Campaigns to boycott major international sporting events have a very mixed record. Most athletes see themselves as the first victims during such occurrences, as their opportunity for reward suffers. Certainly athletes were the big losers during the high profile back-to-back boycotts of the 1980 Moscow Games (in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan) by the US and 50 other countries and of the 1984 Los Angeles Games by the USSR and 13 of its allies.
Yet it is exactly this combination of high visibility and low costs in terms of material interests that makes sporting boycotts so attractive. Isolating apartheid South Africa from major events such as the World Cups of cricket (1975–1992) and rugby (1987 to the famous 1995 event, hosted by a newly democratic South Africa at which Nelson Mandela famously wore the Springbok jersey) gained massive attention and did not rely on either complicated sanctions measures or buy-in from consumers/importers in other areas.
If athletes have been almost unanimous in their opposition to boycotts, human rights activists have been much more mixed in their reactions. Many of the best-known dissidents in the Soviet Union, notably Andrei Sakharov, did support the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. But in other cases, human rights activists have used the hosting of major international sporting events as a catalyst for change, the classic case being South Korea prior to the 1988 Olympics. Although the bid for the games was organized by an authoritarian regime, the hosting function is credited with precipitating democratic transition (a positive shift that overwhelmed the impact of a boycott of the games by North Korea).
This set of intense debates have been rekindled in the context of whether or not the Euro 2012 football championship should be utilized to ramp up the pressure on Ukraine over its treatment of the imprisoned opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko. In some ways, the controversy has followed the familiar script. Athletes came out in opposition, most notably German captain Philipp Lahm who joined manager Joachim Loew in arguing that a boycott of the European championship was "clearly not sensible" although they acknowledged that the political situation in Ukraine was of concern.
State officials in individual countries and the EU have followed a more ambiguous script — what can be termed a boycott ‘light’ bandwagon. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is reported to be campaigning for a boycott of the European Football Championship in Ukraine. However, should Kiev does not release Tymoshenko, the boycott is set to come not in the form of cancellation of participation of the German or other national teams but rather through the curtailment of appearances by European leaders at the matches. Moreover, the European Commission declared that all 27 EU commissioners would refrain from traveling to the matches in Ukraine if Tymoshenko remains in custody.
This approach sends a message of disapproval without any real risks, outside of a backlash by supporters of President Viktor Yanukovych. No pressure is being made on teams or their supporters to go to Ukraine to play or watch Euro 2012 matches. Moreover, Ukraine is co-hosting the championship (which starts June 8) with Poland so even the activation of a boycott light is only partial in nature.
Notwithstanding these limitations, however, isolation on highly visible events such as Euro 2012 sends a signal to governments — and people — that has a normative sting. In an era where holding a major sporting event has become the most visible sign of global status — as demonstrated in various Olympics and FIFA world cups — a boycott by leaders and other officials hits hard at the core of the legitimacy of the state. Instead of a triumph on July 1, when Ukraine hosts the final of the Euro 2012, with a special presidential ‘lodge’ prepared for high ranking visitors, major absences will speak volumes.
The big question that remains, as in other cases where sporting events become highly politicized, is what consequences there will be in the bigger picture. Will a regime such as Yanukovych’s — embarrassed by Euro 2012 (and with a record of vindictiveness, not only witnessed by the seven year sentence meted out to Tymoshenko for “abuse of office” but the jailing of five other former ministers) — simply turn even more fully inward with an explicit disengagement from the EU.
Or, following models from Korea 1988, will Euro 2012 be an event that helps act as a catalyst for a reawakening of a democratic culture? What is illuminating here is that the opposition in Ukraine has not pushed beyond what the EU has been willing to do in terms of a boycott on Euro 2012: going along with the script that the football championship should go ahead but that political contacts should be avoided.
In either scenario the only certainty is that the worlds of sports and global governance will continue to be inextricably if not awkwardly entangled in specific and often unanticipated situations.