Human Rights: Sportswashing - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:20 pm on 21 March 2024.

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Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Liberal Democrat Shadow Attorney General 3:20, 21 March 2024

My Lords, what a privilege it is to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thomson, and I pay tribute to her for everything she has done to open up the world of sport to disabled people. It is an inspiring story, and it is a privilege for us to sit in this House with her.

Max Freudmann was an Austrian Jew who ran in the sprints in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin—it is not so long ago; I was in being, if not actually born at the time. Having escaped the Nazis, he was the sports teacher in my grammar school in Wrexham. I still recall his sardonic evaluation of my running style: “Thomas,” he said, “You don’t run—you knit”.

Despite that handicap, I found myself decades later playing rugby football on the Reichssportfeld where the 1936 Games were held. I was playing for Berlin, and although I may not match the medals of the noble Baroness or, indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, I still have the cap that was awarded to me for that privilege. The ground was dominated by a massive limestone podium, the Führerloge, from which the Führer had addressed the crowds. In the Führer’s dressing rooms behind, where the Wrexham team was changing, our captain was warming us up: “Remember what they did to Swansea. Cofio Abertawe!” Heads were banging on the wall and we were exchanging punches to acclimatise ourselves; the air was heavy with sweat. Then the referee put his head round the door and said, “The Berlin team’s short of players”. Well, I drew the short straw and soon found myself in the more relaxed atmosphere, wreathed in cigarette smoke, of the German changing room. You will be pleased to know that the Welshmen won that game, and I just about survived an attempt to knock my head off by an old friend in Wrexham colours.

In 1936, sportswashing had not been invented as a word, but that was the entire purpose of those Games. The Olympic torch relay from Mount Olympus, filmed by Leni Riefenstahl, was an innovation at them. Blonde, blue-eyed Aryans blazed their way through the nations of central Europe which they were shortly thereafter to invade and conquer. The five Olympic rings were carved in stone at Delphi, as though they were an ancient symbol of the original Hellenic games.

Despite assurances given by the German Olympic committee that German Jews would be able to train and be available for selection to the German team, the Nazis, shortly before the Games, simply removed German citizenship from all Jews. Since being a national of the competing country was necessary under Olympic rules, they were thereby banned from competing.

The Americans were highly dubious about competing at all, because they feared that black people would be disqualified. In the event, as your Lordships know, Jesse Owens, with his four gold medals, severely damaged the concept of the master race.

Prior to the games, the Guardian newspaper summed it up:

“This year at Berlin for the first time, we are to see” athletes

“confessedly exploited not for the peace of the world, not even for the pride of one nation, but as an advertisement for a political party. The conduct of the Games and their setting are to be a demonstration of the excellence of” the Nazis.

Despite these doubts and reservations, Hitler succeeded in his aim. In an editorial at the close of the Games, a New York paper praised the success and stability of the Nazi regime. Worse than that, and to my regret as president of the Lloyd George Society, David Lloyd George, in the following month of September, visited Berchtesgaden and met Hitler. On his return to Britain, he wrote an article in the Daily Express in which he said:

“I have now seen the famous German leader and also something of the great change he has effected. Whatever one may think of his methods—and they are certainly not those of a parliamentary country—there can be no doubt that he has achieved a marvellous transformation in the spirit of the people, in their attitude towards each other, and in their social and economic outlook”.

The Games gave credibility to Hitler, and I wonder whether, later in 1938, they may have supported the appeasers and, in particular, caused Neville Chamberlain to trust Hitler’s assurances that there would be “peace in our time”. Equally, did they strengthen the isolationists in the United States of America, which stayed out of the war until 1942?

The problem is that sportswashing works. The host country comes out of it looking cleaner and brighter. Worryingly, the choice of sporting venues for the football World Cup, the Olympics or other worldwide competitions rests in the hands of committees made up of people who have sporting, not political, interests and qualifications—and history has shown that money changes hands.

Of course, this choice does not rest solely in the hands of those from liberal democracies. Big money comes from principalities and autocratic powers. How to combat it? Well, there is one set of values that is universal: namely, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 70th anniversary of which we recently celebrated. All the 193 members of the United Nations are signed up to it.

The International Olympic Committee is to be commended for its adoption in May 2022 of the human rights strategic framework, which references the Universal Declaration. Further, it now interrogates preferred hosts —as they are called—who hope to stage the Olympics, on how they will seek to identify adverse human rights impacts throughout the lifecycle of the Games. We have yet to see how successful the strategy is, but it is a template for all worldwide sporting competitions to follow.

In the past, I was vaguely against sporting boycotts, and the slogan “Keep politics out of sport” was attractive to me. Fifty years ago, which appears to be a significant date, on my way to watch South Africa play at Twickenham, I was confronted by a well-known Liberal—a friend of the noble Lord, Lord Hain—waving a banner objecting to apartheid. After quite an argument, he asked me whether I had any spare tickets so that he could watch the match.

We must never again have the Olympic Games, or any other world competition, motivated to enhance an ideology or a particular political party or to wash away human rights abuses. In today’s world, we should not hesitate to refuse to participate in any such competition—that is the only weapon we have. I heard the argument very firmly put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, and there is a great deal in it—but in what other way can the Games be policed if the International Olympic Committee fails to control the way in which they are held?

Does it matter where the United Kingdom is in the medal table, or whether Wales was whitewashed in the Six Nations and got the wooden spoon? Of course it does—it matters to us all—but athletes are rarely political ideologues themselves; it is for the sporting authorities to act. I have no doubt that Max Freudmann was running for himself primarily, and less for his country or indeed his race; he simply wished, as every athlete does, to test himself against the best in the world—and, in Jesse Owens, he found the best.