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The absentees are the real losers when sporting boycotts kick in

Among the great sporting memories of my teens is the sight of Steve Ovett racing away from Sebastian Coe to claim the 800 metres title at the Moscow Olympics in 1980.

spiked: the American boycott of the Moscow Olympics was soon forgotten amid the drama of Steve Ovett's 800 metres victory over Sebastian Coe and Allan Wells' 100 metres gold.Picture: Getty
spiked: the American boycott of the Moscow Olympics was soon forgotten amid the drama of Steve Ovett's 800 metres victory over Sebastian Coe and Allan Wells' 100 metres gold.Picture: Getty

Four years later Daley Thompson, also a gold medal winner in Moscow, seemed close to super-human when he successfully defended his decathlon title in Los Angeles. Even before it emerged that Thompson's mum was born in my home city of Dundee and Ovett subsequently moved to Scotland those were favourite moments from athletics' greatest era.

Does anyone care that America and Russia took it in turns to boycott the Games being staged by the other in those years? I have never been naive enough to believe sport and politics cannot be mixed but I had actually forgotten all about the boycotts until they were referred to recently amid the calls for another at the forthcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi.

The sacrifice of the Americans and Russians in question was utterly meaningless compared with the impact made by 200 metres gold and silver medallists Tommie Smith and John Carlos with their "Black Power" salute in 1968 and the heroic support they received from Australian Peter Norman, the bronze medallist in that race. That statement could only have been made by winning, which was only possible thanks to their taking part.

By contrast, the only people who suffered from the grandstanding of 1980 - and lest we forget Margaret Thatcher wanted to deny Ovett, Thompson and others, including Coe and our own Allan Wells, their moments - and 1984 are the American and Russian sportsmen and women who were in their prime at the time.

Moving on to rugby, I remember South African rugby supporters in the early 90s unfurling banners in grounds around the world bearing messages to the effect that no-one could truly call themselves world champions until they had beaten the Springboks.Yet there is no asterisk alongside the listing of New Zealand as the inaugural champions or Australia's 1991 winners suggesting their achievement is in any way devalued. The South Africans were banned from international competition at the time and their players were the losers, not those who took part and especially not those who collected winners' medals.

Later in that same decade I witnessed at first hand what I still regard as one of the greatest days in rugby history, the 1999 Heineken Cup final. I have attended many Heineken Cup finals, witnessing some spectacular and thrilling rugby and some grand razzmatazz, but none come close to having been as important as the day the tournament truly came of age. Once again there was a political element at play, the match taking place within months of the signing of The Good Friday Agreement, signalling a way forward for the Emerald Isle.

When Ulster made their surprise run to the final, the choice of venue, in the European Rugby Cup (ERC) organisers' base city of Dublin, could have been seen as having the potential to cause problems. However, the men from ERC judged the mood perfectly and one of the greatest examples of sport's capacity to be a force for good ensued.

Previously, the idea of thousands of people covered in Red Hand emblems on hats, scarves, jackets, badges and foam hands marching through the capital of the Irish Republic would have been close to unimaginable. As I walked the mile or so from the city centre to Lansdowne Road surrounded by them, however, the overwhelming feeling was one of reciprocal goodwill as they conducted themselves impeccably and locals made clear their support for the Irish representatives in the final.

The English clubs had chosen not to take part in the Heineken Cup that season. They seem committed to doing so again next term, and despite some seven years having elapsed since one of their clubs won the tournament, it looks unlikely that another group of players will suffer the disappointments of those at Bath 15 years ago when they were denied the chance to defend their title.

It is worth considering just how much damage that did to the Bath club. Before that decision they were arguably the most powerful force in the European game. Have they won anything meaningful since? If English clubs do go ahead with their attempt to bully their way to control of the sport through this latest boycott - which is what it is all about whatever their apologists may claim - the only people missing out through non-involvement in rugby union's best annual competition will be their players.

They will not get the chance to enjoy the success felt by the Ulster players, who became the undisputed champions of Europe when Simon Mason and David Humphreys kicked them to victory over Colomiers.

In its way it felt like part of a healing process so, forget the politics, this was a magical sporting occasion, just like the 1980 Olympic 800 metre final and the Rugby World Cup finals of 1987 and 1991.

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