HL Deb 31 January 1980 vol 404 cc979-83

3.5 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what advice they have it in mind to tender to the sports organisations concerned about participation by British competitors in the Olympic Games scheduled at present to take place in Moscow this year.


My Lords, we believe that as a first step we should urge the removal of the Summer Games from Moscow. Noble Lords will know from the Statement made by my noble friend the Foreign Secretary last Thursday in your Lordships' House that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister wrote to the British Olympic Association asking them to urge the International Olympic Committee to take the necessary action. The Association, in reply, agreed to put our suggestion forward.


My Lords, thank my noble friend for that reply. Might it not assist consideration of this sensitive matter if it could also be indicated to the young athletes in question that, while no one would advocate putting physical barriers in the way of their attending these Games if they want, even in Moscow, they might feel themselves in an unhappy position parading before and receiving the plaudits of a Government whose troops are engaged in aggression in several parts of the world?


My Lords, I think that for the moment we really must wait to see the results of the efforts to have the Games removed from Moscow. We entirely recognise that athletes who have trained so hard for so many years should have a chance to compete for medals, but, in view of world events, not now in Moscow. If the IOC refuses to relocate, we shall then have to consider the options open to us; but I think that to try to anticipate events now would be unsatis- factory, and could possibly even be counter-productive.


My Lords, would the noble Lord not recognise that the strong probabilities are that we shall not be able to get the Games transferred from Moscow; and, that being so, would Her Majesty's Government not agree that the next alternative will be to take action such as that suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, in order to bring such moral pressure as they can to bear on the athletes not to attend? Would they also consider the possibility of, by one means or another, not giving any publicity in this country to the Games?


My Lords, I think I must revert to the earlier point I made, that it is a question of timing. I think that one should wait. There is, indeed, an indication that there is growing concern around the world about this whole matter, and I think it might be prudent to wait until we have the result that we are now seeking from the Olympic International Committee.


My Lords, while welcoming the tone of the Minister's response, may I, as the chairman for some four years of the International Committee of the Sports Council, ask him whether he is aware—and I think his Answer implies that he is—that there is a strong feeling in this country, I think, among sporting people that the Games should be moved from Moscow but that they should not be boycotted, because that would damage our athletes who have tried so hard? If it is not possible to transfer them this year, then would it not be feasible to hold the Games next year? Because, as I understand it, there is no hard and fast rule that they must be every four years.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for the point which she makes, but I really think I have to say again that that, and indeed all aspects of it, should await the outcome of the representations which have been made.

The Marquess of ABERDEEN and TEMAIR

My Lords, is not relocation (which is a pretty horrible word in itself) this year absolutely out of the question in view of the fact that the principal impact of a modern Olympic Games is as a vast, worldwide television spectacular, with multilingual radio coverage, which is just as hard to organise, and that there simply is not the time or the resources to do it?


My Lords, it may well be that events would show that to be the case; but it might also be considered that if the 104 countries who expressed their condemnation at the United Nations really wanted to put themselves to the point where there could be relocation, then difficult it may be, even unsatisfactory in many ways it may be, but impossible, I would suggest, it is not.

The Marquess of EXETER

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the question of transferring the Games elsewhere is quite impracticable at this short notice? As an organiser of the London Games (which I was) I know some of the problems on these occasions. Is the Minister also aware, which I expect he is, that the Games do not belong to the host country but to the International Olympic Committee and that the moment the Games start, when the flag goes up, they are handed over to the International Olympic Committee and to the International Federation? Is he also aware that they are backed by 137 Olympic committees in the world, and they are controlled by the representatives of the various sports in their countries—and there are 26 of these sports? This is a matter which does not affect something merely on the surface but affects millions of people in the world. Does he realise that international sport is the one great worldwide, generally accepted movement through which the young can get together in friendship and understanding; and that it would be a tragedy if we were to do something to damage it?


My Lords, the answer to the several supplementary questions which my noble friend posed is, Yes, the Minister is very much aware. I should have thought that, perhaps better than most, my noble friend would agree that it is as well to take one hurdle at a time. While we have entire sympathy with all the points which my noble friend has made, I think that we must recognise, like it or not, that the Afghanistan invasion and the implications which flow from it have given the Moscow Olympics enormous political significance. To carry on as if nothing had happened would be to acquiesce in, and to contribute to, a massive propaganda exercise by the Russians.


My Lords, would the Minister say whether the Government have taken fully into account the advice given by Mr. Edward Heath recently, that the Government had jumped in feet first without thinking out their policy—which seems to be in touch with every aspect of their political activity?


My Lords, I am quite sure that the Government take advice from all quarters, from whatever surprising direction it may come.


My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Olympic Regatta is scheduled to take place in an occupied country, a country occupied forcibly by the Soviet Union against the wish of the people, namely, Estonia? Whatever the difficulties may be in resiting the main events away from Moscow, should not every effort be made to relocate the Regatta away from Tallinn?


My Lords, I repeat what I said earlier: that the wisest thing would be to wait to see what happens. The Government are close to this and are watching carefully. We should wait to see what occurs.


My Lords, would the Minister agree that even if it were found possible for the Games to be changed to another venue this year, or to postpone the Games until next year or possibly to hold them somewhere else, the inevitable consequence would be that the Eastern bloc would not take part in the Games if they were held anywhere else; and that that would mean effectively the end of the Olympic Games?


My Lords, that is a point of view. No one should belittle all the problems and difficulties surrounding this sensitive matter. I merely repeat that the wisest thing is to wait and see what happens to the representations we have made.

The Earl of ONSLOW

My Lords, is the Minister aware that several athletes have said that they want to go to Russia to win a gold medal for Britain? This, I am sure the Minister is aware, implies a sense of patriotism. Is there not a slightly more important sense of patriotism implied, in that if they do go to Moscow, however much they want to win a gold medal for Britain, they may be endangering Britain's other interests, as in 1936, and possibly endangering other British lives?


My Lords, again I repeat my original point, which I think wisest in all the circumstances. Possibly, the more that one says at this moment, the more one would exacerbate the situation, which is very sensitive. We might well wait on events and be assured that the Government are watching closely.


My Lords, is it not a fact, as history shows, that, whatever the position of the Olympic Committee to which my noble friend's attention has been drawn by our noble friend, the host country almost always treats the Games as a major public relations exercise? Was this not particularly so when the Games were last held in a dictatorship country, in Berlin in 1936?


My Lords, I thought that I had made that point myself; but I am grateful to my noble friend for confirming it.


My Lords, would the Minister consider, in view of the public interest in this subject and the divergent opinions expressed, that perhaps time might be made available for a proper debate and discussion instead of this question-and-answer business? Would he not agree that at the moment it seems that Her Majesty's Government are doing the right thing in the wrong way and most of the Olympic bodies the wrong thing in the right way?


My Lords, I am sure that I would not be expected to acquiesce in that; but I am also sure that Her Majesty's Government will have taken note of the concern expressed and that, through the usual channels, no doubt that will be considered.