Hague warns of travel bans
The Foreign Secretary William Hague says the government won't hesitate to use its powers to extend London 2012 travel bans to individuals and officials with connections to undesirable regimes.
While refusing to comment on specific cases, Hague made it clear in his first interview on the subject that Olympic officials like General Mowaffak Joumaa of Syria and Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa of Bahrain would be closely assessed before being granted entry to Britain to attend the Games this summer.
"The power exists to stop people coming to Britain if we think it's not conducive to the public good," he told me. "We won't hesitate to use that power."
General Joumaa, the president of the Syrian Olympic Committee, is reported to have close links to President Assad whose regime has been described by Hague as "criminal" for its brutal crackdown on government opponents.
Sheikh Nasser Bin Hamad al Khalifa, pictured at a golf tournament in his home country last month, could be banned from attending the Olympics. Photo: Getty
Unlike President Assad he is not on the European Union or United Nations travel ban. He has openly denied there has been any violence in Syria despite a United Nations report which stated 9,000 people have been killed in the ongoing disturbances.
As head of the country's Olympic committee he would expect to be invited as part of the country's delegation although the International Olympic Committee says that while they allocate the invitations it is up to each country to nominate the individuals who actually go.
There are also concerns about the attendance of the head of the Bahrain Olympic Committee, Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa who has warned anti government campaigners in the Gulf state that they will face severe retribution. "May a wall fall on their heads," he was recently quoted as saying. "Even if they are an athlete."
Again unlike other more prominent international political figures like Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, Sheikh Khalifa is not on an EU or UN banned list, so the responsibility will fall to a committee made up of officials and ministers from the Foreign Office, Home Office and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to assess the risk and rule on
whether to issue a special travel ban.
It will require sensitive handling as the IOC doesn't welcome interference from politicians when it comes to inviting people who are part of the so-called Olympic family.
But the situation does highlight how international sport is entwined with international politics.
As sport is increasingly driven by the allure of new markets and commercial opportunities so the clashes between the two worlds seem to have increased.
The growing crisis in Ukraine is a timely example. British ministers are considering whether to join the calls for a boycott of Euro 2012 over the Ukrainian government's treatment of former Prime Minister and opposition leader Yulia Timoshenko. She claims she has been beaten while in jail awaiting trial on charges she says are politically
Despite basing themselves in Poland England play all their group games in Ukraine during next month's tournament. A spokesman for the FA said it was a matter for the Government and that they had no plans to get involved in international politics.
Last month we had Formula One's controversial decision to go ahead with the Bahrain Grand Prix despite calls from anti government protesters to cancel the race for the second year running.
Although there was clear unease among the competing teams, ultimately
the sport put commercial interests first and insisted that unless there was a clear threat to the security of the event then it would go ahead.
In his interview with the BBC, Hague told me that ideally sport should be kept free of politics and that it so often provided an opportunity for the world to come together. But he added pointedly that sport needed to sensitive to the situations it often finds itself in.
And that's the big danger for sport. It can often seem disconnected from the real world, determined to plough on with events even though they can sometimes be used by regimes to lend them credibility on the international stage.
Take the Beijing Olympics. Has there ever been a better illustration of how mega sporting events and their vast global TV audiences can be used to send a message to the world?
The idea that sport can exist in a bubble free of political influence died years ago.
No one seriously thinks boycotts should become commonplace or that athletes should start using press conferences to espouse political views
But given the influence and commercial power sport now wields, perhaps sports needs to drive a harder bargain with undesirable regimes in return.