It is impossible to imagine sport and politics separately from each other. Even during the Ancient Olympic games the sport was considered not only as an entertainment, but also an opportunity for public figures and diplomats to travel and to discuss political matters. 25 centuries on, and almost nothing has changed. Just remember how Vladimir Putin used the Sochi Olympics in 2014 to promote his soft power strategy and political interests.
But the lessons learnt are never enough. A week before the Europa League final, Arsenal’s manager Unai Emery confirmed that their midfielder of an Armenian origine, Henrikh Mkhitaryan has took a “personal” decision not to participate in the UEFA Europa League final match against Chelsea because of the safety concerns. The final will take place in Baku, Azerbaijan on the 29th of May and UEFA has received all the assurances that the player will be in safety.
Moreover, Azerbaijan’s MFA spokeswoman, Leyla Abdullayeva said that they do not want to mix the sport and politics and Mkhitaryan can play in the UEL final in spite of the difficult relations between the countries. And while the European publications refer to the “tense political dispute” between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, nobody actually realizes how deep and dangerous that dispute is.
15 years ago, Azerbaijani lieutenant Ramil Safarov brutally killed 26 year-old Armenian officer Gurgen Margaryan with an axe while he was asleep during a NATO-sponsored Partnership for Peace course in Budapest. In 2012 Safarov was illegally extradited to Azerbaijan where he was welcomed as a national hero and granted a pardon by their president Ilham Aliyev.
During the 4-day April war in 2016, the Azerbaijani officer decapitated soldier Kyaram Sloyan from Nagorno Karabakh and posted the photos of the atrocity on the social media. A month after, Aliyev awarded him a medal as he became a national hero in Azerbaijan.
So it should be completely clear that no assurance, even on the governmental level, can serve as a guarantee for Mkhitaryan’s safety. Even if technically everything is done properly, there is a huge psychological pressure, that could make this game the worst in the career of Mkhitaryan if he decided to participate.
I am not going to dig into the facts showing how embarrassing this case is for UEFA. It is enough to question why they agreed to organize the final of the European League between two English clubs in Baku or how they accepted the allocation of only 6.000 seats per club in a stadium for 70.000 people. Instead, I want to show that Mkhitaryan’s case is not singular. A lot of sportsmen have previously encountered difficulties or threats because of the political disputes and bad decision making.
For example, German and Japanese athletes were not invited to participate in the 1948 London Olympic games, the first one that took place after the World War II.
During the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, 11 members of the Israel’s Olympic Team were seized and killed by a member of a Palestinian group called Black September.
In 1967, during the Vietnam War, legendary boxer Muhammad Ali refused to fight in Vietnam, which costed him a career.
We need to acknowledge that our hope to see sports without politics is naive. Sport is a business, and business is usually greedy. But sport is also about discipline, dignity, a philosophy of excellence, trust in yourself and in your teammates, devotion and a fair competition. It is utterly disappointing to see how personal interests and greed, as well as a poor and biased decision making can spoil the cheerful and empowering environment that the sporting events create around themselves.
I would like to think, that Mkhitaryan’s case will be a lesson for UEFA or any other sport organization to avoid these kind of conflicts in the future. But, perhaps, there’s little cause for such optimism.