The Empty Arena

March 9 , 2009

Tennis Without Spectators


Matches always draw spectators, often generate controversies and sometimes provoke protests. The Davis Cup match Sweden played against Israel last weekend in Malmí¶, a port town south of Sweden, was a match with a difference. It generated lot of controversy, provoked a 10,000-strong demonstration but had no spectators at all. Baltiska Hallen, the 4000-seat arena was utterly empty during the weekend-long show. The spectators were banned weeks ahead of the match by the local authorities. The official pretext was: ” We have made a judgement that this is a high-risk match for our staff, for players and for officials”.

But it was the mass mobilisation , wide-spread popularity and successful campaigning by a grass-root “Stop the Match” campaign, launched last December, that forced the local authorities to exclude the public frrom the arena.

”Stop the Match” was a broad coalition of political parties, cultural groups and organisations that has been advocating since the beginning of the Gaza massacre for international campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.

Malmí¶, Sweden’s third largest city, is ruled by a left-of-centre coalition. It has a large immigrant population. The Malmí¶ city government was strongly criticised by the International Tennis Federation (ITF) and by Israel for its decision to close the stadium to the public.

The ITF and Israel were given a helping hand by mainstream Swedish media. The op-ed crusaders were angry at politicising the sport. The talk-show hosts wanted the left ‘extremists’ to leave the sport arenas alone. Sports ethics were invoked. The Malmí¶ city government was grilled for capitulating before ‘extremists’. Nothing worked. Ironically, the same media would not leave the arenas alone ahead of Beijing Olympics. All major media houses dispatched their reporters to China. The TV screen and newspaper pages were flooded with dispatches from China regarding human rights violations. The op-ed contributors and TV anchors debated boycotting Beijing Olympics.

Similarly, ”Stop the Match” campaign was no novelty either here in Sweden. A Davis Cup match was played in an empty arena even in the past . In 1975, two years after a military coup led by Augusto Pinochet against the elected Chilean government of Salvador Allende, Sweden played Chile in Bí¥stad and no spectators were allowed. While the match went ahead, several thousand demonstrators gathered peacefully outside the stadium.

Likewise, in 1968 Sweden in a Davis Cup match was supposed to meet Rhodesia. At the time, Rhodesia was criticised for enforcing apartheid. The demonstrators from around Sweden descended on Bí¥stad in southern Sweden to protest the match. The demonstrators were roughed up by the police. The match in Sweden was cancelled and was eventually played in France.

Ahead of the Israel-Sweden Davis Cup matches last weekend, the mainstream Swedish media were forecasting trouble and scuffles. Up to 1000 police were mobilised while both the match and the march were marshalled by police and escorted by helicopters.

While activists carrying banners saying “Turn left, smash right,” and “Boycott Israel” joined the march, about 200 black-clad militants began pelting police with stones, lodged fireworks and fired paint bombs even when organisers of the official demonstration kept shouting at the masked protesters not to use violence against the authorities.

The media seized upon the opportunity. The march was simply missing in the videos run by electronic media on Saturday evening and images flashed by newspapers on Sunday morning. Instead, images of stone-casting youth were telecast/published with a sensation.

Though this might have offered the mainstream media some consolation yet the success of the march demonstrates that ”Stop the Match” campaign managed to raise the critical issues like daily situation of millions of Palestinians and the inappropriateness of welcoming representatives of Israel to a city where many inhabitants have lost friends and relatives in Gaza.

Farooq Sulehria lives in Sweden and can be reached at mfsulehria [at]

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