Few would argue that organised sport is anything but a game. Whether it’s at the local level, where clubs often serve as community rallying points, or in the high-stakes game of international competition, sport is just as much about politics and business as it is about play.
So important, in fact, is organised sport in this country that most people will tell newcomers that it’s one of the best ways to meet Danes. Participation as a volunteer for a sports club even earns foreigners points towards permanent residency.
Given the importance placed on sport, and the image it presents to the outside world, it should come as no surprise that when participating in international sporting events risks putting the country in a bad light, decision makers are quick to air any reservations they might have.
Such was the case in 2008, when China’s human rights record had many calling for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics. At that time, the debate centred on whether to attend the Olympics and engage China or stay home as a sign of protest.
With the European football championship set to get underway at the beginning of June, Denmark has joined the discussion over whether to boycott matches in Ukraine, which is co-host of the tournament together with Poland, due to questions about the treatment of jailed former Ukrainian PM Julia Tymoshenko.
Uffe Elbæk, the culture minister, summed up his dilemma nicely by indicating that he has a duty to both the athletes and the country’s reputation. At a time of economic and social upheaval, however, there are two other important groups he should consider before making a decision to keep the team at home.
The first is the group of businesses that in the 2010-2011 season paid over 100 million kroner in sponsorships and TV rights to the Danish football association DBU. With Denmark playing in one of the world’s largest football events, the amount for this season is likely to be far in excess of that. For businesses and the DBU alike, the European championship offers them a lucrative marketing platform they’d be disappointed to lose.
The second group is the millions of people planning to sit down in front of the TV this summer to watch Denmark play. While few of them would ever be under the impression that the game isn’t everything (or dare claim that human rights is more important than sport) most would argue that, where the games are played – be that Ukraine, Poland or, as some have suggested, Germany – is less important than the action on the pitch.