Remember the Iron Curtain

It feels like a different lifetime but it was, in fact, just 15 years ago that the Berlin Wall came down. Before it did, East Germany was hidden from the rest of the world and its athletes were pumped full of drugs and churned off the sporting conveyor belt to collect medals like they were going out of fashion.

Western eyes were kept from prying for all but a handful of days per year. Western sportsmen and administrators knew what was going on but they couldn’t prove it very easily and besides, they were more motivated by jealousy than a desire to put an end to drug abuse.

But every now and then, perhaps a couple of times per year, Eastern Europe’s Communist ‘bloc’ would host an international sporting event and the world’s media, including the ‘free’ media, would come to write about the event. So what happened? How were they ‘controlled’? What stopped these ‘trouble makers’ from poking around the back corridors of the country’s sporting institutions and finding rusty syringes full of cortisone and steroids?

Generally speaking the press from the free world back in those days were treated like very important sheep, rounded up by firm but kind handlers, transported in comparatively luxurious cattle trucks and housed in secure but comfortable pens for the duration of the tournament/match/event.

Applications for accreditation were pretty long-winded but they were not refused (except in circumstances of criminal record etc).

Journalists from countries that tolerated free speech were met at the airport and taken to their assigned hotel. If they wished to go shopping or sight-seeing, they were escorted every step of the way – and back again.

But why did these governments go to so much trouble and expense when they could so easily have told the capitalist, journalist pigs to stay at home? They did that most of the time anyway, and that was the way they treated their own press when it stepped out of line. In fact, they locked them up and charged them with treason.

The truth is, they couldn’t do that if they wanted to compete internationally. The concession to the world’s media may have been a ridiculously small concession given some of the brutalities of everyday life, but it was a critical concession nonetheless.

For the day or week of the sporting event, the Iron Curtain was metaphorically lowered and the free press were allowed to report freely. If they weren’t, the IOC or FIFA or the FIA or the ATP or the PGA (or whatever) would not have sanctioned the event. In other words, they would have taken their bucket and spade away.

It seems odd, then, that if a country as huge and powerful as the Soviet Union can be persuaded to play the media ‘game’, Zimbabwe can be allowed to pick and choose who they allow to cover sport in their country.

That is their business, of course, and they can carry on conducting their business as they see fit. In free countries, like ours, we have the right to say we think their system is wrong and bad, but they still have the right to ban us from entering their country and from writing about cricket.

And the free world has the right to take their bucket and spade away because cricket is a game for the free world. ICC take note. Show some leadership when it actually matters. This is not an issue about journalists, this is an issue about the kind of reputation you want your game to have.

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