Monday, April 07, 2008

politics and triathlon (part 1) : innocence at risk

note: this is part 1 of a 3-part series on the intersection of political protest and triathlon in light of the upcoming Beijing Olympics.

The growth of triathlon has by now become largely well documented, with a generally accepted timeline of its growth from off-beat curiousity to mainstream recognition. The prevailing genealogy for the modern permutation of swim-bike-run races traces back to events held at the San Diego Track Club in the mid-1970s and the inception of Ironman triathlon in 1978, with the sport and its participants largely perceived by the larger public as elements of fringe (or in modern parlance, "extreme") sports. Since that time, triathlon has become largely recognized as a part of the mainstream consciousness, with status as a premier sport rivaling any other as a test of competitive performance and athletic achievement.

The references on this are pretty well known, but I'll include them here for context:
This ascension has brought with it signs of maturation: an explosion in membership, an increase in sponsorship and prize money, greater attention from the popular media, and the institutionalization of triathlon in the global sports community, with the crowning moment being its inclusion in the Olympics. This has made for idyllic times for triathlon, making it a movement of relative tranquility focused on popular goals like competition, development, and participation.

Maturation, however, is not always a smooth process, and invariably brings with it the challenges of entry into the public stage. Examples of this have been made evident already in recent history, with the disputes (since resolved) between the ITU, USAT, and WTC over the sanctioning of events (for brief summary, reference: ITU withholds sanctioning of WTC, and ITU resolution rescinded), and the specter of doping (I wrote extensively on this before: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5) serving to indicate the pressures that come with being a modern sport.

As the profile of triathlon gets higher, it is increasingly likely that it will face the complexities borne by other high-profile, high-attention, high-stakes events. Among these is one associated--perhaps inevitably--with globally popular competition: politics.

There are precedents highlighting this. Sport, despite possible intentions to the contrary, has always been susceptible to politics, particularly at the international level. National pride is often inflamed by international competition, fueling the tensions between rival countries and adding to the combustibility of trans-national border disputes. For an illustrative example, international politics scholars frequently point to the infamous "soccer war" between El Salvador and Honduras, when rioting during a 3-game match in June 1969 between the 2 national teams led to the termination of diplomatic relations, and contributed to the outbreak of military hostilities in July of that year that resulted in approximately 2,000 casualties (brief summaries are available at and the Washington Post's "Soccer Wars). Beyond soccer (or futbol, football, etc., as it is known outside the U.S.), other globe-spanning games such as rugby or cricket are similarly notorious for their frequent association with incendiary political causes (for examples of the passions they engender, see The Hindu's "Rights and Wrongs in India-Australia Cricket" and Malcolm MacLean's "A Right Old Bust Up").

Triathlon is as mature a sport as soccer, cricket, or rugby, but it is nevertheless now a global one, and hence is now becoming vulnerable to the same issues inherent to all sports played before a world audience.

Storm clouds are forming already in the immediate future. The 2008 Summer Olympics is rapidly proving to become one of the most controversial in memory. Intense protests have broken out against the Olympic torch relay over China's human rights record, its involvement in Darfur, and its ongoing tensions regarding Tibetan national independence. Controversy has flared over the nature of free speech restrictions being placed on athletes participating in the Beijing games. There are even calls for boycotts. These signs point to a politically charged, highly volatile atmosphere for all sports in this summer's Olympics--triathlon one of many among them.

While triathlon has managed to escape these kinds of political complications, it has largely been because of its nascent status, with its relatively recent induction at the 2000 Sydney games allowing it to enjoy a period of Olympic history largely free of protests. The timeline of the Olympic movement, however, is one featuring a slew of political activism, stretching from the ideologically-driven 1936 Berlin games to the race protests of 1968 in Mexico City to the Cold War-laced Miracle on Ice at the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics to the boycotts of the 1956, 1976, and 1980 summer games. Given the nature of the current lead-in to the Beijing Olympics, it appears that the odds are for triathlon to face the storm of geopolitics.

The references for the history of politics in the Olympics are numerous, but useful links include:
The storm, if it is going to take place, will likely be from a confluence of two phenomenon. From one side, there is the tendency for nations, organizations, and Olympic organizers to imprint their own political agendas onto the games. From the other side, there is the natural inclination of athletes to have their own beliefs and personal causes.

While these factors may possibly coexist--as has been proven under the management of more peaceful Olympics such as the 2000 Sydney and 2004 Athens games--they can just as easily erupt given enough passion or principles between opposing beliefs. History shows that both nations and athletes can be motivated to political action, even in the face of the explicit injunctions of the Olympic Charter (most commonly cited is Article 51, which forbids political, religious, or racial protests) or the spirit of the International Olympic Committee (reference: The Olympic Movement). Given the intensity of protests already ongoing before this summer's games, it is entirely conceivable that triathlon will find itself embroiled in one of any number of issues being raised against the Beijing Olympics.

Athletes and fans of triathlon alike may hope to see triathlon remain the peaceful sport that it has been throughout its growth. The reality, however, is that its maturation as a globally recognized event opens it to the controversies that assail all sports, including those of the political variety.

There are those who can argue that this is good, since it indicates a conscience and a consciousness necessary for any human activity that aspires to advance the human condition--which presumably sport, among its other goals, is ostensibly meant to do. Conversely, there are those who can argue that this is bad, since it brings with it outside disputes that distract from the ideals of sport--which supposedly included transcending the self-destructive vices of humanity. Regardless of either point of view, they serve to confirm one thing: that triathlon, as a sport, is about people...and so long as this is true, it will always reflect who and what we are.

Even if that means realizing that triathlon's innocence, even as much as our own, will eventually be gone.

1 comment:

Bob Almighty said...

When I was doing a long training run with one of my friends we joked that I should enter Ironman China clad in Free Tibet gear...sadly I think IM China's going to have the same geo-political storm as the olympic's kinda sad that athletics has to be marred by political agendas. Granted I'm all for a Free Tibet and better human rights!