The world’s biggest sporting event cannot be allowed to be hijacked by certain political groups piggybacking such high-profile occasions to run their messages
When a sports fan comes to watch one’s team play, he or she carries personal fantasies and a collective local or patriotic pride to the stadium. The person becomes one with the sporting amphitheatre, one with the team.
Most of them do not expect to be politically ambushed and overtly lectured on morals by players taking the knee, disrespecting the national anthem, waving angry flags or wearing aggressive messages on arm-bands. It distracts from sports. More subtle and sombre anti-racism campaigns work better. Show-pony protests garner boos, because boos and cheers are all that sports fans have to legitimately make their opinion known.
Some are upset that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is not allowing no-holds-barred protests performances at the Tokyo Games. Just as well. The world’s biggest sporting event cannot be allowed to be hijacked by certain political groups piggybacking such high-profile occasions to run their messages.
The IOC will allow athletes to wear clothes at Olympic venues with words such as peace, respect, solidarity, inclusion, and equality. But one can’t wear ‘Black Lives Matter’ and suchlike.
“No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas,” says Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter.
Athletes can express themselves on the field of play before the start of competition or during the introduction of the athlete or team, as long as the gesture isn’t targeted against “people, countries, [organisations] and/or their dignity.”
One can’t disrupt another team’s national anthem or unfurl a banner during another team’s introduction.
There are a few places where expressions are specifically banned: during official ceremonies, during competition on the field of play and in the Olympic Village. They can, however, be political at press meets.
Media outlets like Al Jazeera have already called it a “no-fun Olympics”. One wonders if their notion of “fun” is to have a beloved sports event run to ground by anarchy and controversy.
The most recent flashpoint of racism in sports was the trolling of English non-white players Bukayo Saka, Jadon Sancho, and Marcus Rashford after all three missed penalties in England’s defeat in the Euro Cup football finals. The racist attacks on them were heinous and widespread.
English fans were vilified, and many of them were rightly picked up by the police.
But one has to examine this racial anger in the context of English and European politics in the last three or four decades.
The seeds of this racial anger have been sown by successive generations of politicians, ignoring public opinion.
Rita Chin argues in her new book, ‘The Crisis of Multiculturalism in Europe: A History’, “How do we make sense of each country’s distinct historical contexts, ideologies, and policies for dealing with diversity, on the one hand, and the fact that these efforts largely converged into a European-wide discourse on multiculturalism, on the other?”
Chin points to two watershed moments in 1989 when Islam, for instance, was started being viewed as fundamentally incompatible with European societies: the Salman Rushdie affair and the French headscarf debate. As a stunned Europe watched, the Rushdie episode “marked the moment when Muslim immigrants with diverse national origins merged into a single, distinctive category”.
The English public, the silent majority from where the raucous fans come, has seen waves of immigration thrust down their collective throat in the name of multiculturalism. Their values have been trampled over by the same people who make a virtue out of the most regressive values.
The online war against the racism of English fans has been led, ironically, by three women — Shaista Aziz, Amna Abdullatif, and Huda Jawad — who proudly call themselves “Three Hijabis”, flaunting the misogynistic burqa.
So brazen has been political hijacking of English football that Crystal Palace star winger Wilfried Zaha refused to take the knee before matches. He said it was “degrading” and lost its impact.
Also, it is unfair to single out English fans as racist. English Premier League’s data on abuse against players shows that around 70% cases of abuse come from social media users outside the UK. A study by the Fare network, which monitors racism in football, found that “the abuse is global, with accounts from Indonesia to Argentina levelling racism and homophobia at players. The biggest number of discriminatory posts appeared in French and Spanish, followed by English”.
In his ‘The Strange Death of Europe’ Douglas Murray starkly captures how the seeds of racial anxiety were sown by politicians in English society.
“The next census, compiled in 2011…proved that the number of people living in England and Wales who had been born overseas had risen by nearly three million in the previous decade alone. It showed that only 44.9% of London residents now identified themselves as ‘white British’. And it revealed that nearly three million people in England and Wales were living in households where not one adult spoke English as their main language,” he writes. “Opinion polls showed that the British public were overwhelmingly opposed to the migration policies of their governments and believed that immigration into Britain was too high. An April 1968 poll by Gallup found that 75% of the British public believed that controls on immigration were not strict enough. That figure would soon rise to 83%.”
UK’s Conservative shadow cabinet minister Enoch Powell lost his job and his political career for speaking up.
“Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad,” said Powell. “We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependents, who are for the most part the material of the future growth of the immigrant-descended population. It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.”
In 1984 the headmaster of a school in Bradford, Ray Honeyford, met with the same fate. In a magazine called The Salisbury Review, he wrote on running a school in an area where 90% of students were of immigrant parents.
“He mentioned the refusal of some Muslim fathers to permit their daughters to participate in dance classes, drama or sport, and the silence of the authorities on this and other cultural practices, such as taking children back to Pakistan during term time,” writes Murray. “The Muslim Mayor of Bradford demanded Honeyford be sacked, accusing him even years later of (among other things) ‘cultural chauvinism’. Amid protests and nationwide cries of ‘Raycist’, Honeyford was forced out of his job and never again worked in education.”
It is this kind of intolerant, vicious “multiculturalism” that is bound to trigger racial anger and societal backlash on the streets, in the stadiums. Identity politics begets identity politics. To stop one, one has to curb the other. Otherwise, the bile will spill over to one of the most liberating human spaces: the sports arena.