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Prospect of war hits sporting calendar

March 07, 2003 18:49 IST

Soccer's World Youth Championship was postponed and Tiger Woods withdrew from a major golf tournament this week as the increasing likelihood of war in Iraq started to take its toll on international sport.

None of the world's major showpiece events -- the Summer and Winter Olympics or soccer's World Cup -- take place this year, but the increasingly international nature of sport means there are almost certain to be further disruptions to the calendar.

"While it is our belief that sport is a unifying force among people of different cultures and philosophies, we also recognise that there are exceptional times when political issues overtake the positive values of sport," said Francesco Ricci Bitti, president of the International Tennis Federation (ITF).

The September 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. caused events like European soccer's Champions League to be suspended and persuaded athletes not to travel to events -- even in parts of the globe considered safe -- whatever the financial incentives.

World soccer's governing body FIFA decided on Thursday to postpone the World Youth Championship, which was scheduled to take place in the United Arab Emirates from March 25, because they believed players' safety could be at risk.

"FIFA regrets having to make this decision but must take into account its responsibilities towards the players, officials and other parties as well as towards the media and spectators," FIFA president Sepp Blatter said.

Woods, the world's top golfer, decided against travelling to the UAE to play in this week's Dubai Desert Classic for safety reasons. "I don't think it would be wise for me to go over there at this particular time," the American said.

There have already been calls for next week's Qatar Masters tournament to be called off after the British government advised against travel to the region except on essential business.


But Ken Schofield of the European Tour, which sanctions the event, insisted it would go ahead. "As we see it, our event in Qatar is business. It's certainly not a holiday," he said.

"All preparations including golf course, accommodation and transportation are complete and secure. Additional contingencies are in place should eventualities require."

Organisers of the Dubai World Cup, the world's richest horse race, said this week the event would take place as planned on March 29, with a record 15 American entries.

Elsewhere in the Gulf, Kuwait has already cancelled international soccer friendlies against Egypt and India, while Bahrain called off a match against a Brazil XI, which they hoped would have featured the likes of Rivaldo, Ronaldo and Ronadinho.

Turkey may yet agree to allow American troops to use their country as a launching pad for an attack on neighbouring Iraq and its soccer federation has plans to move or cancel matches.

"We don't know to what extent Turkey will enter a war," Turkish soccer federation deputy chairman Ata Aksu said last month. "We have taken the necessary precautions. If our country enters a war then I think the matches will not be played."

UEFA, which governs European soccer, also has contingency plans in place in case of war. "(We) will implement them as and when they are needed," Mike Lee, director of communications for European soccer's governing body, said.

"There are a number of our member associations like Turkey, Greece, Israel, Cyprus all close to the region and we will look at the situation there, and across Europe when we need to."

Euro 2004 qualifying matches and the later stages of both the Champions League and UEFA Cup are scheduled for March and April.

The major tennis events of the year in the Gulf have already taken place, but the world governing body (ITF) and men's tour (ATP) are keeping a close eye on developments.


The ATP has a safety officer who monitors world events with a view to the safety of travel to certain venues and a spokesman said it was happy with measures already in place.

Concerns about attacks on Americans and Europeans fuelled by growing anti-Western sentiment in the Muslim world may persuade some athletes not to travel, even to major championships.

Athletics has two major events before the start of the outdoor season in May, the world indoor championships in Birmingham, England, from March 14-16 and the world cross country championships in Lausanne, Switzerland on March 29-30.

"We plan to send a team even if war is declared," Jill Geer, director of communications for USA Track & Field, told Reuters.

"However, we are not disclosing specifics about security. We have spoken with various people about security plans and will continue to do so."


All major sporting events in the United States have been surrounded by heightened security since the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001.

The two biggest domestic sports, baseball and American football, are in their off-seasons at the moment. Baseball restarts on March 25 but, like basketball and ice hockey, has rarely allowed international conflict to disrupt the season.

Japan has reversed a decision to cancel two international friendly soccer matches in the U.S. later this month after initially pulling out because of fears over safety.

The International Skating Union has already issued a statement saying the world figure skating championships, scheduled for March 24-30 in Washington D.C., will go ahead.

President George W. Bush also gave his support by accepting the position of honorary co-chair for the event.

But top American skater Michelle Kwan said on Tuesday she thought the event would be postponed, if war was declared.

"War is scary and if skaters' safety is on the line there probably won't be a world championships," the four-times world champion said. "I'm sure everything will be on hold if there is a war going on."

In other winter sports, the president of skiing's governing body, the FIS, said the World Cup season would go ahead, albeit with increased security for participants from countries involved in the war.

"It would be wrong to let ourselves be undone by the war," said Gian-Franco Kasper. "Against the darkness of war you need a little white light and therefore the remaining races will go ahead."

After the Turkish round of the world rally championship passed off successfully last month, motorsport is unlikely to be affected by war, with Formula One's visit to Malaysia on March 23 the closest they will get to the Gulf.

In Iraq itself, the players in the national soccer team have been drafted into the army, leaving their German coach Bernd Stange with nothing to do.

Stange left the country last month but said he hoped to return to the soccer-mad nation, where Saddam Hussein's son Udai runs the football association, in time for an Olympic qualifier against Vietnam on April 4 in Baghdad.

Nick Mulvenney
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