The norm of sporting immunity

In the run-up to the Beijing Olympics two years ago now, protests about Chinese human rights violations (especially along the route of the international torch-bearing procession) were met with the outrage that the Olympics ideals and movement were being politicised, and that this quadrennial meeting should be a time to put petty differences aside in recognition of our common humanity. While I think that this line of defense is a flawed one (because hosting the Olympics was always about a political demonstration of national Chinese power and pride), for many it resounds with an idealistic conception of the sporting arena as somehow separate from the political one.

And so following last week’s attack on the Togo football team at the African Cup of Nations in Angola, the Guardian’s Paul Hayward writes that “Since the Munich Olympic massacre sport has traded on the reluctance of violent groups to alienate world opinion by attacking organised fun. That immunity has been stripped away with the Pakistan and Cabinda tragedies.”

Whether this is actually the case, time will tell, but I would imagine that the answer is not just yet. The violation of certain prohibition or immunities does not in itself render the prohibition invalid, although this may be true in some cases. For an instance where it may be true, how durable the norm of nuclear non-use is after use in one instance is somewhat uncertain – that’s the deterrence logic of mutually assured destruction, whereby one use leads to a breakdown of the convention of non-use that persists until that time in point.

But the point is that perhaps global sporting events remain a special case, where the perception (and perception is almost as important as ‘reality’) is that there is something unique about sports that gives it this status of a special case. Look at the reaction, whether to Mumbai (cricket) or Cabinda (football) – condemnation of the attack is based on not just on it being an attack on innocent people (like for other attacks in Bali) but on the percieved special nature of sports. And this special status, I think, increases the costs of any act of violence aimed at a sporting event, whereby the public condemnation outweighs the benefits of any publicity gained. This special status isn’t necessarily permanent – repeated attacks might ‘normalize’ expectations, and then lower sports to the status of any public event – but for now, it still retains enough weight in public expectations.

So these recent attacks, instead of stripping away this immunity, perhaps confirm the idea by awakening it in all of us: that sports should indeed be immune, and subsequently that because we all think that it should be, that is what limits its utility to armed groups seeking world headlines.

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