Every facility was given to 'non-Aryans' to take part in the Games and to train for them".

That this was discussed at IOC Sessions might have been an indication of transparency. 

It was an illusion.

The German ice hockey team for the 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch Partenkirchen did include a Jewish player in Rudi Ball, and fencer Helene Mayer took part in Berlin, but the majority of Jewish athletes were denied the facilities and opportunity to qualify. 

The most famous of those excluded was high jumper Gretel Bergmann.

American Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage visited Germany in the year before the Games.

"I was given positive assurance in writing that there will be no discrimination against Jews," he declared. "You can't ask for more than that and I think the guarantee will be fulfilled."

As opposition mobilised in the United States, they found support from IOC member Lee Jahncke, a US naval officer.

Other IOC members later voted to expel him for "betraying the interests of the Committee and in failing to preserve a sense of decorum toward his colleagues".

There was no boycott as the Berlin Games went ahead in memorable fashion.

After the Games, Brundage, by now an IOC member, asserted: "Too much credit cannot be given to the Organising Committee which, with the assistance of the German authorities, provided for the Games."

He rose through the IOC ranks and became President in 1952, but his 20 years in charge coincided with the most famous protest demanding social change.

The "Black Power" salute given on the medal podium by American sprinters Tommie Smith, centre, and John Carlos, left, at Mexico City 1968 remains one of the most powerful images in Olympic history ©Getty Images

At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, the gloved "Black Power" salute by American sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 200 metres medal ceremony called attention to discrimination and the lack of civil rights at home.

It remains one of the most emblematic moments in Olympic history. The third man on the podium, Australian Peter Norman, wore a badge supporting the protest.

The episode was included in the official film of the Games to the fury of Brundage.

"It was very disturbing to have you confirm the rumours that have reached my ears about the use of pictures," Brundage wrote. 

He described the protest as "the nasty demonstration against the United States flag".

Brundage stood down in 1972 but the coming years were fraught with political intrigue for sport.

Human rights organisations objected to the IOC's choice of Moscow to host the 1980 Olympics and a boycott campaign grew in intensity after the Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan, little more than six months before the Games were to begin.

An awareness of wider issues was not just an Olympic problem. 

In 1966, FIFA assigned the World Cup for 1978 to Argentina just as a military Government seized power.

In the early 1970s, there had briefly been free elections but a further coup in 1976 installed another authoritarian regime led by General Jorge Videla. This embarked on a policy of repression and torture.

By this time, FIFA itself was led by a man who had experienced the Berlin Olympics. João Havelange swam for Brazil in those Games and was later fulsome in his praise for the Nazi organisation.

He had joined the IOC in 1963 and became FIFA President after an energetic campaign in 1974.

His own power base in Brazilian sport had been forged during years of military dictatorship.

"They had their job to do, I had mine," Havelange told David Yallop, author of How They Stole the Game, an expose of the inside story of FIFA.

FIFA President João Havelange, left, resisted calls for the 1978 World Cup to be removed from Argentina following reports of human rights abuses under the military dictatorship of General Jorge Videla, right ©Getty Images
FIFA President João Havelange, left, resisted calls for the 1978 World Cup to be removed from Argentina following reports of human rights abuses under the military dictatorship of General Jorge Videla, right ©Getty Images

Havelange ignored calls to remove the 1978 World Cup from Argentina as accusations of human rights abuses by the junta became louder.

At the Opening Ceremony in the River Plate Stadium in Buenos Aires, he stood shoulder to shoulder with Videla.

Junta member Admiral Carlos Lacoste, the man in charge of preparations for the 1978 World Cup, was later installed as a FIFA vice-president.

When the military regime in Argentina eventually ended and democracy was restored, Videla was indicted and imprisoned for human rights abuses.

It was an episode which found echoes earlier this year. The then International Ice Hockey Federation President René Fasel travelled to Minsk and was criticised after greeting Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko with a hug.

Belarus was to have co-hosted the 2021 Men's Ice Hockey World Championship but was stripped of the right to do so after protests from athletes and exiled pressure groups.

This followed action by the IOC to prevent President Lukashenko and his son Viktor, both also officials of the National Olympic Committee, from attending the Tokyo Olympics.

The IOC judgement called on relevant International Federations to "make sure that all eligible Belarusian athletes can take part in qualification events for the upcoming Olympic Games without any political discrimination".

Yet even after these measures there was a remarkable incident at Tokyo airport when Belarus officials attempted to abduct sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya.

It was further proof that the age of innocence portrayed by the "flannelled fool and muddied oaf" in Kipling’s day really has gone forever.