Monday October 25, 2021

Sporting events that left a bad taste

September 18, 2021

LAHORE: The hasty cancellation of the Pakistan-New Zealand cricket series Friday was on insistence of the tourists citing a terror threat as the key reason.

Research shows that while sporting events have led nations to wars on a few occasions, they have mostly helped heal wounds, mend fences, and rise above differences among cultures and countries. Let us first briefly mention a few sporting incidents which steered nations into brief clashes and fierce rivalries:

In 1969, El Salvador beat Honduras in a World Cup qualifying match, igniting longstanding tension between the two countries into a brief war. The two teams were competing for a slot in the 1970 World Cup to be held in Mexico.

The “Football War” was a brief clash. The Salvadoran military had launched an attack against Honduras, but ceasefire prevented a lot of damage. In 2008, England had cancelled Zimbabwe’s 2009 tour of England and suspended all bilateral relations between the two states.

Unhappy with the outcome of the 2008 Zimbabwe Presidential Elections under Robert Mugabe, the British government had even asked for a ban on the African nation’s cricket team for good. Mugabe was later heard criticising the British government vehemently.

In 1957, according to an American media house “The Atlantic,” Norway had declined to take part in the Bandy World Championship because the Soviet Union was invited. Enraged over Soviet invasion of Hungary the year before, the Hungarians made a similar protest during the 1969 World Championship of this winter sport played on ice, and in which skaters use sticks to direct a bandy ball into the opposing team's goal.

The 1969 protest was against the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. In protest, Hungary had handed over the hosting of the 1969 event to Sweden. Similarly, Ukraine declined to take part in the 2015 Bandy World Championship hosted by Russia because of the Russian annexation of Crimea the year before.

Ukraine considered Crimea as part of its territory. According to the Doha-based “Al-Jazeera” television network, the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had led to a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics by numerous Western states and their allies in protest of Russian actions.

During the 1984 Olympics, the Soviet Bloc had paid back in the same coin. It goes without saying that Iranian government’s longstanding refusal to acknowledge Israel’s sovereignty has led its athletes to skip all direct competition against Israel, including FIFA matches and Olympic events.

Interestingly, sports also united ferocious rivals to strive for a common goal. And this happened in May 2013, when traditional political rivals Iran, Russia and the United States joined forces to annul an effort to eliminate from the Olympics! The U.S. had hosted a publicity event in New York City with athletes from all three countries to campaign for its reinstatement.

Now, let us briefly revisit some events that reduced tensions between countries and helped broker peace:

In 1987, the-then Pakistan President, General Ziaul Haq, attended a cricket match between India and Pakistan at Jaipur – a visit that apparently helped cool a flare-up in tensions. Imran Khan was the Pakistani Captain then.

Similarly, another Pakistani President, General Musharraf, visited India in 2005, ostensibly to see a cricket match. The trip led to a dialogue on Kashmir issue.

Remember, following the 1999 Kargil Conflict, there were calls on either side of the border to suspend Cricketing ties between the two countries, but sports won in the end despite long waiting periods.

And in May 2011, the-then Pakistani Premier Yusuf Raza Gilani had witnessed an India-Pakistan semifinal cricket match of the ICC World Cup with his Indian counterpart at Mohali.

The Pak-India tensions surmounting after the November 26, 2008 Mumbai attacks did subside a bit after this event.

After being elected South Africa’s first post-Apartheid president, Nelson Mandela, had cleverly turned to the 1995 Rugby World Cup to help foster the country’s healing process and prevent a civil war that many feared was inevitable.

In 1971, the Chinese government had famously invited American Ping-Pong players to exhibition matches in China, the first time Americans were allowed into the country since 1949. And within a year, the-then US President Richard Nixon had landed in Beijing, ending two decades of unfriendly ties between the two superpowers.

In May 2009, China and Japan used Ping-Pong as a tool for peace too as Chinese President, Hu Jintao, played against a Japanese teenager during the first visit of a Chinese president to Japan in 10 years.

In one of its January 2010 editions, “The Atlantic” had added: “In September 2008, the presidents of Armenia and Turkey used soccer to reopen diplomatic dialogue. The two countries had severed relations and sealed their common border more than a decade earlier, but a World Cup qualifying match between their national teams prompted Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan to extend an invitation to his Turkish counterpart.”

The American magazine maintained: “In 2009, the American national team played in Cuba for the first time since 1947. But while many pundits saw the game as an opportunity for improved political relations, the match was due more to FIFA requirements than any diplomatic efforts on the part of either country.”

The February 21, 2014 edition of another American media outlet “The Huffington Post” had held that at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, Hungary had beaten Soviet Union in a Water Polo semi-final. Remember, Soviets had invaded Hungary—as stated above—and Hungarians had poured last drop of their sweat to show vengeance.

The “Huffington Post” also recalled how Nazi leader Adolf Hitler had left the stadium early during the 1936 Olympics, after Jewish athletes had won medals in the games by trampling all over German favourites.