Remember when political demonstrations over democracy, Tibet, and Sudan turned the Beijing Olympics into an embarrassment for the Chinese government? Or when South Africa's treatment of Zimbabwean refugees, high levels of violent crime, and construction delays turned the 2010 World Cup into a black eye for the Rainbow Nation? Yeah, me neither. But I do remember when some brilliant observers of international news were predicting it.
Just a few weeks ago, Ukraine's co-hosting of the 2012 Euro Cup seemed like a PR disaster in the making, with European leaders threatening to boycott over the treatment of jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and fans being warned that they might "come home in a coffin" because of crime and racist attacks.
As it turns out, the event that wrapped up in Ukraine yesterday went just fine. Daisy Sindelar of Radio Free Europe writes:
But in the end, no significant racist incidents or crowd violence were reported in Ukraine, and the final is now on the books, with Spain soundly defeating Italy 4-0 on July 1.
On June 30, Michel Platini, the president of UEFA, the European football federation, praised Ukraine and Poland for hosting "a fantastic tournament which has been unique in its atmosphere and will remain in our memories.”
To be sure, the tournament had its flaws, with overpriced lodging and poorly organized transportation discouraging many potential tourists from contemplating trips to matches in Kyiv, Lviv, Donetsk, and Kharkiv.[...] The high price of accommodations remained one of the biggest turnoffs throughout the tournament, despite efforts by officials to coax hotel operators down from rates that soared above $1,000 a night.
But the price gouging had an unexpected consequence, prompting hundreds of Ukrainians to offer their homes up for free as part of a grassroots, online initiative that included volunteer translation services and impromptu city tours. Dmytro Vasylev, the founder of the Friendly Ukraine initiative, says the project helped alleviate fears among ordinary Ukrainians that the government, in its ham-fisted response to the pricing and racism scandals, would squander what was meant to be a golden opportunity for the post-Soviet country.
If anything, it was co-host Poland, a democracy and staunch U.S. ally, that had a more problematic Euro, with predictable riots accompanying a Russia-Poland match in Warsaw. As for racism, it was Spain and Croatia, not the host countries, that were fined after their fans made monkey noises at Italy star Mario Balotelli.
Despite all the talk of boycotts, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and the Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, all attended yesterday's final -- along with Belarus' Aleksandr Lukashneko. (There were a few appearances by world-renowned topless protest collective FEMEN.)
None of this changes the fact that Tymoshenko is in jail. (Her appeal was postponed last week until after the end of the tournament) or the democratic rollbacks and attacks on the free press under President Viktor Yanukovych.
But I think we can fairly say at this point that -- absent a major boycott like the 1980 Moscow Olympics -- international sporting events don't do much to focus international attention on political conditions in a country. There's been talk that the 2014 Sochi Games might shine a light on political conditions in Putin's Russia and the violence in the North Caucasus, but at this point my money is on the Kremlin, the IOC, and the corporate sponsors making it work. (How they plan to hold winter games in a subtropical environment is another question.)
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