Michael Houston

Most of us eye roll at the "keep politics out of sport" line thrown around by some whenever political expression is suggested in any form at a competition - it completely ignores the origins of sport, its clubs and its communities to blanket ban anything remotely political.

My boyhood club Celtic - that's me lost half of the support of Glasgow now - was founded as a space for Irish Catholic immigrants during a period in which those of that religion were very much second-class citizens in Scotland and would continue to be for another century. 

Seeing the club's Board of Director try to distance themselves from political activism for similar people groups such as Palestinians is disheartening and against the ethos of which the club was founded on, done under the guise of being apolitical.

More so, those anti-politics individuals neglect to mention that sport is politics. Not just in its foundations, but in the way it is governed. International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach may try to remain apolitical, but every move he makes is with a political bias. 

Many could have argued for a cancellation of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, but to call it off would have lost the IOC money. Just hosting the Games is a political move. So, we cannot split the two from each other completely.

But there is a clear difference between athlete politics and governance; and the geopolitics creating rifts in sporting communities.

Last week, Kosovo’s boxing team was denied entry in Serbia on three separate occasions, meaning they were unable to compete at the International Boxing Association (AIBA) Men's World Championships here in Serbia.  

The history between these two states goes so far back to the days of Yugoslavia, but in short, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and has slowly since gained more recognition, to the point that half of the United Nations member states see it as an independent country.

Kosovans are culturally and ethnically closer to Albanians and see themselves separate from Serbia. 

I will not delve into this too much, there is many better sources of information on the Balkans than a man who thought Croatia would be a dangerous place to visit in 2006. 

A Bulgarian press friend out here in Belgrade summarised the Balkans as "everyone hates their neighbours". While that is jokingly exaggerated, this is very true when it comes to Kosovo and Serbia, who have not been the kindest to each other at the border. 

They can't even be drawn in the same group for UEFA football competitions due to the logistical hassle that comes with the two.

However, sometimes they are asked to play nice, particularly when hosting a World or European Championship.

Competition in Belgrade is to end on Saturday at the AIBA Men's World Boxing Championships ©ITG
Competition in Belgrade is to end on Saturday at the AIBA Men's World Boxing Championships ©ITG

This was expected for the World Boxing Championships, with the Serbian hosts signing a contract that required the organisers to allow all countries to compete without the requirement of restrictions, with this clearly stating that it would include Kosovo.

Yet, on the eve of the tournament, the team was turned away and asked AIBA for help. To their credit, AIBA cooperated and looked as if they were genuine in their attempts to get the squad to the Championships. 

Secretary general István Kovács was particularly frustrated with the hosts for seemingly lacking the effort to resolve the problem.

AIBA requested the Organising Committee to get in touch with the Serbian Government and gave a compromise that would mean Kosovan boxers would compete under a neutral flag and uniform, but this was not accepted. Just to clarify, this was part of Russia's punishment for systemic doping and it was still not enough for Serbia to allow them entry.

Some Kosovans have called to boycott AIBA over the inaction, but oddly the governing body's hands are tied and they find themselves in a conundrum over the ordeal.

If AIBA gives Serbia the ultimatum, it risks the whole World Championships, of which all athletes - except Kosovo - had arrived at. Unfortunately, sometimes sporting integrity on a governance level is not worth ending the dreams of hundreds of boxers. 

Boxers have been competing in Belgrade for over a week, with the semi-finals taking place today ©AIBA
Boxers have been competing in Belgrade for over a week, with the semi-finals taking place today ©AIBA

Cancelling the competition does nothing except harm the athletes and - from a more selfish point of view for AIBA - any revenue coming from the Championships. Even a cynic can see that athletes would be incredibly upset to lose out due to geopolitics, an opportunity they do not get back.

It is almost impressive the arrogance that Serbia has shown in their defiance of the governing body. Personally, I wouldn't be that brave, I would have a full welcome dinner and recognise Kosovo as a state as an apology. But the hosts importantly had the leverage to ignore this.

The Serbian Government played a game of chicken with AIBA, knowing they would win. All the agreements in the world did not matter because nothing could be done about it on the eve of the tournament.

Kovács was right in this sense when he said politics should not come into sport, as in borders should not prohibit athletes from competing. This is what "no politics in sport" should really be about.

AIBA promised they will speak to other International Federations who are hosting events in Serbia to share their experiences with regards to Kosovo's exclusion, but once the ink has dried, will any bodies withdraw a tournament, particularly during a period of COVID-19 uncertainty?

The IOC were maybe too harsh by blaming AIBA for giving the country the Championships in the first place, then again, they did ask all International Federations to practise due diligence when considering Serbia or Kosovo as a host. It is the latest issue between the organisations, with boxing's spot at Paris 2024 still on the line.

Hosts Serbia is guaranteed one medal at the Men's World Boxing Championships ©AIBA
Hosts Serbia is guaranteed one medal at the Men's World Boxing Championships ©AIBA

But there is a question of whether the punishment is enough for those who boldly ignore the terms of agreement, particularly breaking rules that stop other members from competing.

Can sanctions be placed on the Serbian Boxing Federation? Would that get the message through to any other nations thinking of pulling a similar stunt? And would their National Government act more carefully if their sporting bodies were being reprimanded?

Most importantly, such measures would have to be in line with AIBA's rules and with the governing body just emerging from a tumultuous period, would another scandal cause more issues than accepting this unfortunate situation will likely only happen once?

AIBA's statements on the matter seems to suggest Serbia will not be top of their Christmas list of hosts for future tournaments, so it may be farewell to Belgrade for a while for many sporting bodies, if they follow suit.

Aside from this unnecessary bad PR for Serbia, this has been a great tournament to watch, particularly the quarter-finals on Tuesday (November 2) when many bouts were split by a cigar paper.

To think if this scandal had been resolved, the fighting would have done the talking for AIBA.