Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Russia unveils mascot finalists for 2018 World Cup

Exciting news from Russia and its utterly incorruptible sports minister Vitaly Mutko - the mascot for Russia 2018 will be announced later this month, and the final contestants are a wolf, a cat and a tiger. Cute! The World Cup Human Rights blog has been granted an exclusive look at the figures that will inject an extra blast of frivolity into what promises to be a month of fun football promoting all the greatest civic values that go hand in hand with the business of professional sport. 

Cuddly Olly G
Olly G the Wolf: this cuddly, oil-rich wolverine is slathering at the jaw to get his teeth into even more of the government contracts for energy, security and infrastructure that already made him obscenely rich in Boris Yeltsin's post-communist, bargain-bin sell-off of state assets, and in the run-up to the $50 billion bonanza that was the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. Olly G's ravenous capacity for unlimited greed respect and fair play perfectly reflects the core values of Fifa and the football brotherhood!

Cagey B the Cat: light on his feet, 'Cagey B' is always listening out for what's going on wherever two or more dissidents have gathered. This sly but furry feline showcases all that Mother Russia does best when it comes to spying on its own citizens
Sly Cagey B
and crushing both democracy and dissent. Come to Russia 2018 and find out what it's like to have your massively overpriced hotel room fitted with its very own bug. It's more than just Cold War kitsch - they really are listening in! Just remember to run the bathroom taps if you're having gay sex, or Cagey might send some of his uniformed colleagues round to talk about Fifa's ultra-strict principles on treating all human beings as equals.

Persuasive Schok
Schok the Tiger: a US-inspired mascot conceived by the Chicago School of Economics, 'Schok' symbolises the pure economic freedom that swept 1990s Russia and rapaciously unburdened millions of newly liberated citizens of their properties and savings. Armed with nothing but a kalashnikov to persuade the people that economic shock therapy is what's best for them and their emergent 'tiger' economy, the rampant feline comes with its own urinary mechanism - refuse to co-operate with its version of freedom and Schok will shower you in aromatic piss! This symbolises how all the wealth at the top of football will 'trickle down' to Fifa's poorer leagues, clubs and nations everywhere. Eventually. But we're not saying when.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Galina Arapova - defending human rights in Russia

Here are some extracts from a speech given last week by Russian human rights lawyer Galina Arapova, who was in Washington DC accepting the 2016 Human Rights Award from the International Bar Association (IBA).

"Recognition in one’s profession means a great deal," said Arapova, addressing the IBA's annual conference. "Needless to say it carries even more weight when we are dealing with work that is of significant public interest and involves a heightened degree of danger. Defending human rights is exactly such work in many regions of the world, including Russia. But I implore you to keep on doing it. It is of paramount importance - it’s not just years of hard work, it’s both victories and disappointments, threats, solidarity, trust in the values we defend.

Arapova: "Keep on working, keep on hoping"
"How successful we are depends a great deal on the independence of the judiciary and necessitates respect for the rule of law among the relevant ruling bodies and authorities and society in general. To talk openly and to defend those voices brave enough to raise issues of public concern, to be critical about the current state of affairs in Russia, requires both courage and hope that things can change, can improve for the better.

"You probably expected me to talk about the repressive regime, about the negative role of propaganda and censorship, about the loss of our freedom, about 350 journalists killed in Russia in just the last 20 years for freely speaking their minds and whose deaths were not properly investigated, about Internet blocking, politically motivated cases, restoration of criminal defamation.

"I can talk about these issues for hours, with examples and arguments, but I won’t. I am not going to dramatize the situation, as we do our best in the current environment and are not going to quit. I believe that freedom of expression and media diversity and independence are values that are worth defending everywhere because they are at the very core of a democratic society. In some countries it just so happens that this defense is quite a bit more difficult than in others. And human right lawyers are just crazy enough to keep working, to keep hoping, despite the multitude of difficulties they face and the obstacles they must constantly overcome."

Congratulations to Arapova and her team on receiving due recognition for their courage and conviction. Her award was reported world wide by a single news organisation, the web site of Voronezh-based

The next round of qualifying games for the upcoming state- and Fifa-led propaganda fest that will be Russia 2018 takes place early next month. Please avoid watching these games.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Opposition in Russia - like playing blank piano keys

Russian opposition politician Wladimir Kara-Musra, who last year survived an assassination attempt by poison, is interviewed in today's Süddeutsche Zeitung about what motivates him to continue campaigning ahead of Sunday's elections. While state-controlled TV broadcasts ridiculous items smearing his reputation and his party, Open Russia, he tours around the country holding meetings and listening to people.

The keys to opposition
At the end of the interview, Kara-Mursa - a close friend of the tragically murdered opposition politician Boris Nemtsov - talks about Rudolf Kehrer, the child of a Swabian piano-maker who emigrated to Russia during World War Two. He'd already been awarded a place at the Moscow Conservatory when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. Kehrer then spent 13 years in a camp, unable to play the piano.

"And so he painted the keys on a block of wood and practiced in silence," says Kara-Mursa. "When he was released after Stalin's death, he continued his studies and became a celebrated pianist, playing concerts everywhere.

"What we're doing with Open Russia, is exactly that: practicing on a block of wood with painted-on keys. At some point the day will come when we can take the stage."

Monday, 12 September 2016

Former Qatar resident hits out at economic slavery

An article in the increasingly daring Doha News has highlighted the problem of dissent in Qatar. Lawyer Kristen Jarvis Johnson, a former resident of the Gulf state, concedes that she kept quiet about economic slavery while living there, but has now urged ex-patriot residents still in Qatar to do the opposite and speak out.

The World Cup - smothered by a nation's flag
 and rooted in economic interests 
Better late than never, except for those who've already died. The customary depressing comments below the piece slate Johnson for speaking out from the safety of abroad. But then that's somewhat the point, isn't it? She writes that after the excitement of settling in a new country with a new job wears off, "the dark realization sets in that we are supporting modern day slavery. We feel that we risk our reputation and livelihood if we speak out.

"The consequences of contrarian speech are drastic and create huge risk for those who wish to voice an opinion," she continues, citing the country's cyber-crime law. But now she's ready to concede that "six months after leaving, I am still haunted by the thousands of people working under harsh conditions to prepare for the 2022 World Cup and to build the country’s infrastructure. All of these workers are employed under the kafala (sponsorship) system, one that many people in Qatar are quick to criticize behind closed doors."

There are a lot of things that happen behind closed doors in repressed Arab societies. The consumption of alcohol and other drugs. Homosexuality. And, according to Johnson, political dissent. Most expats, she writes, "wait to speak up, if at all, until after they have completed their stay in Qatar. This leads to criticism about people living large while in the country who only publish scathing commentaries after they leave. It’s more complex than this, but it is true."

What are the options? Leave the country? Don't go there in the first place? Form a huge union of expats and picket building sites? (Yes, I'm being facetious, but it would beat handwringing from several thousand miles away - would the Qatari state arrest and imprison several hundred wealthy foreigners?) Johnson's answer is that "we, the international community, must continue to stand up for the rights of those slaving away on Qatar’s World Cup preparations. We can implore the leaders of Qatar to scrutinize their legal system, to get rid of laws that violate basic human rights, and to protect the workers building the nation’s infrastructure."

Well, human rights groups have been trying that for years, but "the leaders of Qatar" would rather stifle dissent than listen to it. They will only act if Fifa pulls the tournament, but the chances of that have now diminished to almost nothing. Beyond the vacuous tokenism of its slogans, Fifa does not care about human rights. The most disgraceful World Cup in football's history will take place as planned, because the business of sport has become more important than human life itself.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Russia: independent pollster named 'foreign agent'

Don't like your showings in the polls? In a democracy, you have to suck it up and up your game. In Russia, you can just force the pollster to shut down using the label 'foreign agent'.

Another Russian institution gets punished
for reporting the truth
The Levada Centre, Russia's main independent pollster, has made the mistake of reporting that Vladimir Putin's United Russia party is down in the polls ahead of Lower House elections on September 18. Now it's been designated a 'foreign agent' and faces closure, like many other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the country. Under the dubious law passed by the Russian parliament in 2012, any NGO receiving funds from abroad is designated with the 'foreign agent' label to make it seem like a devious, subversive influence from beyond the Motherland, out to destroy all that is true and Russian.

"Although a new electoral commission head seen as more progressive was appointed in March," the Guardian noted yesterday, "opposition candidates have been marginalised in state-controlled media and even attacked at appearances this year. The elections have been moved from December to September, which is likely to promote low turnout and benefit United Russia."

The President deigned to mention his party's lower ratings in an interview with Bloomberg News,  saying that its numbers had "slightly fallen" (from 39% to 31%, according to Levada). The reason? "They [opposition politicians] all criticise the government," said Putin. "They don't offer solutions to make things better, though. Sometimes they simply say things that even laymen realize are hardly practicable or just unfeasible. However, they look good on screen, scolding and holding up to shame members of the ruling party. They don't say whether they are ready to take on responsibility for making unpopular, but in the long run necessary, decisions."

Unpopular, but necessary - another way of saying, we'll do what the fuck we want, and then claim that we're sacrificing ourselves and our souls by having to make hard decisions. Like Tony Blair claimed after the publication of the Chilcott Report on the disastrous, ill-conceived US-UK invasion of Iraq. "Look, I'm sorry I was wrong, but I had to make a jolly hard decision." But what was harder - invading Iraq or seeking a diplomatic solution? Or, in Putin's case, invading the eastern Ukraine to look like a strong man or seeking a diplomatic solution?

Note: Speaking of Strong Men, there was a delightful question from the Putin interview touching on a touchy subject. Bloomberg's journalist asked the leader about Donald Trump's "great sort of affection to you [sic], almost bordering on the homoerotic". Sadly, Putin does not confess that the attraction is mutual. Under Russia's homophobic legislation, this would have lead to his own arrest.

Friday, 2 September 2016

Kaepernick puts the right kind of politics into sport

Ask an American sports fan why the US national anthem is played before every single sporting event, and you will not receive a satisfactory answer. The truth is, no one knows. "That's just what we've always done" is about the best you can hope for. "Is it in case you forget which country you're living in?" I always ask. In case all those US flags that top so many buildings and that are displayed on so many suburban streets disappear overnight and you suddenly can't remember where you are? Nepal? El Salvador? England, for God's sake?

Heaven help you if you fail to join the overwhelming majority in standing up for it. I've tried, and have been - on the worst nights - cursed at and stared at with naked aggression. 
Daring not to stand for the SSB (note: this image
 on Facebook posted by a white US woman in Texas
 complaining the woman pictured had "zero respect"
 caused a furore on social media earlier this summer)

In the end, getting older, I capitulated and started to stand up with everyone else. Many US sports fans I know reluctantly do the same because it's just not worth the hassle. No one wants to spend a night at a sports event feeling like they're about to be confronted by a Bud-fuelled, raging redneck. It's not like there's going to be a debate. Ask an irrationally patriotic American why they play The Star-Spangled Banner and he or she will ask you back why you don't go and live in another country. That sophisticated discourse hasn't changed for decades.

The brave decision of San Francisco 49ers quarter-back Colin Kaepernick not to stand for this tedious ritual on political grounds is the best thing to happen in the National Football League since Ben Fountain's flag-challenging novel, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. That excellent work of fiction lays bare the empty ceremonies that NFL teams stage for marketing reasons to honour members of the armed forces. They are tokenistic, borderline insulting calls for fans to mindlessly cheer at fighter jet flyovers and reluctantly waving service members forced to smile politely when the kind of citizen who would vote for war but never venture close to a battle field blandly thanks them "for your service".

Kaepernick's absolutely reasonable justification is that he won't honour the anthem of a country which defies its own constitution by failing to treat black citizens as equals. You'd think that in a democracy, this statement from a high-profile athlete would be the starting point for a civil discussion of a pertinent truth. A section of the conservative white US citizenry is, however, still so threatened by the idea of equality, especially for those it's been oppressing for centuries, that the reaction is dominated by shrill accusations of treachery that barrel towards a single conclusion - patriotism is deaf and blind. It has to be, otherwise it can not bear the scrutiny of calm analysis that would expose it as a sham and a pernicious means of barking down dissent.

Novel approach to patriotism - Ben
 Fountain's brilliant novel.
What does this have to do with the 2018 and 2022 World Cups? Only that big-time, big-money sport wants politics to be a one-way street. It secures the advantages of political association when it's a simple matter of waving flags, playing anthems, and paying tributes to member of the armed forces - living, dead or just surviving. As at Rio 16, it will field a team of refugees as proof of its humanity, while ignoring the simultaneous state murder of poor people, including numerous children, in favelas just down the road. Because when a difficult political debate rears its head, sport stands back and claims to have no position, no authority, no interest. Sport and politics shouldn't mix, administrators and figure-heads explain with a straight face. Except that they do, every day, all the time. 

European qualifying games for Russia 2018 begin this weekend. Russian armed forces are currently amassing on the eastern Ukrainian border, threatening to invade. Russian armed forces are currently bombing Syrian civilians in a heinous alliance with the war criminal and dictator, President Bashar al-Assad. Maybe they'll be back in time for a flyover at the opening ceremony to showcase the power of the state. Fans can stand and applaud at their awesome might and noise. Why? That's just what we always do, just like we always stand for the anthem, and even sometimes sing along. Why, though? Why? 

When trying to answer that question we must spare some mighty applause for Colin Kaepernick, for his dignified protest while putting the right kind of politics into sport. And also ask: how will Fifa stage a global sporting event in a country which in 2018 may still be heavily involved in two wars, maybe more? And will fans and players remain politically, patriotically deaf and blind so that they can participate too? 

Thursday, 1 September 2016

The triumph of Olympic values in China and Brazil

The founder of the modern Olympics, Baron de Coubertin, believed that physical education was a key factor to moral education. The three pillars of Olympian idealism are said to be Excellence, Friendship and Respect. It was reassuring to read in the newspapers this morning how hosting recent Olympics has helped these values become entrenched in China (2008) and Brazil (2016) respectively.
All these values are now widely instilled in Brazil
and China thanks to hosting the Olympics

In Hong Kong, which reverted from British dependency to Chinese rule in 1997 (Margaret Thatcher's name is about as popular in HK as it is in northern England), there's a new push for independence among young people who are experiencing first hand the Chinese government's broken promise of 50 years of autonomy. In 1997, the Chinese pledged: "One country, two systems." It turns out that they lied.

Hong Kong's Chief Executive Leung Chung Ying, widely presumed to be a Communist Party stooge, has enriched himself on the territory's property market. The umbrella movement that demonstrated for free elections two years ago has been ignored. Peking is interfering in university appointments, and the independent anti-corruption commission. Critical journalists have been fired, independent newspapers bought up by Chinese concerns, and five Hong Kong publishers were kidnapped by Chinese security services, one of them on Hong Kong territory.

Excellence (in skulduggery). Friendship (be our friend or we'll shut you up). Respect (for totalitarian law, or we'll shut you down).

In Brazil, a parliamentary coup (61 votes out of 81 in the Senate) has confirmed the ouster of democratically elected President Dilma Rousseff (54 million votes in 2014). She has been usurped by the conservative right-winger Michel Temer (no votes in 2016) on the grounds that she allegedly fiddled with the figures to beautify the nation's budget deficit. Rousseff claims she was continuing a practice already put into place by her predecessors (Note: imagine how easy it would have been to cut $12 billion from the budget deficit by not staging the Olympics...)

The Rio correspondent of the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung describes the use of the statutes in the Brazilian constitution to justify Rousseff's removal as "highly controversial from a legal standpoint". 

Excellence (in flouting democracy). Friendship (with political rivals to overthrow a democratically elected leader in a dubious grab for power). Respect (for no one, least of all our own constitution). Olympic values triumph again!

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

No room for dissent, human rights in Chechnya

In less than two years Russia will host the 2018 Fifa World Cup. In less than a year it will host the 2017 Fifa Confederations Cup. In less than three weeks it will stage parliamentary and presidential elections in the Russian republic of Chechnya, the first time that its local gangster/governor Ramzan Kadyrov - appointed by the Kremlin in 2007 - will be subject to the democratic will of the people.

He's not got much to worry about, according to a 56-page report released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) yesterday. Even the mildest of criticism against Kadyrov by citizens or journalists has been met by severe repressive measures, including beatings and disappearances. The "battered" body of one critic who reportedly made a "flippant comment" about Kadyrov was found two weeks later 40 kilometres from the capital Grozny.
The committee for planning free and fair elections
in the Russian Republic of Chechnya

"The local authorities’ severe and sweeping crackdown seems designed to remind the Chechen public of Kadyrov’s total control and to contain the flow of any negative information from Chechnya that could undermine the Kremlin’s support for Kadyrov," HRW writes. "Even the mildest comments contradicting local policies or government ideas can trigger ruthless reprisals – whether expressed openly, in closed groups, on social media, or through off-hand comments to a journalist or in a public place."

One of the few institutions defending human rights in the region, the Joint Mobile Group of Human Rights Defenders in Chechnya (JMG), has been forced out of the region after security forces, or their "apparent proxies", burned or ransacked their offices three times in two and a half years. Activists have been physically attacked, and the group smeared by the government-controlled Chechen media. The JMG was, says HRW, "the only organization on the ground that provided legal assistance to victims of abuses by local law enforcement and security agencies. It had to withdraw its team from Chechnya in early 2016 for security reasons."

Who will be standing against Kadyrov? No one with a chance of winning. "There are no independent voices left within the Chechen republic, and those who tried to express their opinions… were severely punished," Yekaterina Sokirianskaya, head of the Russian office of the International Crisis Group, told The Moscow Times earlier this year.

Will there be World Cup football in Chechnya? There's a new stadium, but it's probably not big enough to qualify for Fifa White Elephant status. The 30,000-capacity Akhmat-Arena in Grozny was named after Kadyrov's assassinated father and former head of state Akhmat. It was inaugurated in 2011 with the help of Diego Maradona and Luis Figo playing in a match that featured Kadyrov the younger turning out for a "Team Caucasas". Sadly for Kamyrov and his henchmen, it's not been named as one of the venues for Russia 2018.

Former Dutch captain Ruud Gullit coached Terek Grozny in 2011, shrugging off concerns about the human rights situation there by declaring, "I don't want to be involved in politics, I want to concentrate on the sport and give the people there a little pleasure in their lives again." That doubtless immense pleasure included just three wins in six months before Gullit was fired.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Polish tourist arrested in Qatar for 'being gay'

Remember when banned ex-Fifa President Sepp Blatter was first asked about Qatar's ban on homosexuality, and how that would affect gay visitors to the 2022 World Cup? The feeble-minded bureaucrat speculated that it would surely be fine, just so long as gay people didn't have gay sex while they were in gay-hating Qatar.
Qatari police - tools at the ready
to stop the big gay threat in 2022

Even supposing that this would have been enough to reassure a single gay fan that Qatar will be the place to take a fun football holiday in six years time, it seems that it's not just practicing homosexuality that will be viewed by the Qataris as a crime. An 18-year-old Polish 'social media star' named Luxy claims that he was arrested in Qatar at Doha Airport in June on suspicion of being gay. He was imprisoned for two months before a judge - after lobbying from the Polish Embassy - granted his release, fining him €3,700 (it's not clear for what, exactly).

According to a report in the San Francisco Daily News, Luxy (his social media name) was visiting Qatar for the second time when airport security detained him on the grounds that there were problems with his visa from a previous visit. They confiscated his phone, scrolled through his pictures, then arrested him an hour later. They asked him if he was a man or a woman.

"They kept telling me I am a prostitute," Luxy is quoted as saying in the report. "I am from a bad family and they laughed at my Instagram photos. They told me some Qatari guy made the request to arrest me because I put his naked photo on Instagram." They reportedly gave him the chance to 'co-operate' by luring and meeting other gay men so that they could be arrested. Luxy declined this delightful offer.

Released from Doha Jail after 63 days, Luxy was re-arrested at his hotel two days later "for wearing makeup on Snapchat and Instagram". He was given the option to be deported. Unsurprisingly, he felt that he'd outstayed his welcome with the future World Cup hosts. His case is not yet closed, and he is banned from entering any Gulf Cooperation Council member states.

Why are so many nations obsessed with the apparent threat from homosexuality? How many instances in history have there been where sexual behaviour of any kind threatened the power of the state? Why would any state want to waste resources mixing itself up with the sexual lives of consenting adults? 

It brings to mind homophobes who repeatedly bring up the topic of how much they hate gays. Hey, why do you keep mentioning that? Can it be that the entire Qatari government and security sub-structure is secretly gay? Oh boys, put down those big hard truncheons, come in from the desert and let yourselves go - I can already picture Luxy as your guest MC at Qatar 22's Big Rainbow Fan Mile.

Update, September 1. Here is a statement from the Polish Embassy in Qatar that contrasts in some details with the detainee's story:

"A Polish national nicknamed Luxy, aged 18, was detained at Hamad International Airport in Doha on 06 July 2016 on a charge of money extortion, blackmail and assault on a Qatari national’s privacy on line (cyber-related offense) – not of being homosexual or due to a minor visa irregularities. His arrest has not been reported to the Polish consular services by the Qatari Police (which is by and large a standard practice in Qatar), until the detainee’s family information received a week after the actual detention. Polish consular service has never reported Mr Luxy missing. I visited the detainee in jail (remand over Criminal Investigation Department, not a prison) several times and found the arrest conditions decent and correct, what was also the opinion of the detainee. No irregular behaviour of any Police officer was reported to me by the detainee. Eventually 'Luxy' was released in mid-August on bail and allowed to leave Qatar national territory although, to my knowledge, the investigation is still underway."

Friday, 19 August 2016

Book Review: The Race Against the Stasi by Herbie Sykes

The Race Against the Stasi: The Incredible Story of Dieter Wiedemann, the Iron Curtain and the Greatest Cycling Race on Earth by Herbie Sykes (Aurum Press, 2016)

This is a compelling book even if read alone for the story of Dieter Wiedemann. The apolitical East German cyclist fell in love with a girl from the west and, frustrated by the political decisions that were hampering his career, decided to defect while attending an Olympic trial in West Germany. The book, however, comes into its own as a textbook case of all that will go wrong when government uses sport to relentlessly promote its own ideology while depicting its declared enemies as the Evil Other.

The German Democratic Republic realised early on that it could counter its outcast international status as both a communist and a post-Nazi state by using sport to showcase a more positive image of the putative workers’ paradise. It focused on football, athletics and cycling. In the book’s early chapters, Sykes and his sources tell the fascinating story of the Peace Race, the eastern Bloc version of the Tour de France that covered Poland, Czechoslovakia and the GDR over two weeks, and which included teams not just from the socialist states, but politically sympathetic riders from countries like the UK and the Nordic nations.

The Peace Race was massively popular as both a sporting and a social event, while being touted by the Iron Curtain countries as a way to build brotherhood across nations on the road to socialist perfection. Take away the socialist part, and it’s the same sentimentalist tosh that Fifa and the IOC parp out as a matter of course to put an altruistic gloss on their criminal activities. For young sportsmen like Wiedemann, being selected for their country’s team in the Peace Race was one of the highest goals they could aim for.

Professionals in all but name, GDR cyclists trained all day and were well-paid compared with other workers. They were celebrated in their communities, were rewarded with gifts like fridges and TVs if they did well, and were able to travel abroad to compete. They were encouraged to join the Communist Party, but if you kept a low profile and trained hard, like Wiedemann, they could generally stay out of politics. At the same time, they were constantly cited by the unreadable GDR propaganda organ Neues Deutschland to highlight the fraternal brilliance, solidarity and invincibility of the state’s riders.

Wiedemann’s problems started after the Berlin Wall was built in 1961 and the GDR was initially barred from international competition in the west. This narrowed the number of events he could take part in, and he found himself excluded from teams when passed over for riders in more politically favoured institutions, like the Stasi-backed Dynamo club, or the elite, Leipzig-based Deutsche Hochschule für Körperkultur. He was also marginalised because he didn’t go out of his way to promote the Party or talk to journalists. Driven too by his innocent young love for a western girl he’d met and had corresponded with for three years, Wiedemann decided that he’d had enough.

“So I’d missed out on both the [1963] Peace Race and the Tour of the GDR,” Wiedemann tells Sykes. “I was like a tree that can’t bear fruit, and the only things growing were anger and resentment. I’d started to hate all the hypocrisy of GDR cycling, and to resent the fact that my career was being hijacked by politicians.”

Although the Stasi had Wiedemann in its sights, like it did for any athlete who travelled to the west, it seemed as surprised as anyone when the apparently compliant Sportfreund defected during the Olympic trials that were held jointly with West Germany for an all-German team, ahead of the 1964 Olympics. The ubiquitous security service then put immense pressure on his family, in order to punish him indirectly for his ‘treason’. Wiedemann’s younger brother’s own cycling career was effectively over, his dad lost his well-paid job as a cycling mechanic, and they were granted no visas to visit Dieter in the west. The gifts had to be returned. Worst of all, Wiedemann’s mother ended up primarily blaming her son for his defection, above the manipulative state doctrines that had put the brakes on his promising career.

This book is an absorbing history of sport, political meddling and state oppression in the GDR. I did find myself speed-reading some of the Stasi reports and the extracts from Neues Deutschland. Important as they are, they don’t make for good literature and could perhaps have been cut or occasionally summarised. However, as an impeccably researched work reflecting the perils of ideological interference in citizens’ lives in order to shore up the total power of a paranoid, authoritarian elite, The Race Against the Stasi merits a prominent place in sporting literature’s leading pack. Thoroughly recommended.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Quote of the day: Mutko is a happy man

"This was a very important day for us. I would like to congratulate all the athletes and sports fans."

The joys of sport in a time of war
Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko was content on Monday with the latest haul of Russian medals at the Rio Olympics, despite it being "a pity that we will have no track and field athletes" (though he doesn't mention why). In the meantime, the political exploitation of every triumph in windsurfing, gymnastics and Greco-Roma wrestling will have to do. It's enough to distract you from the latest Human Rights Watch report on the Russian use of internationally outlawed incendiary weapons against the civilian population of Syria. 

“The Syrian government and Russia should immediately stop attacking civilian areas with incendiary weapons,” said Steve Goosearms director at Human Rights Watch. “These weapons inflict horrible injuries and excruciating pain, so all countries should condemn their use in civilian areas.”

European qualifying games for the 2018 World Cup in Russia start next month. Please do not indirectly endorse the Russian government by watching any of the coming matches.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

"I have been so fearful in writing this, but I have had enough"

A future multi-coloured Qatar
A tiny drop of coloured paint on the black wall of Qatar's draconian attitude towards homosexuality. Doha News last week printed a column on "What it's like to be gay and Qatari." It was prompted by one man's horror at the virulent Qatari reaction to the June mass murder of 49 people at the Pulse night club in Orlando, Florida. 

"People were saying they all deserved to die," wrote the young man under the pseudonym Majid. "They should have died and done humanity a favor. They called them 'God’s cursed people'." He said that although he had of course always been aware of the official Qatari attitude towards gay people, this was the first time he felt frightened that his compatriots would, if they knew about his sexual orientation, want to kill him.

"I have been so fearful in writing this, but I have had enough," Majid continued. "I have had this extreme sense of hopelessness – how do I forge a path to keep going in my life? What life is here for me? What is life for any of us here, who don’t want to live in deception by getting married? I want people to accept us. Live and let live – you don’t have to like me but you don’t have to persecute me. Thoughts?"

In the newspaper's comments section, many Qataris did indeed share their thoughts, and they weren't all full of love and tolerance. Doha News felt obliged to post a 'rebuttal' piece a few days later under the kind of headline that makes it fairly pointless reading the words underneath: We do not tolerate homosexuality in Qatar. Like nobody knew.

Still, it's worth reading as a text-book explanation of irony: "Discussing this topic in public introduces a gray area on the matter that essentially does not exist," writes Jassim al-Maadaadi. "There is no gray area in Qatar’s view on homosexuality. So why am I writing this?

"Well, since it has been brought up, there is a moral obligation for me as a Muslim – and as a member of a society who is against homosexuality – to oppose this article and this idea. You have already opened this can of worms, and I’m here to try to close it."

Poor Jassid - what's he so afraid of? You can picture him not just forcing the lid back down on a can of slippery, writhing worms, but desperately trying to push shut the bulging closet door of his own sexuality. It's too late, mate. It's out in the open. You've been caught discussing Qatari gay politics in public. 

It's not exactly a rainbow parade through downtown Doha, but a discussion is at least a starting point. Credit to Doha News for its tentative daub with a colour-tipped paint brush.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Is it time to abolish the Olympics and the World Cup?

Flags and borders - what are they good for?
"Nation states are the result of wars, intrigues, marriage, propaganda, blackmail, lies and deception," writes former German cabinet minister Norbert Blum in the Süddeutsche Zeitung today in a column headed Nationalism Equals Idiocy.

Blum points out that during the 74 years of the German Empire (1871-1945), "Germany went to war with France three times. Generations broke their skulls shedding blood because of national borders. The issues could be as banal as the exact entrenchment point of the border stone between France and Germany." He decries the insular, backward-looking neo-nationalism of states like Poland and Hungary who've forgotten that they struggled for their own freedom to cross borders as recently as 1989.

Which raises the question - why do we even still have international sports tournaments? Man-created national borders are, as Blum notes, the historical result of scurrilous manoeuvring and violence, and should play little or no role in a modern, united Europe. So what is the sense in creating spurious rivalries that inflame resentments and attempt to inspire pride in something as superficial as a coloured flag?

Last night's main headline on The Guardian's web site was that two British competitors had won the bronze medal in the 10m synchronised diving event. That was the biggest story in the world at that moment in time, apparently. This morning on the German radio news we heard repeatedly the dolorous words of a table tennis player unexpectedly eliminated at the final-16 stage by an opponent ranked 40th. in the world. Again and again, the media cajole us into investing our hopes for joy and a sense of fulfilment in the skills of athletes with whom we just happen to share a common passport.

The opponent, you see, has a different country name in his or her passport. For that reason alone we wish them disappointment and defeat. With some justification, you could maintain that it's better than shooting or bombing them for the same reason, but that's just arguing in negatives. It doesn't help us to understand our supposed affiliation with random sportsmen and -women who were born or integrated into the same geographical space that we, too, coincidentally inhabit.

Does it then make any more sense for teams from individual towns, cities, suburbs and villages to compete against each other? I would argue that it does, because most of these clubs are rooted in the social and cultural history of their communities. An individual's identification with a club generally springs from a more concrete personal experience or contact. While a regional rivalry may suffer from multiple unpleasant facets - see, for example, the frequently poisonous and pointless exchanges between Manchester United and Liverpool fans - it's not likely that the two cities will go to war. And at least there's no Fifa-sourced pretence that sport serves as a healing, unifying force for good.

Given that the Olympics and the World Cup have become economically crippling, corruption-riddled, doping-debased mega-events exploited by individual governments around the world to glorify themselves, it would make more sense at this point in history just to abolish them. Few countries can afford to stage them or sustain the facilities that Fifa and the IOC demand. The tournaments' main results are jingoism, chronic debts, and the enrichment of sponsors, participants and functionaries, while the human rights of those who build the infrastructure, or who are displaced by it, are trampled upon with impunity.

One nationality - humankind.
In football, the movement of players between countries and nationalities has now become so fluid that the concept of a national team has lost much of its meaning. Thanks to the power of modern communications, there are no particular styles of play attributed to individual countries any more. There are no tactical secrets - everyone's reading from the same play-book, which may fluctuate between three, four or five men at the back without raising much excitement either way. Brazil and Cameroon have long been just as results-oriented as Denmark and the USA.

The more problematic and bloated that the politically charged World Cup becomes, the more that the world's most powerful clubs regard it as a superfluous burden on their major investments - their players. The increasing clout of the wealthiest clubs over national associations has long been seen as an evil by progressive football fans, and rightly so. But the national associations, and by proxy Fifa, Uefa and the other continental bodies, have been setting their own self-serving houses ablaze for decades.

For the betterment of humanity, if not necessarily for the good of the game, it might be time to concede that, for the medium term at least, the clubs have earned the right to have a far greater say in football's structure. We might not at all like what they suggest - an international super-league, say - but in the coming years that ought to represent a truer reflection of a hopefully more progressive world.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Infantino verdict: image more important than change at Fifa

Infantino in Russia: "Everything's
great!" Picture:
News reports that Fifa President Gianni Infantino has been cleared of ethical breaches by the Fifa Ethics Committee have focused on the happy verdict, but not the still very questionable content. Fifa's PR machine will be delighted. After all, football's governing body has always stated that its priority is to clean up its image, which is obviously way more important than changing its internal culture.

The Ethics Committee passed the buck. Infantino was not guilty of ethical breaches, it said, because it turned out that the president's conduct only involved "internal compliance issues". Specifically, Infantino took private jets in April to visit Russia and Qatar to inspect their progress ahead of the next two World Cups. The flights were reportedly worth up to $150,000, and were paid for by... the Russian and Qatari governments, including support from Russian energy concern Gazprom, a Uefa and Fifa sponsor.

No ethical conflict of interest there? None at all? No, it was an "internal compliance issue". Language is a wonderful thing. It enables the Fifa Ethics Committee to absolve itself from an ethical quandary by re-labelling unethical conduct as a compliance issue instead. It's like when the police turn up at the site of a domestic violence incident and then leave straightaway by declaring it "an internal family matter".

So we can conclude that Infantino's thumbs-up gestures in Russia, where he smiled and shook hands with President Vladimir Putin, were not in way influenced by the luxury and service he'd enjoyed on the way there. Still, we'd like to ask, why on earth could he not have taken a scheduled flight from Moscow to Zürich? And a scheduled flight from Moscow to Qatar? Although, to his credit, in Qatar he did mention human rights and the Amnesty International report on workers' conditions.

It's hard to escape the impression, however, that nothing has changed at Fifa bar its highest bosses. Its Ethics Committee is now supposed to be wholly independent, but after this affair is already looking toothless and prone to prevarication. For the next six years, football's governing body is going to be muddying through the slough of its two corruption-induced massive mistakes - the awarding of World Cup hosting rights to countries whose daily governance contradicts everything in Fifa's idealistic statutes. The only grim pleasure to take from all this will be watching the rictus smiles on the pallid faces of its Public Relations personnel.

Friday, 5 August 2016

Book Review: Brazil's Dance With the Devil by Dave Zirin

Essential reading matter
 for the next fortnight.
Brazil's Dance With the Devil - updated Olympic edition, by Dave Zirin (Haymarket Books, 2016)

I always prepare for a major international sporting event with some appropriately cheery reading matter. Dave Zirin's examination of Brazil's back-to-back hosting of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics have helped me reach the perfect conclusion - that we should all spend the next two weeks doing something better with our time than watching the drug-fixed, pseudo-harmonious sham that the quadrennial sporting fest has been ever since the 1936 Games were staged in Berlin.

Zirin precedes his book with a quote from the Brazilian footballer Socrates: "Victory is secondary. What matters is joy." Socrates was a free-spirited democratic socialist, and unfortunately these are few and far between in either sport or politics. The author also quotes George Orwell's famous essay 'The Sporting Spirit', in which Orwell professes his amazement that some people believe that "sport creates goodwill between the nations". He adds that "as soon as the question of prestige arises, as soon as you feel that you and some larger unit will be disgraced if you lose, the most savage instincts are aroused."

That depends to some extent on how much a government is invested in the success of its athletes for propaganda purposes. In the case of Russia, looking ahead to an embarrassingly low medals haul at the 2014 Winter Olympics, it decided instead to cheat, on a breathtakingly mass scale. It left the "savage instincts" until five days after that lamentable, egregiously expensive tournament was safely over, demonstrating its spirit of international unity and goodwill by annexing the Crimea region of Ukraine.

Brazil, as Zirin demonstrates, is a quite different case. It's less focused on flag-waving and medals and more on presenting a positive image of itself to the outside world. That means playing up the joy cited by Socrates, a virtue traditionally associated with Carnival, a particularly crowd-pleasing style of soccer, and the kind of jubilant public scenes that some years back greeted the awarding of the 2016 games to Rio de Janeiro.

Zirin travels to Brazil and talks to the people affected about what this really meant once the initial excitement gave way to hard sums, and the realisation that the physical presence of the city's favelas were an obstacle to the official concept of how the government wanted Rio 2016 to look. The author does a good job of tracing the history of the favelas and how they came to be in the first place - the county's land-hogging oligarchs made no provision to house the mainly illiterate labourers that flocked to the cities after the abolition of slavery towards the end of the nineteenth century. So the workers built their own houses wherever they could.

"The favelas are perhaps best known, and most notoriously, for their history of poverty and violence," writes Zirin, "mostly in the minds of those who have never set foot inside these communities." As he discovers, the favelas are much more community than slum, and though he stresses that the poverty and drug violence are very real problems, the sense of co-operation, openness and a collective civic society are much more prevalent than in the middle class housing units of either Brazil or, say, the US.

Favelas, though, don't look good to tourists, and so the city of Rio and the Brazilian government have been bulldozing those within plain sight, displacing residents who have lived there for decades, and opening the way for property interests. "The real-estate and construction magnates' dream of totally removing the favelas from Rio cannot be disconnected from the goals of hosting the Olympics and the World Cup," Zirin notes. "A full scale effort by the city to rebrand itself as a global city."

So Fifa and the IOC come to town, and the poor get shafted in every way - the money that might have been spent educating them, treating them, or re-housing them close to the communities where they have always lived is instead spent on stadiums and facilities that will, in many cases, be used for less than a month, or under-used and costly to maintain for several years to come. Sure, there's new infrastructure (like a cable car through Providencia favela that will mainly be used by tourists, or an improved access road to the airport), but isn't that the government's job anyway?

Meanwhile, in the name of 'security', the police and military are then bolstered to monitor those with the temerity to protest, and to tear-gas them or shoot them with rubber bullets if things seem to be getting out of hand. The security excuse can also be used to indiscriminately shoot dead hundreds of chiefly young black men in the favelas on the grounds of controlling the drug trade.

If Socrates had lived to see the current anger of the urban working class at the waste of $12 billion for Rio 2016, he might have said, "Victory is secondary. What matters is housing, health and education. Then we can have joy." Still, enjoy the Olympics. Alternatively, read this timely and necessary book.