The Vatican of sport

4 July 2012
Only in en
Krytyka tracks the rise and rise of FEMEN; Index on Censorship puts sport on trial; L’Homme gazes at spectacular women; New Humanist asks whether Mormonism will matter in November; Mehr Licht burlesques meditations on Albanian national identity; L’Espill pays tribute to Joan Fuster, the critical Catalanist; Dilema veche detects waning Francophone influence; and Dialogi jogs folk memories of Maribor’s ancient heritage.


In Krytkyka (Ukraine), Marian Rubchak tracks the rise of FEMEN, post-independence Ukraine’s second-wave feminist movement. Founded in 2008 by Anna Hutsol, FEMEN soon developed its parodic style of protest to target prostitution, trafficking and sexual exploitation in universities, writes Rubchak. But it was only with the advent of Viktor Yanukovych, and with it the reversal of the small steps towards gender justice achieved under the Orange government, that FEMEN widened it sights and entered a new stage of radicalization:

“Carnivalesque attire remained in evidence,” writes Rubchak, “but by 2009 FEMEN activists were also topless and street theatre had given way to rallies and a new array of political confrontations” – best exemplified in February 2010, when FEMEN activists protested semi-naked at the polling station in which Yanukovych was to cast his vote, unveiling placards reading “Don’t sell your vote! Don’t be a slut!” By 2011, “FEMEN was being perceived as a formidable pressure group and its members were becoming increasingly vulnerable to arrest.”

So is FEMEN the precursor of a bold new protest pattern, or has it been reduced to an organization of exhibitionists? As long as gender injustices multiply in Ukraine, the strength of FEMEN’s message remains undiminished, argues Rubchak: prostitution in Ukraine is flourishing, sexism is an everyday feature of parliamentary debate, and violence against women – exemplified in the rape and murder of 18-year-old Oksana Makar – remains tolerated, often by the same women who enjoy the official, “saccharine endorsement of their own ‘femininity'”.

“Before rushing to judgment about the appropriateness of FEMEN’s expressions of protest, as many have done, we might ask ourselves whether there is a more effective way to ‘market’ their messages than resorting to women’s half-naked bodies,” says Rubchak. “To be sure, semi-nudity must eventually, inevitably, lose its force as a political statement. For the present, however, it could be the most viable means of generating public dialogue on women’s rights as a preliminary step toward achieving that elusive goal of gender justice.”

Also: George G. Grabowicz on the longue durée of Ukrainian literature and its interaction with Europe.

The full table of contents of Krytyka 4/2012


The Bahrain Grand Prix and the UEFA Euro Championships in Ukraine, which took place without significant protest from participating teams and nations over civil rights abuses in both countries, are the most recent examples of international sports associations’ willingness to turn a blind eye to moral issues. “The attitude of international sport bodies towards engaging with authoritarian regimes can range from brazen disregard for the country’s human rights record to idealistic notions of sport as a force for good,” comments Index editor Jo Glanville.

Running for the money: Sports journalist and historian Mihir Bose contrasts the lip service paid to civil rights by sport officials over the last 150 years of modern sport to actions taken. Of all sporting associations, it is the rhetoric of the IOC that bears least relation to reality. Witness Beijing 2008: despite assurances that it had weighed up the moral pros and cons of awarding the 2008 Olympics to China, the IOC’s decision was purely geopolitical, writes Bose. Paradoxically, Munich ’36 served not as an example of the dangers of the political abuse of sporting events, but as a precedent for administrators to act as “the Vatican of sport, beyond the control of any authority but their own”.

Branding London 2012: Anything remotely political has been removed from the branding of the London Olympics, writes Natalie Haynes – from the torch relay (a Nazi invention) to the racist colour scheme of the Olympic rings (blue for Europe, green for Australia, red for America, yellow for Asia, black for Africa). Organizers Locog seem to be taking their branding pretty seriously – “so seriously in fact, that it released a 61-page document of guidelines to explain how we can all not infringe on their rights.” Of course, Locog argues that Olympic brand protection is for the greater good. “If their sponsors aren’t protected, then they might pull out. And if they do that, there will be a big fat chasm in the Olympics budget, and you and I will be left with the bill. At no point does it seem to have occurred to them, in their mesmerising arrogance, that every London council tax payer is also one of their sponsors and has been for years.”

Olympian chutzpah: Stephen Escritt and martin Polley ridicule the IOC’s draconian trademark regime: “By creating only one type of activity that can legally be called ‘Olympic’, the IOC has monopolized a word that was in general use over centuries before Pierre de Coubertin established the modern Olympic Games in 1896.”

The full table of contents of Index on Censorship 2/2012


In L’Homme, Anneke Ribberink compares historians’ treatment of Margaret Thatcher’s creation of her own “spectacle of perfection”. This spectacle was cultivated by Thatcher while she was in office – hiring a former TV producer shortly after becoming Tory leader in 1975, she was a forerunner of contemporary “spin” – as well as afterwards, her two-volume autobiography “contributing to a burgeoning market in political apologia”.

Thatcher’s self-representation has not gone unchallenged, notes Ribberink, noting the degrees of sympathy with which historians and journalists have portrayed various aspects of Thatcher’s persona. Hugo Young’s 1989 biography stressed her “gender bending”, in which she combined displays of martial resolve with sartorial fussiness and maternal domesticity. John Campbell’s two volume biography (2000/2003), on the other hand, dwelled on Thatcher’s competitiveness and aggressiveness, which he tendentiously attributed to a loveless childhood rather than a need to survive in the male-dominated world of politics.

A more sympathetic view comes from journalist Brenda Maddox (2003), who concentrates on Thatcher’s vulnerability as female leader and the class dilemmas she faced, caught between southern English snobbery and northern working-class hostility. Ribberink dismisses criticism of the film The Iron Lady as “calculated unkindness”, arguing that, if anything, the portrayal of Thatcher as senile old woman increases our sense of her humanity. “Controversy between her adherents and her enemies seems to be as strong as ever,” concludes Ribberink. “But this is all the more a token of her historical importance, whatever view of her policies one may have.”

Warriors and nurses: Women played a major role in the Yugoslav partisan movement, not only as fighters during combat itself but also as objects of propaganda and myth-making in post-war socialist Yugoslavia, writes Natascha Vitorelli. Paradoxically, gender equality was greater during the War than afterwards. The existence of female frontline fighters was either emphasized or – by stressing the importance of civilian resistance and infrastructural activities such as nursing, caring or couriering – marginalized. Both narratives made a decisive contribution to the heroization of women’s involvement in the “war of liberation”, according to Vitorelli.

The full table of contents of L’Homme 1/2012


New Humanist‘s US political correspondent Abby Ohlheiser discusses religion’s role in the presidential election campaign and, in particular, how Mitt Romney’s Mormonism will impact on the Republican vote in November. Because Evangelicals still treat Mormons with deep suspicion, Romney and Republican leaders have been deploying the language of “common ground”, writes Ohlheiser. Alongside opposition to same-sex marriage, common ground includes a sense of religious persecution:

“Christian persecution – always more a complex than a reality in the US – is important to the ways in which many conservative evangelical Christians define themselves against so-called ‘secular’ American culture. Persecution, here, refers more to a sense of discrimination and infringement upon constitutionally protected notions of ‘religious liberty’ than on actual bodily harm or oppressive suffering.”

How far moral majority issues can overcome denominational differences was indicated by controversy over Democrat moves to provide free access to contraception, which Evangelical and Catholic leaders contrived to represent as an infringement of religious freedoms. Whether Mormon Republicans can capitalize on ecumenical outrage is an open question, as is whether denomination, or religion at all, will play a role in the presidential race: “It may come down not to a vote for Romney but to a vote against Obama”, Ohlheiser comments.

Hopelessness: Can a secular world view provide the same degree of hope as a religious one? And do we need this kind of hope to live? These are Julian Baggini’s questions in a philosophical excursus on religious optimism versus enlightened despair: “It must be possible to believe in the possibility of improvement. But given the fundamentals of human psychology, the fragility of social institutions and material prosperity upon which peace depends, and the ever-present possibility of natural or anthropogenic disaster, truly rational hope seems to be extremely limited.”

Also: Caspar Melville meets defence lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, founder of Reprieve, the international NGO offering free legal representation to people facing the death penalty.

The full table of contents of New Humanist 4/2012


Introducing the latest issue of Mehr Licht (Albania), editor Mira Meksi recalls the intensity of the “complicit, secret reading” of banned books during communism. “In those years, our forbidden reading and our secret writing not only enabled us to create an untainted spiritual life, and to wave our personal flags of freedom, but allowed us to communicate with one other and create our own religion of faith in literary creation.” In the years since, this faith has lost some of its simplicity. Arian Celnikasi describes the annual Tirana Book Fair, “accompanied by the moans of booklovers, complaining that nobody reads any more, that there’s nobody now who hasn’t written a book, that competition is unfair (politician scribblers elbow aside real writers), that translations are appalling, and that books are sold on the pavements like secondhand clothes.”

Between patriarchy and stereotyping: An interview with the longstanding novelist and women’s rights activist Diana Culi suggests continuities in this fractured literary culture. Her thoughtful story, “Rainy Day in April” describes an educated Albanian woman working as a cleaner in Italy – a victim of patriarchy at home and national stereotypes abroad. Albana Krisafi overhears the chatter of the dinner guests of the Italian family where she works: “So you have an Albanian cleaning woman? Really? And nothing’s gone missing so far? Wonderful… of course they’re cheaper. Perhaps a good solution… or not, time will tell.”

Albania 1912-2012: This year sees the centenary of Albanian independence. Elsewhere an occasion for solemn meditations on national identity, in Mehr Licht they are burlesqued by Idlir Azizi, the translator of Ulysses into Albanian, in the fantasy, “A Thousand and One Nights of Independence”. Here the fans of the national football team insist that “Albania” must be turned into a masculine noun, and accuse politicians of “recycling the Albanian matriarchy exploited by the former communist regime”. A less cynical meditation on independence day is provided by Fan Noli, who sees the Albanians scattered through the world “like the raven’s young”, and prays: “Oh just and merciful God, save our wretched people and country, and honour them again with freedom, under our two-headed eagle, the flag of Skanderbeg.”

In translation: A rich crop of translations of fiction by Julian Barnes, Gabrielle Roy, and Jonathan Safran Foer, and essays by David Grossman and Tim Parks. The latter’s suggestion that the international book market and the concept of “world literature” work to reinforce rather than subvert national stereotyping fits well with this issue’s theme of the porosity of identities.

The full table of contents of Mehr Licht 42 (2012)


“It defined an era, it inspired a new way of seeing ourselves, it shook consciences”, declares the editorial of L’Espill, introducing a special issue to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Nosaltres, els Valencians (“We, the Valencians”), the most influential book by the writer and essayist – and the magazine’s founder – Joan Fuster (1922-1992). Writing during the last years of the Franco regime, Fuster sought to explore and reassert the identity of the Catalan-speaking people of the Valencian provinces, to reaffirm their linguistic unity with other Catalan-speaking territories and to shake them out of their political and cultural inertia. “It is difficult to exaggerate the effect of this call to rethink Valencians’ past and change attitudes of passivity and mental subordination profoundly rooted in a society devastated by the Francoist dictatorship,” the editors write.

The magazine considers Fuster’s legacy after fifty years of political and social change, in which the early hopes of Fusterian nationalism have often been frustrated and political power increasingly held by an intolerant and notoriously corrupt Right in the local Partido Popular. The limited success of nationalism in Valencia, Antoni Furió writes, has to be seen in the light of the ferocious campaign of condemnation and opposition launched against it by the Right in the first years of democracy, with acts of violence including bomb attempts against Fuster himself, for which none of those responsible were ever arrested. Furió defends Fuster against those who accuse him of proposing a narrow, ethnicist nationalism at odds with modern conditions. Fuster, he writes, was always a sceptic, and sought above all to stimulate critical thinking in a society in which it was lacking, as reactions to his work – between adulation and brutal condemnation – have gone on to show.

Militancy: Writings on nationalism, Joan F. Mira points out, in fact represented only a small part of Fuster’s huge output, and “he insisted time and again that in his nationalism there was no emotional enthusiasm. He would have preferred not to have felt obliged to be a militant of anything, and still less of any kind of nationalism.” And Xavi Sarrià suggests that the new resistance and protest movements spurred by the global crisis among youth in Valencia, many educated in the Catalan language, represent a new form of the kind of radical, critical community Fuster inspired.

The full table of contents of L’Espill 40 (2012)


Is Francophone culture all that it used to be? Or is it indeed the case, asks Mircea Vasilescu in Dilema veche (432), that the erstwhile grandeur of French culture is on the wane, now that Berlin (and not Paris) is increasingly taken as Europe’s cultural and intellectual benchmark, with the UK also gaining ground on France in cultural terms?

Moving from the “crisis” of French culture to the history of French-Romanian cultural relations, Vasilescu emphasizes that, because of France’s charitable interest in Romania after the collapse of communism, “the West was rediscovered through France’s mediating role”. Talking in interview, the former Romanian ambassador in Paris, Teodor Baconschi, says that the “special relationship” is a strong as ever: “With Romania’s liberty and democracy, the revival of the relationship has begun a new and more wide-reaching chapter.”

Territorial politics: Greater conflict surrounds the Romanian-Hungarian “dialogue”. Historical disputes recently ignited over the question whether the nationalist Transylvanian-Hungarian writer Nyiro Joszef was due an official state burial on Romanian territory. Ovidiu Nahoi (434) is dismissive of the conflict, seeing no point in “awakening the ghosts of the past” rather than collaborating in ways based on the mutual interests of both countries. Turning to another territorial dispute, Catalin Stefanescu writes about mixed feelings in the Moldovan capital Chisinau, “which was once Romanian” (431). Russophiles scrawl “Down with Romanian history” on walls while Romanian speakers chant “Bessarabia is Romania”.

Also: Alexandru Ofrim (431) discusses the Romanian book market during communism and Romanians’ “hunger for reading” in the absence of other types of entertainment media before 1989.

The full table of contents of Dilema veche 430-435 (2012)


Dialogi (Slovenia) devotes an issue to cultural heritage in and around Maribor, a European Capital of Culture in 2012. Biba Terzan, Matija Cresnar and Branko Music report on archaeological research on Postela, a settlement on the slopes of the Pohorje mountain range that developed between the ninth and eight centuries BC. Postela, they write, was not just a hill fort from the early Iron Age and one of the most important centres between the Alps and Pannonia, but also a mysterious “old city” preserved in the folk memory. Although the importance of Postela and its burial grounds transcends the regional, it is known only to a handful of heritage campaigners.

Tragically, the Postela ruins are being threatened by treasure-hunters and motorcyclists. “Once a site is damaged or destroyed, it is impossible to bring it back from the dead,” comments Mira Strmcnik-Gulic from the Maribor Institute for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, herself credited with a number of discoveries of ancient settlements in this part of Slovenia.

Art with a capital A: Editor Boris Vezjak derides the media’s “adulation” of the enfant terrible of Slovenian theatre, the director Tomaz Pandur, whose production of War and Peace is part of the programme of Maribor 2012. “As a relationship towards the Artist with a capital A, it embodies everything that the ECC is about: the silly but calculating idea that we will be great with the help of grandeur. It is about the blindness of this grandeur and the grandeur of this blindness. Both will end up costing us dearly, and the cost would be even higher were it not for the grace of God in creating a recession.”

The full table of contents of Dialogi 1-2/2012

Published 4 July 2012

Original in English
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