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  • Ross Moughtin

We are called to be the awkward squad

Dateline Qatar 2009: “Doha has everything for the planet’s biggest football tournament — apart from the stadiums, fans, hotels, climate, heritage, a football team and cultural tourist appeal. You may as well take golf to the moon.”

So reported sports journalist Matt Dickinson of Qatar’s bid for the 2022 World Cup

He recalls: “We laughed, at least I did, which goes to show how naive I was about the vast ambition, the unimaginable wealth and extraordinary lengths to which Qatar would go in order to win.”

The decision was made by one of the most tainted electorate in FIFA’s history. More than half of the 22 men who voted have been enveloped in scandal. Now, it seems, everyone thinks the award to the tiny desert country with the world’s third-largest natural gas reserves has been a huge mistake.

Even the Qataris must be having second thoughts as they endure the remorseless scrutiny of the world media And more: today, it seems, that they are pushing last minute for a complete stadium beer ban.

“Qatar’s world cup is the biggest sportswashing coup,” I read in yesterday’s Times. That is, an attempt to use sport to improve a reputation tarnished by wrongdoing or corruption. Not quite, I thought. There’s one even bigger.

This Tuesday morning I had a few hours to spare before catching the Euston train home. So I popped next door from where our daughter now lives to the Imperial War Museum, where I am a member.

I’ve been working my way steadily around the galleries and for this visit I took a deep breath before entering the Holocaust Gallery. To my surprise it has been completely refashioned to the extent that it won the 2022 'Museum + Heritage' Permanent Exhibition of the Year.

Along with honouring the memory of those who suffered so cruelly under the Nazi regime, one of the key aims of this exhibition is “to change how we understand the past for generations to come.”

So I took some time in the section of how it all happened, how Hitler and his followers were able to indoctrinate an entire country while ruthlessly suppressing dissent. And more, with the complicity of the international community.

In this the curators gave prominence to the 1936 Olympic Games staged in Berlin.

The Games were awarded to Germany in 1931, two years before Hitler came to power. To begin with, Hitler was wary. It took some effort by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels to convince him that the Olympic festivities could be exploited to advance the Nazi cause both inside and outside of Germany.

So the Nazis poured everything into staging the Games: a new 100,000-seat stadium, six gymnasiums and other smaller arenas. The Olympic Village was the finest housing ever provided to Olympic athletes up to that time. Meanwhile, just to the north of Berlin the first concentration camp was being built.

There was considerable debate outside Germany over whether the competition should be staged. But such protests were ultimately unsuccessful; 49 national teams participated, the largest number of any Olympics to that point.

And the Games were a great success, a sportswashing coup of the first order. To this end the omnipresent 'Jews Not Welcome' signs throughout Germany were removed from hotels, restaurants and public places for the duration of the Games.

Sportswashing in the Bible? Not as far-fetched as you would think. How about the hippodrome built by King Herod the Great in Caesarea, just before Jesus was born?

Herod aimed to impress, such was his terrible insecurity. And the hippodrome used for horse and chariot racing was one way to win popular support.

However, that pales into insignificance alongside his biggest construction, the temple in Jerusalem. The second temple rebuilt on Mount Zion following the return from exile was underwhelming. This gave Herod his big chance as he sought to win popular support by a massive and costly refurbishment.

Jesus’ disciples were suitably impressed, as Mark reports. “As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!’” (Mark 13:1)

His response? “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. ‘Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.’” And this gives him the opportunity to prepare his disciples for what was to happen, both within their generation and for the close of the age.

As his disciples we are to refuse to be taken in by shows of display, propaganda spectacles and the like. The Holy Spirit promises us the vision to see through sportswashing and the like. We are not to be easily fooled.

Even as the apostle Paul warns in a somewhat different context: “Don’t let yourselves get taken in by religious smooth talk. God gets furious with people who are full of religious sales talk but want nothing to do with him. Don’t even hang around people like that.” (Ephesians 5:6, the Message)

We are called to be the awkward squad.

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