Don’t mix sport and politics says Zeman ahead of Sochi, while Čáslavská boycotts him

Miloš Zeman, photo: CTK

Evidently concerned over Russia’s human rights record, some European leaders have rejected invitations to attend the opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi in three weeks’ time. Among those who will be there is Czech President Miloš Zeman, who takes the view that sport and politics should not be mixed. Meanwhile, a great Czech Olympian is boycotting a related event in Prague because of Mr. Zeman’s presence.

Miloš Zeman,  photo: CTK
The presidents of EU countries such as Germany, France and Poland have turned down invitations to attend the opening ceremony of what will be one the biggest sporting events of 2014, the Winter Olympics in the Russian city of Sochi. The refusals came in the wake of international criticism of Russia’s treatment of homosexuals.

One head of state who will be in Sochi is Miloš Zeman. In a town hall-style debate at a secondary school on Tuesday, the Czech president told students that the issue of human rights ought to be addressed on the political level alone.

Insisting that sport and politics should not be mixed, he described the Olympics boycotts of the 1980s as nonsense – and illustrated his view with a curious literary reference.

“Once, for political reasons, they didn’t go to the Olympic Games in LA. And not long afterwards, four years later, they didn’t go to the Olympic Games in Moscow. It was a case of ‘you killed my uncle, so here’s a smack in the teeth’, as it goes in Švejk.”

Sochi,  photo: CTK
President Zeman, who is regarded as having warm relations with Moscow, says it is better to raise criticisms regarding human rights issues on the ground than to stay away completely.

One person who seems to prefer the latter strategy is ex-gymnast Věra Čáslavská, one of the country’s greatest Olympians and honorary chairwoman of the Czech Olympic Committee.

In a letter to the head of the COC made public this week, she declined an invitation to attend a ceremony at Prague Castle announcing the Czech team for Sochi due to Mr. Zeman’s planned presence. Ms. Čáslavská outlined her reasons on Czech Radio.

“I think that by some of his decisions, which are provocative, Mr. President has unnecessarily spread public unease and a negative atmosphere. But my position is not political. I just have an ordinary right as a person to turn down accept or not accept an invitation.”

Věra Čáslavská,  photo: Jan Sklenář
The seven-time Olympic gold winner’s stance is perhaps consistent with her previous involvement in politics. She supported Mr. Zeman’s rival Karel Schwarzenberg in last January’s presidential election, and served as an advisor to one of the current head of state’s predecessors.

“I had the great fortune of being able to experience – at very close quarters – the rule of Václav Havel. And it was very pleasant, not fear and tension. And with my non-participation at the Prague Castle event, that’s what I wanted to get across.”