Using Sport as a Method of Political Activism
Jack Walton discusses the place sport has in today’s political landscape.
Do you remember the good old days? Front Page of The Sun, The Mail and The Sunday Sport; Freddie Flintoff boozing, WAG’s a-wagging, Wayne Rooney being the thick thug it was decided he was. British sport circa 2006. A smorgasbord of infidelity scandals and pantomime villains – materialistic love-to-hate-em icons custom-made for the reality TV era, shaming the country again and again to its own delight. The mid-noughties zenith of British sporting amoralism was a beautiful and endless carousel of Porsche’s, prostitutes and drunk Pedalo shenanigans. The Men’s National Football team functioned as an Amazon-esque production line for trashy tabloid-fodder that fed directly into the hearts and souls of the nation. It was bountiful and fulfilling and life was oh so good. And crucially, it was just about the furthest thing from a serious political vehicle you could ever dream up.
For many, it would seem, this was the entire reality of British sport, and sport in general, prior to the last few years. A widespread collective memory malfunction has occurred, predominantly among the right, thrusting decades of sporting activism into historical liminality. Suddenly, they believe, everything has changed. Along came Marcus Rashford, his transatlantic compadre Colin Kaepernick and their enormous army of Wokies, smashing down the Iron Curtain between sports and politics and ushering in the new era.
Now look. Harry Kane considering quitting football to lecture on intersectional feminism. Andy Murray leading a British envoy to the UN Climate Summit. Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor writing the foreword in Greta Thunberg’s book. Squint and even Wayne Rooney’s new beard looks frighteningly Marxist. Which would be perfectly fine, they insist through vivid hallucinations of this hyper-political sporting hellscape, but sports and politics do not mix. It isn’t appropriate and it isn’t fun. Nobody wants to see a greasy 250k-a-week primadona speeding up a provincial high street in a Carbon-footprint friendly electric car, do they?
Of course, this is nonsense. Sports and politics do mix and always have done. From the defiant raised black gloves of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics, “a cry for freedom and for human rights” amidst the Civil Rights struggle, to the symbolic act of national healing that occured as Nelson Mandela presented the 1995 Rugby World Cup trophy to Francois Pienaar – the fabric of sporting history is etched with immunarable acts of political protest.
“Sports and politics do mix and always have done.”
The former would lend its clenched fist iconography to decades of subsequent black rights movements, the latter would be described by Mandela as a moment “that brought the country together”, a shimmering symbol of hope in the dark shadows of the Apartheid legacy. In these moments, just as in Katherine Switzer’s groundbreaking first female marathon in 1967, or Muhammed Ali’s refusal to serve in the Vietnam War, sport transcends itself, climbs out of the stadium or the racetrack or the ring and coalesces with history – reflecting and challenging and even changing the times.
It is worth noting that even if sport didn’t want to dip its toe into politics, politics has always been happy to divebomb head first into sport. Hitler’s Nazi Olympics in 1936 were set up with the intention of using the games as an global advertisement for Aryan supremacy (something of a grotesque political antecedent to the numerous cases of Sportswashing that stain the modern sporting arena). Sport, he believed, was an ideal vehicle to carry Nazism and its glory beyond the Third Reich. It took the grace and courage of black American runner Jesse Owens to take home four Gold medals in a spectacular ideological embarrassment for the Fuhrer, exposing the insanity of his ethos in front of the watching world.
History shows us that sports and politics don’t just mix, they tend to be inseparable. It is no coincidence that the festering racism in British society in the 1970s and 1980s, dredged up by the National Front, found its way onto football’s terraces each weekend in the sickening chants of ‘ultras’. Or that the neoliberal money-fetishism of Thatcherism that began in the 80s had by 1992 reshaped the English game into a commercial super-brand, rocket-fuelled by Rupert Murdoch and his bottomless pockets of Sky money. If sport so often functions as an analogue for the political direction of the country, then there is no reason the relationship cannot work both ways; with sport and sportspeople demanding progressive change from the society that shapes them.
“There is no reason the relationship cannot work both ways; with sport and sportspeople demanding progressive change from the society that shapes them.“
Naturally, the ‘06 booze-and-WAG-a-thon model’ is a more convenient reality for those who feel challenged by the political threat of sportspeople pushing for change. For many in politics, sport is better left as a mass-consumed sedative. Or, at best, a scarf for MP’s to drape themselves in during election cycles – David Cameron was, of course, a huge Aston Villa fan (one can only imagine that John Carew sits alongside Churchill on his mantelpiece).
Conceiving of sport in this reductive manner undermines its usage as a tool of resistance. Politics is considered ‘above’ sport, a detached and ultimately more serious entity that would only ruin the fun. Discussion of whether or not hungry children should receive school meal vouchers during holidays, we are told, has ‘a time and a place’. That time and place is not of course on a footballer’s Twitter feed whilst it’s gaining traction, but instead in Westminster during Parliamentary sessions in which it can be voted into oblivion. Thankfully, the Marcus Rashford’s of this world have no respect for these arbitrary laws of time or place.
“Conceiving of sport in this reductive manner undermines its usage as a tool of resistance.”
For him and a fantastic new generation of athlete activists, from Colin Kaepernick taking the knee, to the successful social-media driven ‘Rainbow Laces’ Campaign pressing for increased LGBT inclusivity, sport is a platform from which good can be done. But despite the increasing number and prominence of such voices, it is important to note that history undermines the ridiculous notion that the ‘good old sport’ we used to gawk at in a sepia-toned haze of politics-free bliss is suddenly being swarmed by political radicals. Conversely, a genealogical thread can be traced through time from Owens to Smith and Ali and Switzer right up to Rashford and his contemporaries and no doubt long into the future. Those who pine for a boundary line between the sporting and political spheres will continue to live in a distorted reality.