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When politics and sport mix, sportspeople need to better fight their corner . . .

When the invitation came in the other week to participate in a debate at St Andrews University, my first reaction was to suspect it was some sort of geek backlash.

A Russian security forces K9 officer patrols with his dog near the finish area of the Alpine ski course ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia. Picture: Gero Breloer/AP

It had, after all, been just a few weeks earlier that I had pointed out in this space that one of the problems facing sport is that it has little support in the corridors of power because career politicians tend to come from among those who used to "forget" their PE kit.

And since these ki ds win little victories in the game of life by getting to where they can dictate priorities for the rest of us, it stands to reason they might empathise with those who do not want to be embarrassed in physical pursuits.

How else to explain this society that permits ruthless competition in all aspects of education, with prospects so dependent on exam results, except for in sport which has been dumbed down in our state schools to a near meaningless level?

It follows, then, that there could be no better arena in which to expose the communicative deficiencies of a sports jock than the history-laden Lower Parliament in the Auld Grey Toon. Hence my suspicion regarding the motives behind that invitation to speak on the proposition to boycott the Sochi Winter Olympics.

As it turned out, the welcome could not have been warmer or more generous. It became obvious there was not the slightest possibility that most of those in the room would be likely to read the sports pages of even this august publication, while those who do would be unlikely to be offended by my observations and, indeed, would probably even agree.

As for the debate itself, it proved a reasonably straightforward business to persuade these bright young things that the type of boycott they are proposing does little good regardless of how just the cause.

Even before discovering that the lad responding to me was from Texas and had been planning to champion the need for some sort of sliding scale of standards that "we" should apply before countries be allowed to stage Olympics, the main thrust of my argument had been to ask just who has the right to police this.

My prime example, was that civilised people all over the world find capital punishment barbaric yet the country that lags two places behind North Korea in Amnesty International's capital punishment league table has staged Olympics at Lake Placid, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Salt Lake City since people were calling for a boycott of the last Russia-based Olympics.

It is, too, reasonable to wonder whether we might all be living safer in the 21st century had the world followed the lead of that year's British Olympians and ignored Margaret Thatcher who was championing that 1980 boycott.

She might have even been better to shoulder arms with the Soviets against the Taliban, since the American boycott she supported was like escalating a feud with the neighbours by telling your kids they cannot go out and play with theirs, moving it on to the next generation.

All of which is very different from the sustained sporting boycott of South Africa, accompanied by all sorts of other political and economic sanctions, which made such a difference to that part of the world.

Just as it is ludicrous when, for reasons of convenience, people from both sectors claim that sport and politics should never mix, so it is completely unreasonable for politicians to use sportspeople as pawns when they are not properly prepared to challenge regimes they find unsavoury in other ways.

To that end sportspeople must, in turn, become much more aware of the need to fight their corner, so it was encouraging that, after I made recent reference about their need to do so, one of the country's most influential rugby players texted me to say it was "a point that needs to be made time and time again".

We have spoken since and I hope he stays as determined as he seemed to be to help make the case for competitive sport in our state schools. He should not find it too difficult to get his point across, if my visit to St Andrews is anything to go by. Both during the debate and in the pub afterwards it struck me that the self-esteem of these youngsters - most of them admitted to little interest in sport but many had attended private schools so had been forced to take part in it - would never have been threatened by failure on the sports field.

They seemed to grasp fully the point that it is a nonsense to let them be seen to excel academically while denying those whose strengths lie in other areas to be allowed to develop their confidence in school, which is the crucial environment rather than misplaced reliance on sports clubs.

Since most of the St Andrews debaters will be going on to far bigger things than Holyrood or Westminster, we can but hope that our current politicians are intellectually up to understanding the importance of this subject.

However, the sports community also has a responsibility to make their political case more effectively by getting properly involved in the discussion rather than simply begging for handouts.

Contextual targeting label: 
Sport

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