Next week's big Euro 2012 games will be in Poland and Ukraine, notorious for violence and racism at their stadiums.
Supporters of a Ukrainian soccer team wave a Nazi flag at a 2007 match against an opposing squad. (Reuters).
What kind of sports event is it when the star athletes are telling fans not to go? Monday, a special report from BBC1's Panorama explored the racism in the soccer cultures of Poland and Ukraine, where the Euro 2012 soccer tournament will be held next week. The program showed Polish and Ukrainian fans beating up Asian fans and slurring opposing teams as "Jews."
The full 30-minute report is full of shocking moments. In Ukraine, there's one scene showing fans making monkey sounds at black players. There's also one where a white supremacist group admits it embraces "some aspects" of Nazism, like getting rid of non-Ukrainians. The group also happens to train its members in knife fighting. Polish slogans include "Jews to the gas" or "death to hooknoses."
When the BBC reporter showed retired English soccer player Sol Campbell some of the footage, he was horrified. When asked whether non-white fans should travel to Euro 2012, Campbell, who is black, was adamant: absolutely not, "because you could end up coming back in a coffin."
You can probably guess the next step in this news cycle: Tuesday, Poland and Ukraine said they would like it made very clear that they don't have a racism problem, thank you very much. "Nobody who comes to Poland will be in any danger because of his race," said the Polish prime minister. "This is not our custom, as is not pointing out similar incidents in other countries, although we know they take place. In Poland, they're a rarity." Ukrainian players and the Ukrainian ministry spokesman made similar comments.
Whom to believe? Yes, the BBC team could have spent three years finding instances of racism and pasting them together selectively. But is that really likely? The report wasn't quite as one-sided as Poland's interior minister is making it out to be -- it went inside a sort of anti-racist patrol class as well. Admittedly, given the historical East-West tension in Europe, a few more numbers wouldn't have hurt, and might have headed off the objectivity debate. But if things are even half as bad as the report makes out, why are these countries allowed to host the international competition?
Nothing excuses the disgusting words and actions shown in the BBC video, or, frankly, the denials and passive-aggressive blame-shifting from the host countries. ("There's racism other places, too!" is one of the lamest excuses there is.)
The immediate problem for Euro 2012, though, isn't Poland's or the Ukraine's messed up ethnic dynamics, or even their white supremacy groups' screwy rewriting of World War II history (though those are, in fact, problems). The issue is what to do about a competition that plausibly puts fans who just came in to watch a sports game at risk for racial targeting.
The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), which awarded the competition to the host countries, has a response to the racism charges boils that down to this: insofar as there is a trend of racial violence in these countries, Euro 2012 is an "opportunity to address" those problems. Soccer administration has its own internal problems, allegations of corruption at FIFA, the global rather than European umbrella organization, among them. That aside, though, it does seem like this do-gooder theory of hosting choices is part of a larger trend over the last decade, one not restricted just to European soccer.*
The problem with international sporting committees acting like international development non-profits, though, is obvious: a goal of helping out a struggling country by giving it a massive sporting competition can directly conflict with the goal of successfully producing said sporting competition. With the cop-out response saying referees can always suspend a game, and suggesting that Euro 2012 will help Poland and Ukraine deal with their issues, UEFA is essentially saying that "addressing" racism in Poland and Ukraine is more important than making sure fans don't get hurt.
Sure, addressing racism is important, but does anyone really think UEFA is the organization to do it?
It all comes down to how much you buy the idea that sports is fundamentally about role models, bringing people together, shining a light into darkness, that sort of thing. And sports can be about that. But to assume they are always about that is to ignore drugging, blood doping, age cheating, race-baiting (take the recent case with John Terry in England), ice fights, and many more incidents where competition crowds out Kumbaya.
If there are incidents now, obviously UEFA's going to look pretty bad. As for Poland and Ukraine, if racism really is a problem in the soccer cultures there, would such an incident really act as more of a wake-up call than an internationally distributed BBC report? If this report is accurate, now is the time to reconsider mixing hosting decisions with activism.
* -Correction, June 2: This article originally misstated the organization responsible for Euro 2012 as FIFA, rather than European confederation UEFA. We regret the error.
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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.