Article of the day: Kosovo's upcoming Iceland match is more than just football — it's a diplomatic score

Kosovo's upcoming Iceland match is more than just football — it's a diplomatic score

Loïc Trégourès, Université de Lille 2 – Université de Lille
Australian football star Besart Berisha recently flew to Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, to play for the country where he was born. “For me, it’s a very exciting time and I hope I have a great game,” he told the press. The Conversation
Set for March 25, the game – Kosovo against Iceland – is part of the first round of qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. But it is much more than a simple football match. Sports diplomacy has been the most successful strategy implemented by Kosovo to garner international recognition.
It’s been nine years since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, after Kosovo Albanians sought independence during the Yugoslavian wars. Existing tensions rose to a climax between Kosovo Albanians and Serbs, culminating in the Kosovo War of 1998 to 1999, which required UN intervention.
Kosovo’s journey towards full international recognition is still going, with 114 UN member states recognising the country so far. Chinese and Russian opposition to recognise the country prevents Kosovo from becoming a member of the UN; recently, Russia reassured Serbia that it would not change its position.
Most countries that recognised Kosovo did so in 2008-2009. Since then, the supportive countries have been few, and the numbers of recognition have come to a standstill in past years – unless Serbia finally takes a stand to officially recognise Kosovo (which seems highly unlikely). Thus, the strategy of using sport as a tool of visibility and legitimacy allows Kosovo to claim its political existence.

Kosovo’s branding strategies

To bypass this deadlock, the country has adopted alternative strategies. Its very active digital diplomacy led to its recognition by Facebook: users can now select “Kosovo” as their country of origin, while Serbia was the default option before. A 2016 Oscar nomination for a short film also created buzz.
Sport is also being actively used as a diplomatic tool. It wasn’t incidental that during his congratulatory address to Kosovo on independence, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson mentioned the country’s FIFA membership and the Olympic title won by judo champion Maljinda Kelmendi as tremendous successes for the country. Participation in international sporting events is a symbolic way for a specific country to show evidence of its very existence.
Who could deny that Kosovo existed when Kelmendi won the 2016 Rio Olympics title in judo before the world’s eyes? Who can deny the country exists when its football national team is part of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers?
Taking part in an international sporting event makes it possible for a state – especially a young or small one – to get on the map, to accustom the world to seeing its flag and hearing its national anthem. In this sense, sport is a tool of soft power and an affordable way to be granted international symbolic recognition.
Croatia, Qatar and Jamaica, to name a few, are familiar with this process; athletics has given them a visibility far greater than their political weight in the world.
For Kosovo, the crucial decision came in late 2014 when the International Olympic Committee unanimously decided to admit the country as an official member, opening the way for other international sport federation to do the same. FIFA and the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) followed in 2016.
In fact, Kosovo’s path to FIFA membership started shortly after independence in 2008 thanks to Fadil Vokrri, a former Partizan Belgrade player who had represented the Yugoslav national team in the 1980s. He became president of the Kosovo football federation in 2008 and, acknowledging that his country wouldn’t be granted membership before a majority of countries politically recognised it, advocated a step-by-step approach – from getting Kosovo into the international transfer system to allowing its teams to play friendly games, which FIFA did in 2013.

Football diplomacy

The Kosovo example embodies how political football can be. First, while high-profile members of FIFA were keen on accepting Kosovo, then-UEFA president Michel Platini was against the move, calling the case political.
Second, because Serbia and other countries, such as Russia, Greece and Spain, were opposed to FIFA allowing Kosovo even to play friendlies the league had to negotiate with both UEFA and Serbia to find a compromise.
That’s why FIFA didn’t allow Kosovo to play friendly games before 2013 even though it was technically possible. FIFA’s president at the time, Sepp Blatter, insisted on negotiating an agreement with the Serbian federation instead of making a unilateral decision.

Football embodies Kosovo’s claim into the UEFA Poland, 2012. Blerimuka/Wikimedia, CC BY-ND

The game-changer seems to have been a 2013 Belgrade-Pristina political agreement, made off the record and signed under EU supervision. In it, Serbia pledged to stop obstructing Kosovo’s path to international sporting organisations.
Still, Serbia continues to work against Kosovo’s recognition in other international organisations such as UNESCO. When Kosovo recently applied to become a member it was rejected by 50 countries.
It is Vokrri’s hope that the Kosovo national team will one day be a symbol of the country’s civic identity that includes every citizen, regardless of nationality – Albanian, Serb or Roma. It could be, he told me in an interview, much like the Bosnian national team, which is now ethnically mixed.
For scholars seeking to learn about identity dynamics and inclusiveness in Kosovo, it seems there is no better tool than football.
Loïc Trégourès, Docteur en science politique, chercheur au CERAPS, Université de Lille 2 – Université de Lille
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Article of the day: Asia's Olympic moment has its roots in Cold War politics

Asia's Olympic moment has its roots in Cold War politics

Stefan Huebner, National University of Singapore
China, host of the 2008 Summer and 2022 Winter Olympic Games, has turned into a major sports power, if its medal tally at the recent Rio Olympics is any indication. Japan, which will hold the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, and South Korea, where the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games will be held, are further examples of the growing influence of a group of Asian countries in the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The Conversation
Taken together, this indicates that “the time of Asia” in the Olympic movement has indeed arrived, as IOC president Thomas Bach recently said.
But East Asia is not all of Asia. An Indian bid for the Olympic Games, for instance, seems unrealistic in the near future. And southeast and Central Asian countries’ bids to host the 2000 or 2008 Summer Olympics have also been unsuccessful.
Iran is the anomaly; until the Islamic Revolution in 1979, it was considered a very serious candidate for hosting Olympic Summer Games. Some other countries in West Asia and the Middle East, such as Qatar (the host of the controversial 2022 FIFA World Cup and an unsuccessful bidder for the 2016 and 2020 Summer Olympics), have recently gained a noteworthy influence in sports affairs as a result of their financial wealth.
Many of these developments go back to the 1970s. This period saw a large-scale reconfiguration of Olympic sport in Asia and demands to give Asian countries more influence at the IOC. But it was the Seventh Asian Games (Tehran 1974), a regional sporting event and training platform for the Olympics held under the patronage of the IOC, that accelerated the “rise” of the above-mentioned Asian countries in the Olympic movement.

The ‘two Chinas’ problem

The struggle for legitimacy between China and Taiwan is the background to all this. Since 1949, both have claimed to be the sole representative of “China”. This meant that each country was unwilling to participate in any sporting event in which the other country was also taking part.
China had left the Olympic movement in 1958 as a direct result of its conflict with Taiwan. And the Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966, resulted in Beijing’s withdrawal from all other international sporting events.
The country returned to the Olympic Games only in 1980. Its return was the result of earlier negotiations with the IOC about Beijing’s intended participation in the Seventh Asian Games in 1974.
One of China’s main supporters was Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s Iran. His engagements with China led to increased anti-Soviet political cooperation after Tehran diplomatically recognised Beijing in 1971.
Shortly afterwards, Beijing took the seat of “China” in the United Nations, which had been held by Taipei until then. This was the result of decolonisation and of a growing number of UN member countries being sympathetic to Beijing’s claim.
The Japanese members of the Asian Games Federation were also important supporters of China’s participation. The Japanese had come to the conclusion that Beijing represented China and intended to make the Asian Games more of a challenge by including Chinese athletes.
Simultaneously, the Tehran Games, the first hosting of an Asian Games event in West Asia, had a strong impact on many of the Arab countries in the region. Some of them had only shortly beforehand experienced decolonisation and a financial boom through the first Oil Crisis in 1973.
In the end, seven of them joined the Asian Games Federation before or during the Seventh Games, which encouraged their involvement in Olympic sports affairs.

The geopolitical background

Geopolitical shifts had a massive impact on the Iranian government’s plan to leverage China to counterbalance the Soviet Union. Strong ideological tensions had emerged between China and the Soviet Union since the late 1950s.
The reason for the heightened concern over the USSR in the 1970s was the 1969 declaration by an overstretched Britain of its intent to permanently withdraw all its troops based east of the Suez Canal by 1971. This decision strongly contributed to the decolonisation process in the Persian Gulf.
These tensions eventually convinced the Iranians that China could be used to limit the USSR’s freedom of action.
Intensifying cooperation with other Asian countries, and especially with China through the hosting of the Seventh Asian Games, was a way to support Iran’s anti-USSR plan.
After Japan and China normalised relations in September 1972 and the Japanese Olympic Committee became interested in bringing China into the Asian Games, discussions with the Iranians intensified. A final decision was reached at an Asian Games Federation council meeting on November 16 1973.
The People’s Republic was chosen as the representative of China. And Taiwan was expelled from the Asian Games until 1990, when it accepted being renamed as “Chinese Taipei”, leaving its international status vague.
International sports federations and the IOC, by then tired of decades of Cold War-related political quarrels within the Olympic movement, eventually accepted China’s participation and the highly problematic discrimination against Taiwan.

Asia’s growing influence

China’s return to the Olympic movement via the Seventh Asian Games had a significant influence on its participation in the Olympics beginning with the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid.
The IOC’s acceptance of the Asian countries’ decision regarding China and especially Taiwan highlighted Japan’s growing importance on the world stage, given that it had already hosted the Olympics twice – in 1964 and 1972.
Though less influential, Arab countries also became more involved in Olympic affairs through the Seventh Asian Games. Only Iran was unable to utilise this newly gained influence.
Then-IOC president Lord Killanin, who had attended the Seventh Asian Games, judged Tehran qualified to host the Summer Olympics in 1980 (eventually held in Moscow) and 1984 (eventually held in Los Angeles). The Shah’s government, though, had to deal with the superpowers’ own desires to host these events and in 1979 was overthrown by the Islamic Revolution. Needless to say, the new government was not interested in continuing these plans.
Iran never applied for the 1988 Summer Games. These games then took place in South Korea, the second Asian country ever chosen (instead of Iran) to host the Olympics.
In the case of Southeast Asia, the next Asian Games (Jakarta and Palembang 2018) will reveal if Indonesia is willing – and able – to host the Olympic Games in the not too distant future.
Stefan Huebner, Research Fellow in Asian and Global History, National University of Singapore
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Article of the day: Cheerleading’s peculiar path to potential Olympic sport

Cheerleading's peculiar path to potential Olympic sport

Jaime Schultz, Pennsylvania State University
Is cheerleading a sport?
The International Olympic Committee thinks so. In December, the IOC’s executive board voted to provisionally recognize cheerleading. This means that for the next three years, the IOC will provide the International Cheer Union (ICU) with at least US$25,000 annually to promote the sport. During that time, the ICU can apply for full Olympic recognition in the Summer Olympic Games. ICU president Jeff Webb called the decision a “monumental milestone for cheerleading” and “the culmination of my life’s work.”
I study the history of women’s sport, which makes me curious about Webb’s enthusiasm for the IOC’s decision. In the past, he has argued against classifying cheerleading as a sport. So why the sudden reversal?
The IOC’s decision isn’t the first time a major organization has played a role in determining whether cheerleading is a sport. A brief history shows that the debate is more complicated – and more political – than it might seem.

A brief history of cheer

Cheerleading dates back to the late 1800s, when U.S. college football started gaining popularity. “Cheer leading” – as it was then known – was for men only and the “rooter kings” and “yell leaders” were often captains of other sports teams. The prestige of the position, The Nation wrote in 1911, was “hardly second to that of having been a quarter-back.”
Around the 1930s, girls and women began pushing for inclusion. By World War II, the demographics of most squads changed, and cheerleading transformed from a physical activity to a primarily social activity.
Soon, professional teams found that cheerleaders’ wholesome sexuality boosted the entertainment value of their product. By the mid-1970s, an estimated 95 percent of all cheerleaders were girls and women.

A business booms

Title IX of the Education Amendment Acts of 1972 ushered in the first debate over cheerleading’s status as a sport. School administrators who hoped to count cheerleaders as athletes in order to comply with the new law were soon disappointed. In 1975, the Office of Civil Rights resolved that cheerleading was an “extracurricular activity,” not a sport. That is, it was more like marching band than basketball.
With a range of new athletic opportunities brought about by Title IX and a changing society, girls and women began to turn away from cheerleading. In response, leaders of the emerging “spirit industry,” who sought to expand and profit from the activity, made it more athletic by encouraging the use of acrobatic stunts and tumbling. Leading the charge was Jeff Webb, a former collegiate cheerleader who, in 1974, founded the Universal Cheerleaders Association and, later, the Varsity Spirit Corporation.
Webb held his first training camp in the summer of 1975. In 1979 Varsity began selling cheerleading uniforms; in 1980 it held the first high school cheerleading championship, which ESPN broadcast in 1983. Since then, Varsity has either acquired or driven out its competitors to virtually corner the cheerleading market.
By the 1990s, cheerleaders were athletes, and Varsity was big business.
Today, Varsity Spirit is part of Varsity Brands Inc., which, among its many holdings, includes a staggering and diverse number of cheerleading and dance assets, including USA Cheer, the National Cheerleaders Association (once a rival organization), the National Dance Alliance, American Cheerleader magazine, Cheerleading.com and Varsity.tv. It hosts camps and clinics and stages cheerleading’s biggest competitions. It owns cheerleading gyms and academies around the world. It provides cheerleading insurance and coaching safety and certification courses. But Varsity’s biggest moneymaker is its uniforms and accessories division. Experts estimate it commands more than 80 percent of the market.
Varsity Brands also backs the ICU.

Follow the money?

To be clear, competitive cheerleading – the variety the ICU and related groups promote – is distinct from traditional sideline cheerleading, where supportive auxiliaries rally crowds and promote school spirit. While cheerleaders can participate in both varieties of the activity, competitive cheer focuses on contests against other squads at the local, regional, national and now international levels.
A key moment in cheerleading history came with the 2010 Biediger v. Quinnipiac University case, in which Quinnipiac volleyball players and their coach filed suit after university administrators cut their team. In place of volleyball, they promoted competitive cheerleading to varsity sport status.
At the trial, Webb took the stand as an expert witness to testify that cheerleading was not a sport. The judge agreed, deciding that “Competitive cheer may, some time in the future, qualify as a sport under Title IX; today, however, the activity is still too underdeveloped and disorganized to be treated as offering genuine varsity athletic participation opportunities for students.”
Critics contend that Webb’s testimony had everything to do with Varsity’s bottom line. If cheerleading became a recognized sport, it would need to abide by regulations that limited athletes’ practice sessions and competitive seasons, just like any other sport. This would have undermined Varsity’s for-profit competitions, camps, clinics and any number of ventures in which Varsity engages. As the Houston Press pointed out:
“In one of Varsity’s 2003 filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission (Varsity was briefly a public company), the company stated that recognition of cheerleading as an official sport and the ensuing increased regulation ‘would likely have a material adverse affect on Varsity’s business, financial condition and results of operations.’”
Webb and his supporters countered that by disallowing sideline activities and other traditional duties, competition-only teams would ruin cheerleading as we know it. Although squads may, from time to time, compete, their primary duties are to provide support to other teams and to their respective schools.

Toward a new kind of sport

In the meantime, safety concerns have compelled the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association and a number of state high school athletic federations to define cheerleading as a sport. Varsity has fought this trend. But advocates argue that sport status will provide cheerleaders with better equipment and facilities, better training for the coaches and scholastic oversight.
For these same reasons, a number of other schools, including Quinnipiac, joined together to form the National Collegiate Acrobatics and Tumbling Association (NCATA). The organization currently boasts 17 member institutions, headed by the University of Oregon and Baylor University
NCATA officials took careful pains to divorce their sport from cheerleading. Gone are the typical uniforms, the chants and the pom-poms. The competition format and skill set are unique. The group’s website notes that acrobatics and tumbling (A&T) is “the evolution of different forms of gymnastics” that includes only “the athletic aspects of cheerleading.” With the backing of USA Gymnastics, the NCATA has since petitioned the NCAA for “emerging sport” status (like provisional recognition from the IOC, it’s not a championship sport but could become one in the future).
Not to be outdone, USA Cheer (part of Varsity Brands; tax documents show Webb as director) approached the NCAA with its own cheer-gymnastic hybrid called STUNT.
So according to Webb and his compatriots, STUNT is a sport, but cheerleading isn’t – except when it comes to the Olympics.

A slippery definition

I’m not trying to come down on one side of the debate, and I’m not arguing against cheerleading’s place on the Olympic program. But after trying to sort through the logic behind that decision, I’m a bit skeptical. Or maybe I’m just confused.
Perhaps most confusing is that the ICU is not pushing for STUNT to become an Olympic sport; it’s pushing for cheerleading, which Webb and his Varsity compatriots unfailingly maintain isn’t a sport.
It’s not clear what Olympic cheerleading competitions might look like, but the ICU’s website shows both coed and all-female divisions, with categories in team cheer, team performance cheer (with a note in the rules that stipulates “No cheers or chants allowed”) and partner and group stunts.
We might even see yet another version at the Olympic level. This is because when the ICU initially sought membership with SportAccord – a crucial step in getting official IOC recognition – the international governing body of gymnastics (F.I.G.) opposed the application on the grounds that “Cheerleading is Gymnastics and that Cheerleading is not a distinct Sport.” The ICU could only gain acceptance after its representatives signed a contract that essentially maintained “Cheer/Chant” in its original iteration and looked nothing like gymnastics. In other words, the version of cheerleading the ICU hopes to appear on the Olympic program is the same version of cheerleading Webb consistently asserts is not a sport.
So is cheerleading a sport? I guess it depends on who you ask and why you’re asking.
The IOC’s most recent decision to provisionally recognize cheer doesn’t necessarily mean we will see it at 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. But we might. And it’s too early to tell what, exactly, we’ll be cheering.
The Conversation
Jaime Schultz, Associate Professor of Kinesiology, Pennsylvania State University
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Article of the day: ECHR: Swiss Muslim girls must attend mixed-sex swimming lessons

J. Rankin, ECHR: Swiss Muslim girls must attend mixed-sex swimming lesson, The Guardian (10 January 2017)

Swiss authorities did not violate right to freedom of religion in rejecting parents’ request for exemption, court rules

Switzerland has won a case at the European court of human rights over its insistence that Muslim parents send their children to mixed-sex school swimming lessons.
The Strasbourg-based court ruled that Swiss authorities had not violated the right to freedom of religion by insisting that two Muslim parents send their daughters to mixed-sex swimming lessons.
 See https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jan/10/echr-swiss-muslim-girls-must-attend-mixed-sex-swimming-lessons for the article



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Ancient Greece at the Kobe City Museum

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