British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has compared the upcoming soccer World Cup, due to be held in Russia this summer, to the 1936 Olympics held in Nazi Germany.
“I think the comparison to 1936 is certainly right,” Johnson said Wednesday before the British Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee, before suggesting that the thought made him feel sick. “I think it’s an emetic prospect, frankly, to think of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin glorying in this sporting event.”
The British diplomat was agreeing with a statement from Ian Austin, a member of Parliament for the opposition Labour party, who had suggested that Putin wanted to “gloss over [his] brutal, corrupt regime” with the World Cup, one of the most-watched sporting events in the world.
In 1936, just three years after Adolf Hitler seized power in Germany, both Summer and Winter Olympics took place in the country. Initially, Germany tried to bar Jewish and nonwhite athletes from the games, though Hitler backed down after threats of a boycott. Most countries participated in the games, despite criticism of the Nazis. The Soviet Union did not participate in any Olympic events until 1952.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich said Wednesday that boycotts of the 2018 World Cup would be fruitless.
“If some officials refuse coming here, it is their personal business,” Dvorkovich said, according to news agency Tass. “The history shows that boycotts never led to something good.”
Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, went further in comments published on her Facebook account, where she accused Johnson of being “poisoned by hatred, anger, unprofessionalism and boorishness.”
Johnson’s remarks came during continuing fallout over the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English town of Salisbury this month. Johnson said Friday that it was “overwhelmingly likely” that Putin was behind the poisoning, which British authorities say used a nerve agent, identified by the British as Novichok, that the Russians developed.
In the aftermath of the attack on Skipral, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced plans to expel 23 Russian diplomats it said had links to espionage. Russia later expelled 23 British diplomats and closed the British Council, a government-backed international organization for cultural relations and educational opportunities in the country.
On Wednesday, Austin said that the idea of Putin using the World Cup as “a PR exercise to gloss over the brutal, corrupt regime for which he is responsible” filled him with horror.
Johnson has previously suggested that some British officials may boycott the World Cup. However, he said Wednesday that it would be wrong to punish British fans or the English soccer team by banning them from attending the World Cup, but that there would be a need to have an “urgent conversation” with Moscow about how these fans would be protected.
The foreign secretary also told the committee that far fewer Brits had bought tickets so far for the World Cup in Russia than for the previous 2014 event in Brazil. Britain’s most senior police officer warned last year that English football fans were at risk of an “extreme level of violence” from Russian hooligans if they attended the sporting event.
Russia’s Dvorkovich, who is also chairman of the local organizing committee for the games, attempted to downplay such fears Wednesday. “This will be the best world championship ever,” he said. “Our country is very hospitable, and we are waiting for everyone here.”
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