A moral issue or plain politics?

LONDON DEC. 3. Mixing sports and politics has always been a problematic issue as we have seen in India where from time to time strident voices are raised against playing cricket with Pakistan as part of coercive diplomacy.

Currently, a blazing row is going on in Britain over whether England cricketers should go to Zimbabwe to play their World Cup matches. It is a very British row in which a palpably political issue — Britain's hostility to the Mugabe regime because of its harassment of white farmers — has been turned into a great morality debate. It is being argued that England cannot be seen to be playing cricket in a country where there is no democracy and people are dying of starvation.

In a well-orchestrated campaign, Minister after Minister has been telling cricketers to "reflect'' on the humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe and the fact that their tour might be seized by President Robert Mugabe to claim that it is business as usual. The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) says it is too late in the day, and wants to know: why didn't anyone say anything when the series was being planned and it was known that Zimbabwe as co-host of the World Cup was going to be the venue for some of the matches? And if the Government feels so strongly why doesn't it take the hard political decision, announce an official boycott and compensate the ECB for loss of advertising and sponsorship money (besides a hefty fine) which is likely to run into millions of pounds?

Tim Lamb, chief executive of the ECB, rightly says that it is not for a sporting body to "make moral and political judgments about regimes in other countries''. The board, he says, is willing to "follow the Government's wishes'' but it should be "indemnified against any losses that are incurred''. But obviously the Government wants to eat its cake and have it too — seek the moral high ground without taking the political responsibility or willing to pay the price for it. At least, the Indian Government has had the political courage to dirty its hands in similar situations instead of asking the cricketers to do the hatchet job for it.

It all started with the International Development Secretary, Clare Short, expressing "shock'' that her countrymen should be playing cricket in a country where "an election has been stolen and people are being starved''. As the morality bandwagon started rolling, the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, his junior colleague, Mike O'Brien, the Tory leader, Iain Duncan Smith, and a host of cricketers (significantly all "ex-players'') jumped on it. Ditto the media including the sensibly liberal Guardian and Independent.

In what can only be called a case of morality gone berserk, the "conscientious'' objectors include cricketers like Mike Gatting and Graham Gooch who had no compunction playing in apartheid South Africa in defiance of an international ban on sporting ties with it. David Graveney, who led a rebel tour of South Africa in 1989, has had a morality transplant and is now quoting the scriptures sayings things like "sportsmen can't live life in a bubble'' and "if you asked me as an individual, I would not go to Zimbabwe.''

The point is that nobody would ask him simply because he is well past his "play by'' date.

While individual inconsistency can be explained at some level, it is difficult to understand when a Government behaves as inconsistently as the Blair Government is plainly doing. So while it wants cricket pitches in Harare to be uprooted in the name of human rights, British businesses are thriving in Zimbabwe.

British trade with Mugabe's "repressive'' and "anti-democratic'' regime in 2001 was worth more than �125 million and currently some 400 UK firms, including such giants as Barclays Bank and BP, are doing business in Zimbabwe. And, as a letter-writer in The Times pointed out, it is the same Government that cited "contractual obligations'' as the reason for supplying spares for Hawks to Zimbabwe "despite the fact that it had the legal power to refuse the necessary export licence.''

So, it seems, that though it is morally wrong to play cricket in Zimbabwe, it is all very moral to do business with it and supply arms to it while people are starving, and democracy is being trampled upon. Even in terms of sporting links with "dictatorial'' regimes, the British stance has been inconsistent, commentators say citing the 1978 football World Cup in Argentina where Britain played despite the fact it was then ruled by a brutal dictator, General Rafael Videla, who was dubbed a "butcher'' by his critics. And where is it all going to end? Who is Britain going to boycott next? Iraq? Israel? Australia, which has been accused of pursuing a "racist immigration policy''? The Beijing Olympics in view of alleged human rights abuses in China? Or is this morality thing going to be tailored-made to serve political aims?

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