There seems to be a growing movement among European politicians to use the upcoming Euro cup -- co-hosted by Ukraine and Poland -- as an opportunity to take a stand on human rights conditions in Ukraine, particularly the imprisonment of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is now on a hunger strike and reportedly in poor health.
EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Redding and EU commission President Jose Manuel Barroso both say they will boycott the event. Czech President Vaclav Klaus and German President Joachim Gauck have already canceled participation in summit planned in Ukraine for next week because of Tymoshenko's treatment. Chancellor Angela Merkel says she will not attend Euro 2012 unless Tymoshenko's conditions improve. The Dutch parliament has passed a resolution saying that no one representing the government should attend.
So far there's no talk of teams or players boycotting the games, though Bayern Munich president and German soccer icon Uli Hoeness did say that he "would have respect for every player who publicly took a stand on this issue."
In an interview with Der Spiegel, Ukrainian boxer and pro-democracy activist Vitali Klitschko said he did not support a boycott, but asked players to be aware of the conditions in Ukraine:
I am against the politicization of sports. But athletes also need to be clear about what is happening in a country in which they are competing. Think about the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. At the time, regime opponents were tortured and killed by the military junta, in some instances in the very stadiums where the World Cup matches were later played. Berti Vogts, the captain of the German national team at the time, said only that he hadn't seen a single political prisoner and that Argentina was a country where order was maintained.
Klitschko said he hoped the tournament would be "an excellent opportunity to draw the world's attention to the maladministration in our country."
After the Beijing Olympics, I'm a bit skeptical of the argument that events like these can effectively highlight human rights issues in a host country. The incentive of the organizers, sponsors, and players is to have a smooth-running competition, not provide opportunity for Jesse Owens moments. On the other hand, the recent Formula 1 Grand Prix in Bahrain did seem to draw some attention to a forgotten human rights crisis.
In any event, the Ukraine controversy may be just a prelude to Sochi 2014.
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