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Olympic Games (Geneva Talks)

Volume 981: debated on Wednesday 19 March 1980

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(by private notice) asked the Lord Privy Seal if he will make a statement on the talks yesterday at Geneva of the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office on possible alternative post-Olympic Games.

Representatives of 12 countries met in Geneva on 17 and 18 March to discuss the possibility of arranging competitions of high quality, primarily for athletes who stayed away from the Moscow Olympics. Useful progress was made in identifying possible sites for alternative events which might be held in late August/early September. The participants in the meeting will now undertake further contacts with other Governments and with national and international sporting bodies to develop these ideas.

I chaired the first day's proceedings, which were held in the British mission in Geneva, and Mr. Cutler, President Carter's special counsellor, the second. A summary of the meeting was prepared by the co-chairmen and agreed by the meeting, and copies of this have been placed in the Library of the House.

Will the Minister give the names of any sporting organisations that have encouraged the Government in this project?

A number of sporting organisations from our contacts, whose eyes are still set on Moscow, are nevertheless increasingly interested and concerned—

—about the likelihood of an effective boycott, including the total absence from Moscow of American and perhaps German athletes. Our consultations with these sporting bodies—[HON. MEMBERS: "Name them."]—are and will remain confidential. It is for them to express their views when they think the time has come.

Will my hon. Friend not be put off by the scepticism of Opposition Members in seeking to organise some kind of international festival of this sort? Will he acknowledge that it cannot be a substitute for the Olympics, however they may now take place? Will he also, as soon as may be, encourage Governments to draw back from the arrangements that are to be made and place them in the hands of an international organising committee comprising individual citizens who are knowledgeable in the realms of sport and of voluntary bodies that may be prepared to assist?

My hon. Friend's last suggestion may be the right way to proceed. First, we have to put to the sporting organisations one by one—there are 21 different Olympic sports—the detailed suggestions that we worked out in the past two days and see whether, in the light of the developing boycott, they are interested in pursuing these ideas.

I think that this meeting in Geneva was always somewhat mysterious. I do not think that the House is very much clearer about the scope of the meeting and, indeed, what came out of it, as a result of the Minister's reply.

I should like to put three questions to the Minister. First, how many countries actually attended and how many were invited to come to the meeting? Secondly, had all the countries that attended the meeting recommended to their own sporting bodies that they should not attend the Olympic Games? Thirdly, what has been the response so far of the national Olympic committees in those countries to that request?

As I said in my answer, 12 countries attended. They comprised a group that had met quietly for some time to discuss these matters at official level. Therefore, one meeting led to another, which is the normal way in which international meetings take place. This meeting was held in a blaze of publicity. I do not think that there is any particular mystery about it.

Some of the countries represented in Geneva have not yet come out firmly in favour of a boycott. A large number of other countries are sitting on the fence and have not yet made a decision. They will make their decisions during the next few clays, or weeks, I should say. The same is true of the national Olympic committees. I think that it is true to say that no national Olympic committee in any major Western sporting country has yet taken a decision "Yes" or "No".

As the United States ambassador in London admitted frankly in an interview last week that there was a degree of electioneering in President Carter's original call for a boycott of the Olympic Games, and since fewer than half the Members of the House voted in support of the Government's call for a boycott, will the Minister now abandon this move for pseudo-Olympic Games, which will be the death knell of the Olympics?

No, Sir. We strongly believe and will continue to express the view that the attendance of British athletes at Moscow while the Soviet Union continues its aggression in Afghanistan is against British interests.

Having expressed that view, we felt it right to explore with other countries, whose feelings are broadly similar, whether we could help some of the would-be competitors, whom we are asking to take a very difficult decision, by organising in good circumstances high-quality competitions in which they could take part after Moscow. That seems an entirely sensible approach and one with which we shall persevere.

Will the Minister tell the House how many atheletes attended the meeting of the 12 nations—or, if he will not give the number of athletes, at least the ratio of athletes to diplomats?

Secondly, does the Minister have any reason to believe that if the alternative Games are held they will not be boycotted by all those nations which attend the official Olympics in Moscow?

Finally, will the Minister continue to bear in mind the inequity of sacrifice demanded of athletes as against other people?

The meeting in Geneva was a meeting of representatives of Governments. It was preceded and will be succeeded by consultations with national and international sporting organisations. We are not and did not pretend at Geneva to be in the business of taking decisions on behalf of sporting organisations. We worked out a set of suggestions, which we shall now put to them.

On the hon. Gentleman's second question, the number of organisations or sportsmen who smile upon these ideas will vary, sport by sport. Therefore, we shall be able to answer his question only when we have their response, in some weeks' time.

The third point—

I said that the success of this venture will depend on the number who do. We know that a number of sporting organisations are interested in this approach. As I have already said, it is for them to state their intentions when their own plans and ideas are clear.

The final question put to me by the hon. Gentleman was discussed at great length, in my absence, in the debate on Monday, and the House reached a satisfactory conclusion on it.

Will my hon. Friend remember that this is a matter not just for the vested interests of athletes as a whole but for Governments and people as a whole? Does he not think that perhaps our athletes have got a tiny bit self-centred and selfish in this whole matter?

I do not agree with my hon. Friend. I am not sure that that is a wise approach to the subject. There is a kernel of truth in what the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) said, namely, that because of the accident that the Olympics are taking place in 1980, at a time when the host country is conducting continued aggression against another country—a wholly new position in the history of the Olympic Games—it means, unfortunately, that we are asking a great sacrifice of our athletes. We accept that. That is why we are trying to help.

Order. This is an extension of Question Time. I propose to call two hon. Members from either side, and to call the Front Bench at the end.

Does the Minister recall—I think that he is old enough to do so—the slogan written on walls during the Second World War which asked "Is your journey really necessary"? From the pathetic statement made by the Minister from the Dispatch Box today, is it not clear that his journey was not really necessary, and that it would have been better if he had stayed in Britain?

I am sorry that I missed the hon. Gentleman's brief intervention in the debate on Monday. I did not attend the meeting in Geneva with any high hopes. However, we made rather more progress and produced more specific suggestions than I had expected. The success of the enterprise will depend on the way in which it is received by the sporting organisations whom we are now consulting.

Does my hon. Friend appreciate that if the Government wish to persuade the public of the valid arguments for boycotting the Olympics, more information will have to be given from now on about any alternative plan? Does he appreciate that the weakness of our position is that we are asking for an inordinate sacrifice from sportsmen and not from others, such as business men, in respect of their relationships with the Soviet Union?

We have been criticised in the house, especially by the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell), who tabled the question, for failure in the past to consult sporting organisations sufficiently. In this enterprise, that is precisely what we intend to do. This enterprise has only just started. The hon. Member for West Lothian would be a little unwise to write it off at this stage. I warn him of that. [Interruption.] I warn him out of regard for his reputation for wisdom in the House.

Because we intend to hold consultations it would not be sensible for me to read out to the House the exact suggestions on which we intend to base our consultations

I refer to the original statement of the Minister, when he seemed to indicate that athletes would be faced with a choice of competing either at Moscow or at alternative Games. Will he take this opportunity to say that there will be no boycott on athletes who attend Moscow to prevent their taking part in any alternative Games? If the Government are putting their money where their mouths are, will the hon. Gentleman tell the House how much public money will be given to promote the alternative Games?

The hon. Gentleman's first assumption is correct. The financial aspects of the alternative Games will need further study. Much will depend—as it does in the financing of all sporting events—on the nature of television coverage.

At the meeting in Genera, did my hon. Friend discuss an alternative venue for sailing? Is he aware that the sailing events will take place not is Moscow but in Tallinn, in Estonia, which was annexed by the Soviet Union as a result of a carve-up between Ribbentrop and Molotov in 1940. It is highly relevant that that occupation is 30 years older than the occupation of Afghanistan.

My hon. Friend makes a relevant point. We are in touch with the yachting authorities. I noted in a press report today that dissidents are being arrested in Tallinn to prevent their putting their point of view to any yachtsman who may go to that country.

It is not now crystal clear that the Geneva meeting was an attempt to organise an alternative to the Olympic movement, and an attack upon international sport as we know it? The various sporting organisations were not consulted before Ministers attended that meeting.

Will the Minister say whether the information that I gave to the House in the debate on Monday was considered by his colleagues and conveyed to him, namely, that 18 international governing bodies of sport had said that they would not sanction any such alternative competition, and that any sportsmen taking part would exclude themselves from international sport?

The Minister said that no national governing body had yet taken a decision on the issue. Will he say why 104 such bodies accepted the invitation of the 10C to compete in the Games? Was that matter considered by his colleagues?

If we are to rely on world-wide television to finance alternative Games, what information can the Minister give us to the effect that television will be any more dictated to by the Government than the sporting bodies? How do we know that it will finance the alternative Games?

Why did the Minister with responsibilities for sport not attend the meeting in Geneva? Has sport in this country been taken over totally by the Foreign Office? Why did the Government embark upon such a ludicrous exercise?

The right hon. Gentleman does himself no credit by these questions. He is not doing himself justice. We do not rely on the right hon. Gentleman for our knowledge of what happens within the sporting bodies. We have our own information from numerous contacts that have been made in the past few weeks. I was armed with such information at Geneva.

The right hon. Gentleman was correct when he referred to the IOC decision. However, I was talking of the individual decisions of national Olympic committees. Even they are less significant than the individual decisions of individual sporting organisations in the 21 sports.

The examination of possible finance from television coverage for the alternative Games is at an early stage. Nobody can force television to cover any event. If, as a result of our suggestions, it were possible to establish a series of high-quality events in different parts of the world following the Games at Moscow, it might be possible to arrange quite substantial television coverage.

This is an exercise and a policy undertaken and approved by the whole Government. It would not be right to leave my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibilities for sport to carry the whole burden. Most of the meetings with sporting organisations and athletes were attended by my hon. Friend. I am happy to be able to tell the right hon. Member for Birmingham Small Heath (Mr. Howell) that my hon. Friend is leaving tomorrow for a meeting of the Ministers of Sport of the Council of Europe, at which he will express exactly the same Government approach as I expressed in Geneva.

In view of the unsatisfactory nature of that reply, I beg to give notice that I shall raise the matter on the Adjournment at the earliest possible opportunity.