• Top Tens: Sporting boycotts

When sport gets political

Jo Carter March 11, 2010
Allan Wells was Britain's first Olympic sprint champion since Harold Abrahams in 1924 © Getty Images

The world's best tennis players gather in California this week for the prestigious Indian Wells tournament, with two notable absences. The Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, have boycotted the event since 2001, when they claimed they were victims of racist chanting. And with the Red Knights urging Manchester United fans to boycott their purchase of season tickets to force the Glazers out of Old Trafford, we take a look at some other sporting boycotts.

Moscow Olympics - 1980
Where else could we start but with the most famous sporting boycott of all time? In protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the year before, the United States led a boycott that saw only 80 out of 147 nations compete at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. Great Britain supported the boycott, but British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was powerless to stop individual athletes travelling to the games. The athletes competed under the Olympic flag and Britain's five gold medals were celebrated to the Olympic anthem. With the United States and West Germany absent, Britain won five golds, including Seb Coe's gold in the 1500m, Steve Ovett in the 800 and Allan Wells in the 100m. Many of the boycotting nations participated instead in the Olympic Boycott Games in Philadelphia.

Los Angeles Olympics - 1984
In what was seen as a direct retaliation, the Soviet Union and its allies boycotted the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles four years later. The reasons for the boycott were given as concerns over security, but everybody sensed it was politically motivated. With the exception of Romania, the entire Eastern bloc and Cuba joined the boycott. With many world-class athletes absent, the USA won a record 83 gold medals. "It ought to be remembered by all [that] the Games more than 2,000 years ago started as a means of bringing peace between the Greek city-states," said US President Ronald Reagan." And in those days, even if a war was going on, they called off the war in order to hold the Games. I wish we were still as civilized."

South Africa tour of England - 1970
South Africa's cricket team, widely considered to be the world's leading Test nation, were due to visit England in the summer of 1970. However, after strong protests built up against South Africa's apartheid regime, the series was cancelled at short notice by the English Cricket Council, following a request from the then Home Secretary, James Callaghan. Anti-apartheid activist Peter Hain, who later became secretary of state for Northern Ireland, spearheaded the Stop The Seventy Tour campaign. "There was an escalating tension and pressure in the final weeks," Hain said. "When the tour was eventually cancelled I was relieved beyond belief." In its place, arrangements were hurriedly made for England to play five 'Tests' against a Rest of the World team consisting of a galaxy of top international cricket stars, captained by West Indies' Garry Sobers.

FIFA World Cup - 1930
At the first World Cup, Uruguay, the Olympic champions were chosen as host nation after offering to pay for the travel bills for the competing nations. The four other applicants: Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden refused to travel to South America, and Austria, Germany, Czechoslovakia and Switzerland all withdrew, citing a three-week boat trip as the reason. With the home nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland all absent because of a rift with FIFA, the USA reached the semi-finals with a team made up of a number of English and Scottish players.

With all their closest rivals retiring after the formation lap, Ferrari picked up an easy 18 points at Indianapolis © Getty Images

US Grand Prix - 2005
During Friday's afternoon practice session ahead of the US Grand Prix at Indianapolis, Toyota's Ralf Schumacher crashed badly, reported to be as a result of rear-left tyre failure. Michelin, who provided tyres for seven of the ten teams on the grid, advised the teams that their tyres were not safe to use for the race. The F1 rules that season forbade tyre changes, and after failing to agree a compromise with the FIA, the seven teams lined up on the grid, but on the formation lap, the teams running with Michelin all retired to the pits, leaving just six cars to start the race. With his key rivals absent, Michael Schumacher won the race, but the American crowd, unaware of the politics in the paddock, were appalled when car after car peeled into the pit lane.

Lions tour to South Africa - 1986
Despite Britain's agreement to the Commonwealth nations' 1977 Gleaneagles Agreement discouraging sporting contact with South Africa, the 1980 British & Irish Lions tour of South Africa went ahead. However, the 1986 tour was cancelled as a protest against apartheid. A Test match against a World XV at the Cardiff Arms Stadium was held in its place.

South African Grand Prix - 1982
Niki Lauda led a drivers' strike at the first race of the 1982 season in Kyalami. The drivers protested against the new "superlicences", required for participation in the championship, which Lauda believed would unfairly tie drivers to their teams. Most of the drivers locked themselves in a conference room overnight before agreement was reached that the relevant clauses could be re-visited and the race was reinstated. However, after the race, the stewards backtracked and suspended the licences of the drivers involved in the strike.

Three-time Grand Slam champion Jan Kodes never won any other titles on grass © Getty Images

Wimbledon - 1973
It was the year that the little-known Czechoslovakian clay-courter Jan Kodes won the most prestigious tennis tournament of the year. To the despair of the All England Club and the British public, some of the biggest names in men's game boycotted Wimbledon. The newly-formed players' union, the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) came out in support of Yugoslavia's Nikki Pilic who was suspended by tennis' governing body the International Lawn Tennis Federation (now the International Tennis Federation) over his non-appearance at a Davis Cup tie against New Zealand. The ATP announced that their members would boycott Wimbledon, and true to their word, 79 players refused to play. Although Britain's Roger Taylor played, and 1972 finalist Ilie Nastase refused to withdraw, just three of the original 16 seeds remained.

Montreal Olympics - 1976
Although the Moscow Oympics is the most well-known of the Olympic boycotts, it was the 1976 African-led anti-apartheid boycott of the games in Montreal that saw the first politically-motivated widespread boycott. African nations objected to the International Olympic Committee's refusal to ban New Zealand, following the All Blacks' tour to South Africa earlier that year, in defiance of the general ban on sporting contact with the apartheid regime. Approximately 20 of the 26 countries who had withdrawn from the competition had already travelled to Montreal but returned home. Many of the nations had flown to Canada too, but flew home in protest without competing. Kenya's foreign minister James Osago said: "The government and the people of Kenya hold the view that principles are more precious than medals."

Zimbabwe tour of England - 2009
After months of uncertainty, the ECB cancelled Zimbabwe's tour scheduled for the summer of 2009. The ECB followed instructions from the British government. "We want to ensure that Zimbabwe does not tour England next year and we will call for other countries to join us in banning Zimbabwe from the Twenty20 international tournament," said Gordon Brown. Andrew Strauss had suggested that players may consider boycotting matches if the government failed to take a stance. "It's a great relief in many ways," said England's one-day captain, Paul Collingwood. "It's been going on since 2001, since I've been playing cricket [for England] and it's good that it's been taken out of our hands." Zimbabwe pulled out of the World Twenty20 soon after.

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Jo Carter is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk