Europe uses international sports as a platform to lecture "certain" countries about human rights. They're not fooling anyone.
It's that time of year again, everyone! Time to frolic in the sun, throw another shrimp on the barbie, and watch European leaders get their knickers in a knot over international championships in sports no one ordinarily pays much attention to. Come on, people. Don't front. You do not watch water polo.
The European Games got off to an impressive start on June 12, with an understated yet stunning Opening Ceremony, which included a performance by Lady Gaga. Of course, the vast majority of the stalwart leaders of the European Union missed out on the festivities. Although this event is called the “European Games”, most of the EU leaders, in the grand tradition of slacktivists everywhere, have boycotted the games in Baku, Azerbaijan. The only EU leaders who were actually present to support their athletes were Boyko Borisov, prime minister of Bulgaria, and Victor Ponta, prime minister of Romania, whose attendance caused an uproar at home. Other leaders present were Alexander Lukashenko, president of Belarus; Turkey's Recep Erdogan; and Russia's VVP.
Human Rights Watch has published a litany of abuses the Azerbaijani government is supposedly guilty of, including “numerous steps to limit independent media. All foreign radio stations, including BBC and the Voice of America, have been banned from FM frequencies since 2009.” Yes, one of the bonuses of not having a “free press” is that you can tell dishonest propaganda peddlers that you don't want them in your country. So, in that vein, Azerbaijan has banned the Guardian from reporting on the Baku games.
Naturally, the Guardian is brimming with righteous indignation, and perhaps they have a point that a free press includes a deceitful tabloid press. Patrick Hickey, president of the European Olympic Committee, released the shocking statement that it is not up to him to tell a sovereign nation what to do. So he can't get the Guardian a press pass to Baku, either. The nerve. I am sure Azerbaijan has its own fair share of human rights abuses. Who knows. Maybe their cops shoot unarmed black kids.
To be fair, I'll admit that the Guardian has every right to publish its gossip column. And Azerbaijan has every right to tell them they aren't wanted there. The Western press called for a boycott of the 2012 Euro football championships in Ukraine over the imprisonment of poor little Yulia Tymoshenko. Only two short years later, Ukraine's democratically elected president found himself fleeing for his life. Perhaps Azerbaijan has decided to block Western news sources because they are wise to the fact that regime change is the new black and they are listening to the Cassandra that was the Maidan.
It's true that most people and leaders don't pay much attention to games that aren't quadrennials. However, world and regional championships in various disciplines occur every year, and every nation with qualifying athletes is eligible to host. Azerbaijan hosted the World Rhythmic Gymnastics championships in 2005 and is set to host again in 2019. Baku also played host to the World Amateur Boxing Championships in 2011. Russia has hosted several regional and world championships and continues to host competitions, despite the disgraceful hissy fit the Western press threw during Sochi, and the current efforts to strip Russia of its World Cup. The Russian president's attendance at this event has not gone unrewarded – Russia currently sits at the top of the medals count.
It is hypocrisy to send the message to countries that their athletes are welcome to compete in international games, but only certain countries are allowed the privilege of hosting. It is a disservice to the sacrifice and dedication of athletes everywhere for their leaders to politicize something to which they have dedicated their entire lives. These athletes compete and train every day of every year. Staying away from the games makes the point that these events are only visible to their leaders when they have an opportunity to make a political point. Is it really human rights EU leaders are concerned about? Or could it possibly be that SOCAR, Azerbaijan's state-run oil company, is ready to totally lift sanctions on Iran?
Lady Gaga performed John Lennon's Imagine at the opening ceremony last Friday evening. I wonder if anyone in Brussels was listening.
Lisa Marie White is a regular contributor to Russia Insider. She spends an inordinate amount of time watching synchronized swimming. Give her a shout on Twitter: @lisa_white
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