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Venezuela vs USA: sport and politics mix again

Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2009-03-14

As tensions between Venezuela and the US rise again, the two countries’ baseball teams faced off at the World Baseball Classic (WBC) in Toronto. It’s just the latest in a string of sporting events where politics enter the stadium.

A Venezuelan pitcher stood opposite a United States batter on Wednesday in the World Baseball Classic (WBC) in Toronto, and heaved a hard object at 130 km/h towards his opponent. The metaphor for combat could hardly be more vivid; especially in the current context of strained diplomatic relations between the two countries. (By the end of the evening, Venezuela had beat the US S 5-3, having been thrashed by them, 15-6, on Sunday.)


Less than a week ago Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez nationalised a US-owned rice mill in his country over food supply accusations, in the latest episode in an escalating diplomatic battle pitting Washington against the leftist leader.


Last September both the United States and Venezuela expelled each other’s ambassadors from their territories.


"The game has made all the front pages in Venezuela," says Robin Halzhauer, press attaché for the US embassy in Caracas. "The tournamant is also followed closely by the embassy staff, people have a different opinion about who will finish in first, but everyone agrees it's just a game."


Although the WBC remains a largely obscure sports event, the tournament has produced at least one other key match-up between rival countries and has heightened emotions beyond the baseball arena.


On Saturday China upset Taiwan’s official baseball team, eliminating the island nation from the BWC tournament. China has claimed sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan since 1949, and in the past Beijing has vowed to bring Taiwan under its rule, by force if necessary.


Baseball is Taiwan’s most popular sport, but under pressure from China, the tournament’s organisers forced Taiwan to compete under the name "Chinese Taipei", with neither flag nor anthem.


According to sport writer and Olympics historian Jean Durry, the BWC caved in to China’s political pressure for economic reasons.


“Everyone now bows to the economic power of China, because every country and every sporting entity is concerned about its financial and commercial interests in China,” says Durry.


As for Taiwan, the early exit from the competition has made rebuilding the team a national priority. Baseball is one of few remaining opportunities for Taiwan to meet on equal terms with the world’s leading nations - many of whom no longer recognise it.


Sport as a tool for diplomacy ?


The BWC is only the latest setting in a string of international sporting events where athletics and politics have met head on.


Between March 6 and 8 local Swedish authorities ordered a three-day Davis Cup match between Sweden and Israel to be played behind closed doors, citing security fears and anti-Israeli protests in the wake of the Gaza offensive.


The same week the Women’s Tennis Association fined the Dubai Championships $300,000 for denying Israeli player Shahar Peer a visa in late February because of her nationality, and barring her from tournament play.


However, examples of improved diplomatic relations after athletic competitions can also be found in the recent past. Last week Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan told the press that Turkey and Armenia were close to full normalisation of diplomatic ties.


The leaders of the estranged countries have reportedly met six times since a September football match between the two national teams; an event that is credited with helping the two nations overcome decades of antagonism.


In the case of Venezuela and the US, Wednesday's game is their second bout in the competition and both teams have already qualified for the WBC’s second round. For Halzhauer, the outcome of the game will not deteriorate relations further.


“We have already issued 25 visas related to the BWC,” says Halzhauer. “These cultural and sporting events build lasting ties that help overcome the ups and downs of politics.”


However, according to historian Durry, it’s rare that sporting competitions have a direct influence on diplomatic relations. More often, he says, it’s the other way round: charged political circumstances can have a significant effect on athletes’ performance, weighing heavily on their motivation to win international competitions.

Date created : 2009-03-11