Politicians in Germany and Brussels are hotly debating the Ukrainian government's treatment of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko as her country prepares to co-host the European Football Championship. In a SPIEGEL interview, the head of the German Olympic Sports Confederation argues that boycotting the event is the wrong way to address Ukraine's problems.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Vesper, the European Commission is boycotting the European Football Championship in Ukraine this June. Do you understand their position?
Vesper: Yes, I do understand. I wouldn't want to be seen next to Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych on the football VIP stand at a time when he is allowing members of the opposition to be locked up and tortured either. But I do ask myself why it has taken those responsible in Brussels so long to see what is going on in Ukraine. The European Commission has been negotiating an association agreement with Kiev for years now -- but suddenly, all at once, there is major outrage.
SPIEGEL: Amnesty International has said it considers a boycott to be a good idea.
Vesper: That's right. But in order to apply political pressure, it is even better to use such events to speak to those responsible about the human rights violations on the ground, in their own country. Logically, that can only happen if one travels there -- even if it isn't any fun.
SPIEGEL: It isn't just the European Football Championship that is causing fury -- it is also the recent Formula 1 race in Bahrain or the 2014 ice hockey world championships planned for Belarus. Should events like these be restricted to countries that have flawless democracies?
Vesper: How many of those are there? And who awards this seal of approval? We don't live in an ideal world. In addition, sporting events can have a very positive effect on opening up (societies) and promoting democracy and human rights. After all, it is only through the European Championships that the Ukrainian opposition has landed on the front pages.
SPIEGEL: Why don't sporting associations formulate political criteria that countries must fulfill in order to be awarded hosting duties for Olympic, world or European championships?
Vesper: That's more easily said than done. In practical terms, it's impossible. Sporting organizers aren't even qualified to do that. Besides, political developments are unpredictable. Ukraine, for example, was awarded the European Championships at a point in time when it seemed the Orange Revolution was unstoppable. Should one be able to take back (tournaments that have already been awarded) in any year if the situation has changed?
SPIEGEL: Why are the leading international sports so strongly politicized?
Vesper: Sport is a fascinating competition that inspires people in ways that few other things do. That's why it is the ideal platform for political communication. That's a good thing, even if it isn't always simple.
SPIEGEL: Can major events promote greater opening and democracy in countries?
Vesper: One shouldn't overestimate the effect of sports -- it can't accomplish anything that politics can't achieve. But sometimes it can definitely get things moving. The so-called ping pong diplomacy between the United States and China during the 1970s was one example, as were the 1988 Olympics in Seoul -- at the time, South Korea was opening itself up to the world slowly. And the image of two Black Power activists on the winner's rostrum in Mexico City in 1968 remains a symbol of the American civil rights movement today.
SPIEGEL: But there are also plenty of negative examples, like the 2008 Olympics in Beijing or the 1978 football World Cup in Argentina, which took place in a country then ruled by a tyrannical military junta.
Vesper: The human rights situation in China has not fundamentally changed. But it was nevertheless good that it was discussed so intensively back then. And should one have cancelled the Argentine World Cup because of the military dictatorship? It is pointless to retroactively judge that today.
SPIEGEL: What type of political protest do you consider to be appropriate today?
Vesper: Boycotts of sporting events have no effect and are therefore useless. The only thing the boycott of the Moscow Olympic Games in 1980 accomplished was a counter-boycott (of the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984) -- and nothing else. Athletes can and should speak out politically if they want to -- but they shouldn't do so on the playing field. That, incidentally, was also precisely our position in Beijing in 2008.
SPIEGEL: So players like those on the German national team shouldn't wear orange-colored scarves, as one leading German Green Party politician has suggested, to show solidarity with Yulia Tymoshenko?
Vesper: That would merely serve to provoke counter-protests and the sports ground would become a political marketplace. The Dutch team members should, of course, still compete in their usual orange jerseys.
SPIEGEL: Under which circumstances do sporting events need to be cancelled?
Vesper: That's a question that can only be answered in a concrete instance, and not theoretically. Of course there are countries to which no one today would award a major sporting event. But those countries, too, can develop further. What is certain is that an event must be cancelled if the safety of the athletes and spectators can't be guaranteed.
SPIEGEL: Why has the discussion about the European Football Championships in Ukraine been greater than that surrounding the Eurovision Song Contest to be held this month in Azerbaijan, where the political situation is much worse?
Vesper: That surprises me as well. It probably shows that sports inspires more people and is thus better suited as a platform.
Interview conducted by Ralf Beste
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2012
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH