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International events and the phantasm of unity

Protest has long been a staple of international events. Whether at the Olympics, or at Eurovision, the platform and publicity of such occasions has been utilised by everyone, from competitors to street protesters, to amplify political messages. There’s a tension, however, between the voices of individuals and the actions of the organisations behind these events – under a façade of political neutrality, the International Olympics Committee and European Broadcasting Union (EBU) only serve to entrench existing global political order, distracting viewers from taking action through the spectacle they provide. 

This is not to say that there is no power in protest at these international events. The Black Power demonstration at the 1968 Olympics, where Tommie Smith and John Carlos both raised a black-gloved fist on the podium of the 200m running event, remains one of the most overt political statements at the Olympics in support of the Civil Rights movement and human rights more broadly. 

The political force of their protest was evident in the strident response of the international community: both Smith and Carlos were eventually expelled from the games and ostracised by the US sporting establishment. As of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, taking a knee and podium protests have been banned entirely. 

Street protests also gain significant traction around these international events. In Paris, traditional May Day labour marches were combined with strikes for higher pay from a range of public sector workers, from police officers to garbage collectors. Pro-Palestinian marches around Paris also added numbers to this force, in the same way that there have been protests around Malmö Arena, where Eurovision has been held. Thousands of artists across Europe have also signed open letters calling for a boycott of the event by their representative. 

However, the reach of these civilian protests remains limited. David Rosney, a freelance reporter with extensive experience in Eurovision coverage, notes that the calls to boycott Eurovision seem only visible to those “most active in those circles”. Some viewers he’s talked to, he said, have “been unaware of the controversy”. Action from the organisations themselves, it seems, would be far more effective in raising awareness and driving change. 

With Eurovision having just passed, and the Paris Olympics rapidly approaching, questions about the political role – or even duties – of these events seem more pertinent than ever.   

In the same week that the Eurovision finals were held, Israel launched its offensive against Rafah which displaced 800,000 Palestinians, according to the head of the United Nations Agency for Palestinian refugees. At the same time, the artist for Israel qualified for finals, leading to protests branding the competition as “United by Genocide” in a subversion of its slogan “United by Music”. The first use of this slogan in 2022, when the contest was held in the UK on behalf of Ukraine, highlights the types of political messages that might be endorsed by the EBU – calls for unity, peace and reconciliation. 

However, none of these concepts are ideals which exist in a vacuum. If we call for unity, which communities are we calling on to be created? If we call for peace, what conflicts are we indicting? The attempts of the EBU and IOC to maintain an apolitical façade only serve to reinforce dominant political ideas in the Western world.

The banning of Russia from Eurovision in 2022, for example, was justified by the executive supervisor of the EBU, Martin Österdahl, as a decision based on standing up for “the basic and ultimate values of democracy”. Similarly, as part of the international indictment of Apartheid, South Africa was banned from the Olympic Games from 1964-1988. Such moves are political declarations, but they are largely uncontroversial in the Western political world: few countries were unwilling to endorse these bans. 

If we claim to make these bans on the basis of supporting the values of democracy, it seems that such moves are an evaluation of countries’ attitudes towards human rights.

When we look to a broader scope though, this assumption doesn’t hold up: even amidst the US’s most flagrant violations of human rights during the Vietnam War, for one, where the United States Air Force carpet-bombed neighbouring Cambodia in order to eliminate potential Viet Cong troops, they received no sanctions from any international competition. 

Calls to boycott Eurovision in 2019 when it was held in Israel, due to the illegal settlements in West Bank (per an ICJ Advisory Opinion) and the country’s human rights record at the time, also failed to come to fruition. The choice of when action occurs, and why it does, on the part of organisations, thus seems to be extremely selective, and driven by the political consensus amongst major Western powers of the time. 

The origins of Eurovision, Chris West, author of Eurovision! A History of Modern Music Through the World’s Greatest Song Contest, says, lie in the search for a common culture and identity in Europe post-WWII. The Olympics, in a similar way, seeks to bring together the international community in the spirit of friendly, competitive athleticism. Both motives raise the question: who are we willing to consider a part of our community? What actions in our communities do we endorse? What values do we stand for, globally, and how are these commitments revealed, if they are at all?

When we ask how these international events should act in the future, the answer is simple. Organisations like the EBU and IOC, running events which are staples of our cultural entertainment, and thus reflect our cultural values, have an ethical duty to ban countries or competitors which commit flagrant violations of human rights. To remain complacent is at least to withhold approbation, if not to offer approval, towards states and governments engaging in these kinds of transgressions.  

Is it realistic to expect this from them? Likely not.

So it is up to us, as viewers, not to be lulled into complacency by the glamour and spectacle they present: it is up to us to keep boycotting, to keep protesting, and to keep taking action.

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