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Sport can always help make for better politics

Of all the lies that politicians and officials feed us, few are more pernicious than that old chestnut: politics and sport do not mix. They must be kept separate.

Anyone who watched the World Cup match between Iran and England could not have failed to see that this is nonsense: sport can always help make for better politics.


The Iranian team pointedly refused to sing the national anthem as a gesture of protest against the repression being unleashed in their country. A large Iranian crowd inside the stadium booed while the anthem was played. Some spectators held up placards reading: "Woman, life and freedom”. In an interview before the match, the captain of the Iranian team declared that he was standing by the Iranian people and offered condolences to the grieving families back in his country.


   The English players took the knee before the match began. They had originally planned for their captain to wear a One Love armband as a gesture of protest but disappointingly abandoned their gesture after FIFA, the body that runs the tournament, said it would get the referees to yellow card England captain Harry Kane if he wore an armband. Given that the Iranians were probably risking their lives by humiliating their country’s rulers in front of the world, it seemed a little sad that the English players ran scared when threatened with a yellow card.


   The drama that preceded the match eclipsed the game itself (which England won easily) and drew attention to the situation inside Iran, further increasing the regime’s global isolation. Far from not mixing, politics and sport were closely intermingled to the benefit of humanity. It was sport that made the political statement that needed to be made to help the weak and the helpless.


   The people who say that politics and sport don’t mix are usually neither weak nor helpless. For instance, when American footballers began taking the knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and to protest the killing of black people by the police in 2017, the then US President Donald Trump lashed out at them. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL (the NFL is the US football league) owners, when somebody disrespects our flag say “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired! He’s fired“, Trump told a rally.


   In the UK, when English footballers protested racism by also taking the knee, the then Home Secretary Priti Patel criticised them saying, “I just don’t support people participating in that type of gesture politics.”


   The problem with the disapproval of sportspersons who take political stands is that politicians are keen to encourage exactly the same kinds of political gestures when it suits their interests. In 1980s, the US boycotted the Moscow Olympics over the invasion of Afghanistan and the UK supported the move. At that stage, sport and politics clearly did mix.


"The extraordinary bravery of the Iranian football team has shown the world how much the people of Iran are disgusted with the atrocities being committed by the regime."

   But when a political stand appears to go against the establishment line, politicians get agitated. Throughout the 1960s when the world’s revulsion with apartheid grew, the US and the UK were unwilling to support sporting boycotts. The South Africans continued to impose racial segregation in sport. In 1968, when England wanted to include Basil D’Oliveira, a cricketer of mixed race in the squad to tour South Africa, the South Africans objected and D’Oliveira was not included in the squad. After an uproar ensued, England included him as a replacement for a player who had been injured. South Africa then refused to accept the team and the tour was cancelled.


   Even then, the British cricket and Conservative political establishments took the line that politics and sport did not mix though for South Africa, they clearly did: otherwise, why impose apartheid on cricket?


   The establishment stand was similar to that of Avery Brundage, the long-time President of the International Olympics Committee from 1952 to 1972. In 1936, when he ran America’s Olympics associations, Brundage resisted calls for a boycott of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Many people believed that it would be wrong to hold the games in a country that was openly persecuting Jews but Brundage disagreed saying, predictably that sport and politics did not mix. The 1936 Olympics became a spectacle for Hitler to promote Nazism and Brundage had no objection to the Nazi salutes that were regularly on display.


   In 1968, however, when two American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black power salutes at the Mexico Olympics, Brundage had them expelled from the Olympics. So, yes to Sieg Heil. No to Black Power.


   From Brundage to Trump, the pattern has always been same: people who have no power other than their sporting prowess use sport to make political statements on behalf of the helpless, the dispossessed, the persecuted and the voiceless while people with wealth and power try and stamp out their protests by using the same bogus rhetoric about keeping sport and politics separate.


   In fact, the mixture of sport and politics has always worked to the advantage of humanity. Apartheid would never have ended if sport had not been used to isolate South Africa. Black Lives Matters would never have taken off as a global movement had it not been for the support of powerful sporting figures. Pakistan’s role as a sponsor of terror came to global attention only after India boycotted the country’s sporting teams.


   And now, the extraordinary bravery of the Iranian football team has shown the world how much the people of Iran are disgusted with the atrocities being committed by the regime.


   Always be suspicious of people who try and keep sport and politics separate. Invariably, they turn out to be on the side of the racists, the bigots and the Nazis. Listen to the sportsmen themselves. It is their skills we come to see. And it is their views we must respect. 



Posted On: 24 Nov 2022 10:12 PM
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