Wednesday, 16 July 2014

1986 Commonwealth Games: The Boycott Games

If I am being honest, I had not heard anything about the Commonwealth Games before the 1986 event approached. But what an introduction I was in for. All of a sudden, the Edinburgh Games were making headlines for unwanted reasons, dominating the front pages of the newspapers and lead stories on the news, and this was even before a starting pistol had been fired.

This week I am going to look back on the turmoil surrounding the 1986 Commonwealth Games, as sport and politics collided and left a sorry state behind.

The root of the problem

The 1986 Commonwealth Games were not unique in suffering the impact of a sporting boycott. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had seen the 1980 Moscow Olympics boycotted by 65 countries, with the Eastern Bloc countries responding in turn at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. But it was the issue of South Africa and apartheid that was forever stirring up problems in the Commonwealth, and this was at the centre of the walkout prior to Edinburgh 1986.

The 1976 Olympics in Montreal were hit by mass boycott over New Zealand's rugby union tour of South Africa in the same year, with Nigeria also attempting to lead a similar protest at the 1978 Commonwealth Games. They may have failed in 1978, but Nigeria would be the first of many to withdraw their athletes from the Edinburgh Games, their disgust at Margaret Thatcher's South African policies enough to not just threaten the 13th Commonwealth Games, but the very fabric of the Commonwealth itself.

Thatcher's refusal to impose economic sanctions on South Africa caused a rift amongst the Commonwealth nations, as did continuing sporting links with the apartheid regime, including England's rugby union tour in 1984. The trouble ahead was sadly inevitable.

The political row rumbled on, the leaders of the African nations of the Commonwealth insistent that the Iron Lady should shift her stance on the South African issue, but as many would find out, this lady was not for turning. Thatcher argued that sanctions would in fact make the situation worse in South Africa, the opposition leader Neil Kinnock unsurprisingly waded in, saying that Thatcher should change her mind and stating that "persuasion without pressure is utterly hopeless".

With a shift in policy unlikely, the 1986 Commonwealth Games were about to become a vehicle of protest for the dissatisfied African leaders.

The trickle begins

Nigeria and Ghana were the first to announce their intentions of boycotting the Games, a decision that led to the Games' Chairman Robert Maxwell releasing a statement. "No purpose is served by the boycott. It is a protest against Mrs Thatcher's policy on sanctions on South Africa," declared Maxwell. "But these are not Mrs Thatcher's Games. They are the Games of more than 50 nations, bound together only by history and friendship". 

Elsewhere, the politicians of the day could not resist giving their opinions on the matter. Conservative party member Sir John Biggs-Davison labelled the move as "blackmail", and fellow-Tory Barry Porter was not sitting on the fence when he heavily criticised Nigeria. "It is wrong of a country where there is no democracy at all to deliver lectures to this country," declared Porter from his high-horse, as the Games began to stumble from one crisis to the next.

There was some support for the African nations, however. The Queen's chaplain, Gilleasbuig Macmillan complimented the boycotting members, praising them for their "passionate desire for human equality and dignity". As the row continued, even the Queen herself was dragged into the ensuing chaos, with a Buckingham Palace mole leaking information regarding the testing relationship between the Queen and Prime Minister, and the press reporting that Her Majesty was hardly thrilled at the prospect of a shattered and broken Commonwealth. It seemed that no one could escape the South African/Commonwealth situation at the time. Not even the athletes.

Political pawns

Panic understandably spread amongst the organisers of the Games, and soon another thorny issue was about to test them: the inclusion of Zola Budd and Annette Cowley in the England team. Budd had represented Great Britain at the 1984 Olympics, and Cowley was the national 100m and 200m freestyle swimming champion, but their South African background was another headache that the Games Federation could have done without. Apparently under pressure from both Nigeria and Zimbabwe, the Federation arranged a meeting to discuss Budd and Cowley, and their eligibility to represent England. After a six-hour discussion they reached a decision: both Budd and Cowley could not take part in the Games.

Under Commonwealth Games rules the pair were judged ineligible due to the fact that neither had been resident in England for at least six months in the past year. Budd had a home in Guildford, but rarely lived there due to training and running commitments, and Cowley was studying at the University of Texas, so the Games Federation were unanimous that neither could join England's team at Edinburgh. Rather tellingly, Peter Heatly, the Federation Chairman, said after the verdict: "Now this decision has been made we have removed every obstacle to prevent countries from competing. These are not Britain's Games, they are the Games of the Commonwealth".

Therein lay the problem. The banning of Budd and Cowley was viewed with suspicion by many, the pair seen as pawns in a game of political chess, an act aimed totally at appeasing the other African nations that had yet to make a decision over whether to stay away from Scotland or not. Allegations were made that that the Sports Ministry had applied pressure to the Games Federation to ban the athletes, and the fact that the meeting had been brought forward four days at extremely short notice added fuel to the fire.

Ignoring the political element, it was a sad tale from a purely human point of view. Cowley took the case to the High Court on the Monday before the Games, after her first appeal to the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games Council had failed. Alas the decision was not overturned, the judge ruling that the Federation were "manifestly correct" in their actions. Cowley moved out of the Games village, but would stay on to support her team mates, even watching her own events, and no doubt experiencing a whole of pain and regret over what she could have won.

The boycott continues

If the organisers had hoped that the exclusion of Budd and Cowley would prevent further boycotts then they were in for a shock. Feelings over the sanctions ran deep within the Commonwealth, and soon nations such as Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Sierra Leone and Jamaica joined the group protest. India decided to act after a meeting of African states on the Friday before the Games. When they joined Zimbabwe and Zambia in withdrawing, the total number of countries staying away was growing by the day. There appeared to be no end to the mess.

In all, 32 nations would boycott the Games, leaving gaping holes at events and in the athletes' village. With nations dropping out daily, the organisers faced the logistical nightmare of planning separate draws for the various sports, one based on the best-case scenario of a reduced boycott, the other taking into account the predicted absentees.

To compound the situation, rumours began to circulate of a separate Games for the stay away countries, to be hosted in India, but fortunately this never transpired. Surely if it had, the damage between the Commonwealth nations would have been unrepairable. As it was, the Games would start on July 24, but the shadow cast over the occasion by the boycotting nations was simply too big to ignore.

Financial mess

The boycott was the last thing the 1986 Commonwealth Games needed. Just a few months before the event, it became apparent that a massive financial loss was on the cards, the Games under threat due to a lack of Government investment, poor exploitation of the international market in regards to sponsorship, and miscalculations of the amount of capital needed to host the Games. And then an apparent knight in shining armour arrived to rescue Edinburgh 1986; Robert Maxwell.

Immediately Maxwell swept in, making bold promises about investing £2 million in the Games (estimates put the actual figure closer to £250,000), setting up the Save the Games group (which helped to raise £43,000 at a Gala Luncheon, featuring such luminaries as Ted Rogers and Suzanne Dando), and declaring that a £4 million shortfall would be met through a national appeal and private investors. In the end the Games did at least go ahead, but the £4.3 million operating loss was crippling.

The fact that Maxwell was threatening to seek £2 million compensation from the boycotting nations was a sign that all was not well before the Games, as more and more stories leaked of sponsors and investors dropping out. The Games did go ahead, and Maxwell of course claimed to have saved the day, but history would eventually reveal that his part in the financial mismanagement of Edinburgh 1986 was significant.

Bermuda's short stay

Although many of the competitors faced heartbreak over the boycott, their years of training down the drain due to politics, they did have the tiny consolation of knowing that they would not be travelling to Edinburgh. This wasn't quite the case with the St Lucia team though, many of whom had made their way to Scotland, only to hear later that their island would not be taking part in the Games, which left many of them stranded for a couple of weeks due to their flight tickets being booked for a specific date.

It was even worse for the Bermudan team though. Having arrived in Edinburgh, they were still under the impression that they would be participating in the Games, until a last minute decision taken by the Bermudan Olympic Association on the night before the opening ceremony, threw the team into turmoil. But the agony was not over.

Watching the ceremony on television, the athletes were thrilled when Bermuda's Premier John Swan gave them the green light to compete at the Games. Frantically dressing in their team uniforms and dashing to the stadium, Bermuda had to ignore the usual alphabetical order and sneak out before the host nation, the cheers ringing around the Meadowbank Stadium as the returning country was welcomed with open arms.

This tale does not have a happy ending unfortunately. The BOA reversed the decision once more, withdrawing from the Games and leaving Bermuda's athletes distraught. Swimmer Victor Ruberry did get to compete in the 100m breaststroke, but he knew already that Bermuda's race was run even before his had started. Disqualified at the end of the event for keeping his head under the water, poor Ruberry probably wanted to stay there. Despite further protests, the team flew home, just another example of the human aspect relating to the boycott of the so-called Friendly Games.

The future

The Commonwealth Games Federation, so shocked at the state of the 1986 Games, suggested that in future it may be wise to set up an event based on the Old Commonwealth of the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, and split the teams into countries (as the UK did already) and states, provinces and islands. There was even talk of a replacement Games featuring countries from outside the Commonwealth, a move aimed at excluding the African nations that had so riled the organisers. It didn't happen obviously, but these proposals were aimed at putting the protestors firmly in their place.

The Games may have been disastrous from a sporting and a financial point of view, but if the 1986 Commonwealth Games had not gone ahead, then could that have been it for the event? Would there have been any energy left towards organising a sporting meeting that seemed dated, and financially unviable for any future hosts? Would the cancellation of Edinburgh 1986 have been the perfect excuse to simply abandon the whole concept of the Games?

As we settle down to watch the action at Glasgow 2014, it may well be worth us remembering the trials and tribulations that beset the Edinburgh Games, and the important part it played in preserving the occasion.

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