The Sports Boycott of Nigeria: Sports, Politics and Human Rights

By Siekmann, R. C. R. | The International Sports Law Journal, January-April 2008 | Go to article overview

The Sports Boycott of Nigeria: Sports, Politics and Human Rights


Siekmann, R. C. R., The International Sports Law Journal


On the subject of international sports boycotts many discussions have taken place in this country, especially in the 1970's and 1980's. Sports contacts with South Africa were permanently on the agenda. In 1978, the participation of the Dutch national soccer team in the soccer World Championship in Argentina was questioned. In 1980 and four years later the Olympic Games in Moscow and Los Angeles suffered from boycotts. In 1993 the United Nations instituted a sports boycott against Yugoslavia 'minor'. The international practice match between the Netherlands and Nigeria has once again placed the problem of the relationship between sports and politics in the limelight. What is special about this case is that it involves a regional boycott, namely instituted by the European Union.

South Africa

UN resolutions (since 1971) displayed the tendency to aim to prohibit all sports contacts with South Africa. To begin with, only contacts with teams or sportsmen selected on racial grounds were discouraged. The International Declaration against apartheid in sports (1977) however, took the position that a completely integrated, non-racial exercise of sports in a country like South Africa could not exist under the apartheid regime and it was couched in binding terms. The Netherlands initially voted in favour of the resolutions and the government requested the national sports associations to abstain from 'racial' sports contacts. The International Declaration was not voted on by our country, as the government had to respect the autonomy of sports organizations and could not curtail the freedom of movement of Dutch nationals, that is to say, could not limit the freedom to leave one's country (see international human rights treaties: ICCPR, ECHR). The Netherlands could not agree with the proposition that each and every sports contact should be broken off, regardless of whether the sports organization in question was founded on racial principles or not.

The application and interpretation of the non-racial criterium was further developed in practice. The government appeared to only accord political consequences to national sports representation. With regard to respecting the autonomy of the sports associations, the Paralympics case (judgments of the Administrative Law Division of the Council of State, 1980) illustrated the point that it may be impossible to separate sports from politics, but that the government is bound to respect the sports associations' own responsibility and, where necessary, needs to live up to its own responsibility.

In 1982, the government policy regarding sports contacts with South Africa was intensified. All sports contacts with South Africa were discouraged from then on, irrespective of whether racial or nonracial sports contacts were involved, or international or non-international sports representation. The political significance of sports contacts with South Africa became decisive. It was, however, still understood that the sports associations had to abide by the regulations of international sports organizations.

The Dutch Sports Federation (NSF) could agree to this government standpoint, which resulted in the sports associations being discouraged from engaging in friendly sports contacts with South Africa. International obligations, however, still had to be met.

Then, the Minister of Foreign Affairs formulated a visa policy which in reality ruled out in advance any sports contact with South Africans in the Netherlands. The NSF justifiedly protested this. The complete non-participation of South Africans could now, in fact, be forced by the government through visa policy. This was not in accordance with previously formulated policy, in which respect for the sports associations' autonomy and their international obligations were apparent features. The government consequently adjusted the criteria for granting visa so as to allow exceptions to the highly restrictive policy. …

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