NEWS

Britain considers barring Syrian Olympic official

06/22/2012 08:38 EDT | Updated 08/22/2012 05:12 EDT
Every four years, politics and sport become as entwined as the five Olympic rings and it is no different with London 2012.

Reports out of Britain say government officials there won't allow the head of Syria's Olympic Committee to attend the upcoming Games.

The BBC, as well as other British papers, cites sources inside the British government who say General Mowaffak Joumaa has been refused a U.K. travel visa because of his close ties to President Bashar al-Assad. Any move, however, would still need the approval of the International Olympic Committee.

Syria is already the subject of political and economic sanctions by Western nations as a result of the brutal crackdown by the Assad regime on anti-government demonstrators, an uprising that has seen at least 10,000 Syrians killed, according to the UN.

But sport can be a more delicate matter.

As professor Bruce Kidd, of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Physical Education and Kinesiology, says, the International Olympic Committee has traditionally tried to steer clear of politics in all but the most extreme cases.

"The IOC's first purpose is to bring everybody together in hopes that, under the banner of peaceful sport and culture, people can get to know each other, respect them despite differences," says Kidd, a former Olympica runner and an expert on the history of the Olympic movement. "That’s been the strategy for a very long time."

Kidd acknowledges the atrocities being carried out in Syria are horrifying. But he’s not convinced barring the country’s senior Olympic official from the London Games will do anything to stop that.

For him, it makes more sense to bring Syrian officials and athletes to London and to let them know the world is angry and disgusted with their government.

“My hope is right now the IOC is using behind-the-scenes avenues of diplomacy to protest against this and to use the anger and the horrified response of many countries to what Syria is doing to point this out to the members of the Syrian National Olympic Committee and the Syrian government," he says.

However, other observers say that by targeting a Syrian Olympic official and not Syrian athletes, Britain is striking the right balance.

Michael Byers, an international law professor and researcher at the University of British Columbia, says Western nations have been scrambling to find new ways to put pressure on the Syrian regime and especially its supporters in the upper echelons of government and society, and this could be one of them.

'An official doesn't have much to lose'

"If you think about it, it's actually an appropriate nuance," says Byers, of the British move.

"The athletes have trained their whole lives to compete, so they should be the last people to be punished. Whereas the head of a delegation, an official, doesn’t have much to lose except his attendance at some cocktail parties."

There are even those who say sanctions should be tougher, that the entire Syrian Olympic team should be banned from the competition, just as South Africa was during the years of its apartheid regime.

Kyle Matthews is senior deputy director of the Will to Protect Project at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University.

He recently published an article calling on Western nations to boycott the 2016 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, to pressure the Russian government to end its support for the Syrian regime.

"I understand the ethics (of keeping sports and politics separate) but what’s more important? People playing games or actually stopping people from dying?" he says.

Syria, however, isn't the only country with a questionable human rights record sending a team to the London Olympics.

There have been calls for the head of Bahrain's Olympic Committee to be barred from the Games because of the country's crushing of an anti-government uprising last year. Other activists have called for sanctions against Saudi Arabia, which doesn’t allow women on its team, and against African nations that discriminate against gays and lesbians.

To Kidd, at the University of Toronto, it all shows how complicated things can become when mixing politics and sport.

"People in some parts of the world would say, you know, well the NATO countries, Canada in Afghanistan … why doesn’t someone talk to them?”

To Kidd, it’s all a strong argument for keeping politics out of the Olympics as much as possible.

"If we decided only to play against people who are like us," he says, "it would be a very short list of competitors."

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