On My Way to UK Olympics Conference, Officials Detain Me

Entering the United Kingdom to attend a conference on sports, I was briefly detained by Britain’s Home Office at Heathrow Airport yesterday, allegedly for not possessing a return ticket to Vancouver. The immigration officer seemed particularly curious about the reasons for my presence in the U.K, the conference I was attending, and the talk I was to give.

The female officer had scrutinized my passport for what seemed a long time before the questions began. How long would I be in Britain? A week. Where was I going? Coventry. What was the purpose of my trip? Sports conference. Did I have a return ticket? Yes, of course, just not printed out yet since it’s an e-ticket. Handed a slip of paper entitled “Notice to a Person Required to Submit to Further Examination,” I noted she had ticked off all the boxes that required further examination by both an immigration officer and a medical inspector. I was escorted to a chair in a waiting area and told to sit there until she confirmed my hotel reservation and the details of the conference.

Thirty minutes went by slowly, very slowly. The officer came back to tell me that she needed to consult with her supervisor. I suggested walking over to British Airlines’ desk to get them to print out my return itinerary. This was rapidly done and seemingly should have ended the issue, but the officer still “needed to talk” to her boss.

As we walked back to the holding area, the officer asked me what I was talking about.

The economics of hosting a large sporting event such as the Olympics, I told her. Again parked at the holding area, I waited. Another thirty minutes passed before my passport was returned and I was on my way.

I’d never been detained at a border before, so this made for an odd experience. Maybe nothing to it more than the apparently crucial return ticket. Then again, maybe something about the talk caught someone’s attention (the title is “The hidden 4th Pillar of the Olympics, privatized profit, socialized debt”). And coming during the same week as my encounter with the Vancouver Integrated Security officers, it sort of makes me wonder.

For the hour I sat stewing, it made me wonder if my attendance at the Play the Game 2009 conference, subtitled “Visions for sport in times of crisis” would be worth all the bother.

The meeting began Monday afternoon with about 100 people seated on wooden chairs in the new Coventry cathedral treated to an opening blessing by the Very Reverend John Irvine, Dean of Coventry. The audience was treated to several lovely operatic selections before conventional talking heads came to wish the attendees a productive week.

Jens Sejer Andersen, director of Play the Game, kicked off the lectures with the controversial suggestion that truth and organized sports might be incompatible. Andersen went on to praise the contributions sport makes to life, but noted that it cannot be the ultimate truth. Andersen took pains to emphasize that sport must be subject to an open, fact based inquiry, a viewpoint at distinct odds with those who run the major sports events, including the International Olympic Committee. “Those involved in sport often have too much to lose to risk telling the truth’, Anderson told the audience. Andersen spoke at length of bribery in sport and observed that while tens of thousands of journalists cover sports events, he could count on his fingers those who ask the hard questions about corruption.

The most heartfelt talk was given by former Canadian Olympic swimmer, Nikki Dryden, who spoke on the topic of “Sport’s institutions: corrupting the meaning of sport”. Dryden, now an human rights lawyer working from New York, explained that being an Olympian had changed her life and this experience had led her to the path she was now on. Dryden had been involved in the Team Darfur group that had tried to force China to use its leverage with Sudan to restrain the abuses in Darfur. Team Darfur had tried with little success to use the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games to highlight the crisis. In spite of this, Dryden has remained hopeful that the Olympic ideals of fair play, good sportsmanship, health, fitness and the goals of human rights and peace could still be fostered by the Games. Sports, Dryden concluded, “still had the ability to change lives” and impact the human condition.

Dryden went on to acknowledge that Olympic critics have influenced her thinking about the IOC and the direction the Olympics have gone. She told the audience that 17 years ago as a young Olympian she had been afraid to read investigative journalist Andrew Jennings first expose about the IOC. Dryden had also recently read my book, Five Ring Circus, and although it raised disturbing questions for her, had liked it.

I asked her after her talk how ethical athletes like her could reconcile their love of sports and the ideals of Olympism with the grim realities that Jennings and I document.

This last is a topic to which I will turn later this week when I interview Nikki Dryden for the Vancouver Observer.

The Play the Game conference runs until June 12th.
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