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Olympic Games

Volume 981: debated on Thursday 27 March 1980

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Newton.]

10 pm

On 19 March, as reported in column 421 of Hansard, I said that I would try to raise on the Adjournment the issue of the alternative Olympic Games. I should like to thank Mr. Speaker for giving me his personal day. The best use of time on this Adjournment is to try to establish the facts, and therefore I put to the Minister questions of which he has been given some hours' notice.

First, has the hon. Gentleman had a second opportunity to answer the question which I put to him as reported in column 415 on 19 March? Would he name the sporting organisations which have encouraged him in an effort to find sites for alternative events which might be held in late August or early September?

Secondly, as a member of the organising committee of the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh and from other experience of athletics, I know perfectly well that most of the world's top athletes have absolutely full diaries and tight engagement schedules at that time of year. Are the British Government suggesting that fixtures arranged long ago ought to be abandoned? The fact is that there are 86 fixtures for August alone in Europe and 26 fixtures in September. The schedule is absolutely tight.

Thirdly, would it not have been a matter of good sense and, indeed, good manners for the Prime Minister, before launching into great statements in the House about the Olympic Games, to have contacted the British Olympic Association to hear its views? Why did not senior Government Ministers display elementary courtesy?

Fourthly, what discussions have taken place with the general assembly of International Sporting Federations? Incidentally, the secretary, Charles Palmer, the judoist, is British and could easily have been contacted. How can anyone think of arranging post-Olympic Games without their good will? Their good will is a precondition of any kind of serious response from athletes. Have they been contracted and, if so, was their reaction other than cryogenic? If they have not been contacted, why not?

Fifthly, is it not a fact, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell), who alas is not well and cannot be here tonight, brought out on 19 March, that now 21 governing bodies of sport have said that they would not sanction any alternative competition and that any sportsman taking part in such a competition would exclude himself or herself from international sport? Was this considered?

I am at liberty to read out a telegram from the General Assembly of International Sporting Federations to the British Olympic Association from Monte Carlo:
"All the 21 Olympic Federations reacted to Thomas Keller's note of 11 March and to his telex of 13 March, and are unanimous without exception in condemning the idea of alternative games in place of the Moscow Games.
One Federation suggested not allowing important international competitions between 1 July and 31 August. Another Federation raised the point that according to its Statutes, the withdrawal of a team means that it is forbidden to play for 30 days before the competition from which it has withdrawn.
Some Federations do not however exclude the possibility that other international sporting events could be added to their normal calendar, to take place at a reasonable time after the Games. A large number of federations point out with indignation that this is the meddling of Government organisations in the field of international sport, and that it is important not to allow politicians to take hold of the organisation of sport, and that it is not up to the Governments to organise international sporting competitions. One federation suggests using all possible legal means to keep control and independence of our activities."
Sixthly, when the British Olympic Association saw Lloyd Cutler he had with him two advisers and the representative of the American Embassy. Did the Minister see the same advisers? I ask him to confirm that one adviser, Mr. David Wolter, is concerned above all, in his capacity as vice-chairman, with the 1984 Los Angeles Games and that the point might well be made to Mr. Wolter that if Moscow 1980 is jeopardised there might well not be a Los Angeles 1984, because the issue is that the future of the Olympic Games as such is at risk.

Will the Minister confirm that the other adviser, Mr. Lenski, is the self-same indi- vidual, operating probably on behalf of the CIA, who certainly, CIA or not, spent his time during the Mexico City Olympics going round Eastern bloc athletes trying to persuade them to defect?

Is not the Lloyd Cutler mission basically about American policy and, more particularly, about creating an image for President Carter in his caucus politics problems and his re-election?

Would not it now be best to announce publicly that this ludicrous idea should be dropped? Would it not also be a good plan, now that the competitors are going to Moscow, to behave with as good grace as possible and help them? In particular, the Government might encourage those companies who would have given money to resume their plans to do so. Certainly the pressure should be taken off the athletes.

The Minister may retort that terrible things are happening in Afghanistan; what about the Afghanistan football team? I do not doubt for a moment that terrible things are happening. Terrible things happen in any civil war. People who invite armies in from outside often turn against those armies, as the British have found to their cost in Northern Ireland where much of the bitterness and the attacks on the British Army come from precisely the groups and friends of those groups who wanted the Army in in the first place. So it is in Afghanistan. Many who wanted the Russians in and eventually persuaded them to come in have now turned against them. Do not we know from our Irish experience how miserable such a situation can be?

Elsewhere, to be precise in column 724 of Hansard of 24 January during the nuclear weapons debate, on Tuesday 29 January during the East-West relations debate and on Friday 1 February in column 1740 during the debate of the right hon. Member for Stafford and Stone (Mr. Fraser) on national service, I have argued at length the case for viewing the Russian presence in Afghanistan in terms of shades of grey.

I would only add to that argument that I am told by Professor John Erickson, the toughest of Russia watchers, the professor of Russian studies in Edinburgh, that the decision to go in was taken after 5 April 1979 when, in Herat, 30 Russian advisers were made to eat their own testicles, were skinned alive and their heads were paraded through the town on pikes. Russian women were also mauled and Russian children were killed. This subject I refer to precisely in Question 3 to the Prime Minister next Thursday.

We have to bear in mind that this is a very complex situation. Supposing that the Olympic Games had been scheduled for London in 1980, what would we have said to suggestions that because we had become embroiled in a military capacity in the bog of Ulster, the Games should not be held in Britain?

10.10 pm

I am glad that the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) has raised this subject again. I am grateful for the way in which he did so, brief and forthright, in the style that is his own.

Before turning to the hon. Gentleman's particular questions, of which he was courteous enough to give me notice, I should like to make some remarks about the origins of the idea of an alternative games. There is clearly a certain amount of misunderstanding. I do not personally care for the phrase "alternative games", but I suppose that we are now stuck with it. I do not care for the name because it implies a rival Olympics. Much of what the hon. Gentleman said was addressed to the matter as if it was our proposal. In fact, as I think he knows, having studied what has been said, that idea has never been in our minds. It has never been in our thoughts that we could, or should, attempt to organise, or suggest the organisation, in one place of a series of games at about the same time as those that the IOC, against our wishes, has decided should be held in Moscow.

Our idea was simpler and more modest. It stemmed from the knowledge that in advising our own athletes to boycott Moscow we were asking for and advising on a very difficult thing. It seemed to us only fair to say that if—I underline "if"—they and the organisations to which they belonged were interested, we would be ready to help forward competitions of high quality held in different parts of the world shortly after the Moscow Olympics. Having come to that thought, we found that other Governments were thinking on roughly the same lines. We began to talk together. Out of those talks came the meeting that I attended in Geneva last week. Out of Geneva came a set of suggestions, not decisions, which we agreed to put to and to discuss with national and international sporting organisations.

That leads to the first question that the hon. Gentleman put. I shall not disclose the reactions of the sporting organisations with which we have discussed these ideas. To do so would mean that I was disclosing not our ideas—I am perfectly ready to discuss those—but theirs. In some cases these are fall-back plans that they have discussed with us in confidence. I would simply say in reply to the hon. Gentleman that, based on what we found before the meeting in Geneva from our preliminary contacts and since, among some sports there is at present no interest in the ideas that we have put. Among one or two, there is definite interest. Among others, there is a desire to discuss further, to keep in touch and to keep the door open. The reasons are perfectly clear.

Most people, at the back of their minds, whatever they may say in public, are well aware that the decision of the British Olympic Association on 25 March does not close the discussion. There are far too many uncertainties still around—uncertainties that will not be cleared up for some time to come. There are uncertainties about the decisions of athletes in other countries. It may turn out to have been unwise for the British Olympic Association to rush in before most other national Olympic committees. Most other national Olympic committees are, as the British Olympic Association is aware, carefully leaving the decision open.

At the moment, it is still possible—and I would say, according to our information, probable—that the Moscow Olympics will not be attended by athletes from a considerable number of major sporting countries. That is one set of uncertainties of which sporting organisations and competitors in some sports are very conscious. There are also uncertainties, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, about Afghanistan itself. There is more fighting in Afghanistan now than in January. The aggression is continuing. The only difference is that Western television and press are no longer there to tell the tale because they have been forced out.

Incidents such as the defection of members of the Afghanistan football team yesterday and the stories of the killings which they brought with them lift for a moment the curtain which has fallen over what is happening in Afghanistan. What is happening there is not some distasteful incident at the end of December which is now receding into the past and fading from memory. That is not the position.

What started at the end of December is continuing and the situation is, perhaps, worsening. Such stories as the Afghan footballers have been telling say something of the realities of sport and politics as opposed to the rhetoric about bridge-building that we have heard so often in recent weeks.

If in July when the Moscow Olympics start the position in Afghanistan is much the same and is being reported, it is hard—the hon. Gentleman would find it hard—to imagine our athletes competing happily in Moscow against the background of killing and repression.

I think that the hon. Gentleman would agree that I have not, and nor has my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment with responsibility for sport, overstated the possibilities of the concept of alternative games. I have never felt any desire to gild this particular lily. We are talking about suggestions, not decisions.

The hon. Gentleman read out a statement from Monte Carlo which seemed to imply that we are seeking to organise games. Anyone who has read what we have said would know that we accept entirely that it is not for Governments, at least in the West, to organise games.

Whether our suggestions are taken up depends on individuals and sporting organisations. We shall shortly be comparing notes with the other Governments who were represented at Geneva to tell them how we have got on and to see how they have got on with their contacts.

The hon. Gentleman was correct in saying that the sporting calendar is crowded. We understand that, and there is no question of our suggesting that events in that calendar should be cancelled. That is why we included, and still include, the possibility to which the hon. Gentleman referred of building up events which already exist, opening them to others who might not in other circumstances have taken part and making of them the widely drawn, high-quality events about which we are talking. That is one line of thought that we are pursuing.

The main part of the hon. Gentleman's speech dealt with consultation. That is always a difficult matter, but I think he would accept that the basic decision facing the British Government was principally one of responding to the Soviet aggression. In our view, that response had to include proposals about the Moscow Olympics. That was a political judgment for the Cabinet.

Since then, there has been the most intense discussion and correspondence with the British Olympic Association and many other organisations, national and international. I do not know how many meetings my hon. Friend and I have had—including meetings with Mr. Charles Palmer, who, as the hon. Gentleman said, is contactable and who has been contacted—but there has been intense discussion, which is continuing. Those meetings included a meeting that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had on 4 February with the Sports Council and with the Central Council for Physical Recreation.

The position of international federations is more complex than the hon. Gentleman indicated. For example, a statement made in Mexico in February by the General Assembly of International Sporting Federations referred to, and came out against, a plan for rival Olympics to be held at the same time as the Moscow Games. So did a later statement by the International Amateur Athletic Federation.

That is not, and never was, our idea, and I hope that that is now clearly understood. The truth is, and we have looked into it carefully, that the powers of the international federations vary sport by sport and rule book by rule book. Certain types of international competition require consent under the rules. Other types do not. We are well aware of that. The Economist advised strongly at the weekend that we should take no notice and should go full tilt against the international sporting hierarchy, which it believes to be overripe for reform. That is not what we are trying to do. We do not intend to go against, or encourage anybody else to go against, the rules of the federations. We do not intend to try to break up the international sporting hierarchy.

I do not want to answer the hon. Gentleman's observations about personalities in the American team. He would get hot under the collar if American Congressmen made personal criticisms about and questioned those whom the British Government sent to an international meeting. That is not a sensible line of criticism.

Sensible or not, I was talking of a matter of considerable curiosity. Some believe that caucus politics in the United States are involved. Lo and behold, Mr. Lloyd Cutler brings with him Mr. Lenski. The same Mr. Lenski was the operator at the Mexico Olympics and spent his time in Mexico City trying to persuade Eastern bloc athletes to defect. We may be critical of the Russians, but some of us are extremely critical of the whole United States operation and history in relation to Afghanistan and the Olympics. President Carter's efforts to be re-elected have much to do with what is happening.

The hon. Member does not usually venture into that type of country. He got the name of the first person he mentioned wrong. He was referring to Mr. Wolper. Mr. Lenski is United States Ambassador to Uganda. The hon. Gentleman referred to President Carter's motives. I believe that, given President Carter's strong views—which we believe to be justified—neither he nor any other American President could possibly leave the Moscow Olympics out of a response. No American President could do that at any time, given that he shares our view about Soviet aggression. We are talking about a major act of aggression, not a shade of grey. Action on the Moscow Olympics is a necessary part of a response to a major aggression.

Sport is a branch of politics to the Soviet Union. The party activists are trained and educated in that belief. They have a contempt for the idea that sport can be separated from politics.

If it is not possible for an American President to leave out sporting considerations, how is it possible for the same President to ignore the commercial operations of the Chase Manhattan Bank and 25 other banks which are going merrily on their way? How is it possible for the European Community to sell butter to the Russians? How is it possible to keep the British and American Ambassadors in Moscow?

Those matters were thoroughly discussed in the major debate. The hon. Gentleman knows that the presence of an ambassador does not confer a privilege or propaganda advantage. An ambassador carries out instructions, for example, on the neutrality plan for Afghanistan. To the Soviet Union, sport is a branch of politics. The Moscow Olympics will be taken by the Russians as proof that the world does not care about the aggression in Afghanistan.

Might it be worth those athletes who go to the Olympic Games putting the non-politics of the games to the test by wearing "Free Orlov" T-shirts?

There are many intriguing ideas in this realm of country. Because the Soviet Union totally controls the output of television, it is a fairly safe guess to say that any such demonstration would be effectively concealed from the Russians in a way that a boycott could not be concealed.

The parallel drawn with Ulster is wrong-headed. We have heard it before. Ulster is a part of this country—part of a free society—in which people's opinions are recorded from time to time in free elections and, in the case of Ulster, in referenda. It is as different as it could be from the position in Afghanistan.

I shall not give way. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman should persist in that parallel.

Through the coming weeks and months we shall continue quietly and firmly to record our view, which we hold very strongly indeed. It is against British interests for British athletes to compete at Moscow in present circumstances. If they do so, they are weakening the pressure exerted on the Soviet Union and thus undermining the efforts that we and others are making to persuade the Russians to withdraw from Afghanistan.

I do not know whether in a free society that view will eventually prevail. The more that I am involved in the matter, the more sure I feel that it is our job to record that view and to give it when we are asked for our opinion. Never in the history of the Olympic movement has the host country actually been committing aggression at the time when the Games were held. It is a completely new position. I have never known that point mentioned or discussed in the reports that I have seen of the deliberations of the sporting bodies.

Surely that is the real threat to the Olympic movement and to its future. In the weeks and months to come, the nature of that threat will become increasingly clear.

10.27 pm

The Minister has been careful not to answer many of the succinct questions put to him. Is he aware that it is now clear that the Government went ahead with this move without any consultation with the Olympic Committee? It was not asked for its advice. Throughout this entire episode, it has been told what it is politic for the Government to advocate and has not been asked what it believed were the sporting interests of the Olympic committee.

If the Minister seriously believes that it is possible to make this attack on politics by using sportsmen, he should demonstrate clearly that the Government take the same attitude to business contacts, that they do not encourage business men to trade with the Soviet Union, that they are not in favour of the opening of the Chase Manhattan Bank and that they themselves are prepared to back up their rhetoric with any sort of attack that will concern the Government. It has been plain throughout the whole of these incidents that always there has been the suggestion that the Government were giving instructions to other people to carry the brunt of the political fight while they were prepared only to stand on the sidelines. They have encouraged some gestures, such as that by BUPA, which can be interpreted only as very petty. It withdrew from the athletes facilities that had been offered to them.

The House has a right to know rather more than the Minister has been prepared to tell us in terms of hard fact. It is not enough to say "Of course, we are advocating this. It is not an alternative Olympics, but we hope that there will be some other sort of demonstration". Yet the Government are not prepared to detail the countries involved, the Olympic committees that have given support or even the individual sportsmen who have been prepared to support this line of attack. They have operated on the basis of "We have to protect the sportsmen's interests by keeping the details secret until the moment comes when their names are made public." That is not good enough.

If there were a serious attempt to do something about the Olympics, the Government should have remembered that in the first instance many of us had reservations about Moscow as a site. When there were arguments about whether the rights of individual Russians were being sufficiently protected, the Government had nothing to say. They were not interested until it became a question of their own political stance. They have never, at any time, demonstrated that they have taken the advice of the people most concerned, namely, the athletics associations involved. The Minister has demonstrated yet again that the Government do not have a case and that they do not have good evidence to prove that people support them.

The Minister said that normally I do not become involved in personalities—nor do I. But Mr. Lenski—

The Question having been proposed at Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.