The Politics of Sport or is it the Sport of Politics?

July 30, 2014 at 9:02 am 1 comment

There are many who will say that there is no place in sport for politics. Yet ironically sport has been used frequently by politicians to gain favour. It was a sporting boycott that resulted in South Africa slowly dismantling the apartheid system. Then Nelson Mandela used it to unite a country that had been torn apart by Apartheid. John Howard was a frequent visitor at the Sydney Olympics to try and improve his public persona. He is not alone as both US and Russian presidents love to be seen involving themselves in sporting activities.

The funny thing is nowadays very rarely do countries boycott sporting events as 62 nations did with the 1980 Olympics Games after Russia invaded Afghanistan. In 1984 Russia returned the favour by having 14 countries boycott the Los Angeles Games.

There were calls for a boycott of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa because the then President Thabo Mbeki refused to denounce the intimidation and violence being used by neighbouring country Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe. There were calls to boycott the Beijing Olympic Games due to China’s Human Rights violations and their policy on Tibet. No boycott happened. There are now calls that Russia be stripped of the 2018 FIFA World Cup after the shooting down of the commercial aircraft Malaysia Airlines MH17, and the appalling handling of the incident on the ground. The chances are no boycott will happen as sport is big business today.

Over the years there have been many athletes make political statements. One of the most famous was the gloved salute made by sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico Olympics at the medal ceremony for the 200m. It is often reported as a “black Power salute” but Smith maintains it was a human rights salute.

The two US athletes received their medals wearing no shoes and black socks as a symbol of black poverty. Carlos had his tracksuit unzipped to support blue-collar workers, and wore a necklace of beads which he claimed was “for those individuals who were lynched or killed and no one said a prayer for, that they were hung or tarred.” All three athletes including Australian Peter Norman wore “Olympic Project For Human Rights” badges, Norman claiming it was a stance against Australia’s  all white policy at the time. Carlos and Smith were sent home in disgrace, Norman was never picked to run for Australia again.

At the 2003 Cricket World Cup Zimbabweans Henry Olonga and and Andy Flower announced that they would wear black armbands for the “death of democracy” in their homeland. Olonga was dropped after one game – allegedly due to form – Flower continued to play. Olonga had an arrest warrant put out for him and was charged with treason, a charge that carries the death penalty. Their actions were supported by the world’s media.

Many sportspeople have made other political statements, many have used the Nazi/facist one arm salute, – a gesture given by the whole England football team in 1938 – in modern times most have immediately received suspensions.

England cricketer Moeen Ali has now created a storm by wearing wristbands  that carried the wording “Save Gaza” and “Free Palestine.” Many expected him to be banned for making such a statement in a sporting environment, such as during a test match. However the 27 year old muslim all rounder has simply been told by the International Cricket Board not to wear them again. The word is that the England Cricket Board were prepared to let Ali continue to wear them during the third test in Southampton. However they have had to bow to the ICC who deemed its international sports arena was not the place for the British Muslim to show his solidarity.

So the question is why is it OK for politicians to use sport to gain favour and popularity, or make a global statement, yet the athletes ability to air their own views are not quite so clear. Is it OK for an athlete to use his position in the public eye to make a political statement, to raise awareness on an issue they feel strongly about? Is there a time when this is OK, or is it never OK?

Whenever we turn on football today we will witness players from a Catholic background cross themselves before entering the field of play. It has become accepted. What would people’s reaction be if a muslim player knelt down, bowed and kissed the turf before entering the field of play? Would that be deemed an action likely to incite violence, or is it in fact now a political gesture, thanks to the Americans deciding that in place of Communists the enemy they must defend their citizens from are now muslims?

To be honest it is all a storm in a tea cup. One of Australia’s iconic athletes Cathy Freeman proudly displayed the Aboriginal flag as well as the Australian flag when she was victorious despite being told not to do so. The Aboriginal flag not being deemed a national flag by Athletics governing bodies. Most in Australia understood why she did so and few were offended.

Was this a political statement, or was it just Freeman celebrating her success with the Aboriginal people?

After the Sydney Olympics, Cathy Freeman was used as proof that sport could be used as a means of political expression for oppressed peoples.

Yet according to Colin Tatz, professor at the Australian Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, University of New South Wales, Australia. “No one should think that her performance will lead to 150,000 little aboriginal girls getting up and taking up sport. The area where Cathy Freeman comes from still has no electricity, no sewage system, and suffers from huge health problems. The average lifespan for women is 55 years, for men it is 50. Cathy Freeman did not make a difference.”

People remember the statements made by athletes but do their actions make a difference? In Olonga and Flower’s case despite their gesture Zimbabwe still does not have a democracy. So why all the fuss by those in power?


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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Ryan  |  July 30, 2014 at 8:36 pm

    Peter Norman is one of the few sportspeople I look up to with the word ‘hero’ in mind.

    It shows that despite his actions, despite Freeman’s actions, and how lauded they are now, that there is still a deep-rooted problem in Australia in regards to Aboriginals.

    If these sportspeople can’t speak up, can’t show they care, then who will?

    It’s the same for all current issues.


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