By Sam Tomlin
In 1989 an England cricket team set off to South Africa for a tour against the all-white South African cricket team. Amid strong criticism from activists and politicians alike, Mike Gatting, captain of the ‘rebels’ team claimed he knew ‘very little about apartheid’ and asserted ‘I do believe there shouldn’t be politics in sport. As far as I’m concerned, I should be allowed to play cricket to earn my living wherever I want.’ The reported £100,000 contracts given to all rebels on the tour did little to convince him otherwise, however the tour was called off half way through after Mandela’s release leaving Gatting and his team ‘confused’.
The debate about whether sport and politics should mix is very similar to the debate about whether music and politics should mix. Thankfully music’s history has produced not only musicians who were willing to engage with political issues, but stars who have helped to set the course of history in their society (just look at Dylan in civil rights and the anti-war movement in the USA and the Beatles in the cultural revolution in the 60’s in the UK and USA).
Sport, however, has had a much more tenuous relationship with movements for change as exhibited by Mr Gatting and co. and also unfortunately this week with the Formula 1 season visiting Bahrain (the race taking place today). Bernie Ecclestone, F1 baron and decision maker claimed this week that the alleged human rights abuses by the Bahrain government were ‘nothing to do with us’ despite an estimated 50,000 pro-democracy demonstrators gathering on the north side of the island calling for the Grand Prix to be called off and (if reports are to be believed) a peaceful protester losing his life on the eve of the qualifying.
Mr Ecclestone’s point is of course correct in one sense. He himself or (hopefully) anyone in the F1 world have nothing to do with the alleged abuses of human rights. Why, it could be argued, do activists not call for a cancellation of the Premier League fixtures for a weekend instead to raise awareness of the situation in Bahrain or jump in the river during a boat-race like Trenton Oldfield did the other week, if they are going to ask for the Grand Prix to be stopped?
The issue, however is that major sporting events (or rock concerts or any major event for that matter) not only give people entertainment across the world, but pronounce a form of legitimacy and endorsement in whichever country or city they take place. Hitler was very aware of this when in 1936 the Olympics came to Nazi Germany – all athletes were asked to give the Sieg Heil salute, the majority of which (including many of the British squad) shamefully complied. Hitler knew, that in so doing, the Third Reich was gaining an international legitimacy it would have found hard to engineer elsewhere. The Soviet Union also understood this in 1980 when it was awarded the Olympics; 62 countries boycotted because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but once again Britain underestimated the power of sport for political change and attended.
By going ahead with the Grand Prix in Bahrain, what the chiefs of Formula 1 are essentially saying is that profit and a sporting competition are more important than the human rights of the Bahraini people. As Richard Williams has argued in the Guardian, Ecclestone has (once again) followed the money and turned F1 into a pariah sport. Not all sportsmen and women or sporting administrators have fallen for the lie that sport has no place in politics. I attended a conference in October with ‘Peace and Sport’ where current and former athletes join with politicians to proclaim not only the power sport can have but also the mandate it has to stand up against oppression, poverty and injustice in the world. Unfortunately, however, going beyond a photo opportunities and giving a small percentage of a salary to charity (which of course should not be knocked) is currently the reserve for few athletes and sports stars. We need more Dylans of sport, prepared to accept ridicule and criticism to spearhead and champion issues of human rights. Imagine if one of the high profile F1 drivers had refused to partake in today’s race and the attention it would draw. Instead, none (I’m aware of) have said anything on the issue, presumably protesting ignorance like Gatting or innocence like Ecclestone.
Sport is one of the most popular and headline-grabbing elements in modern society. It has the capability to bring nations and peoples together, but it also has the much more ability to endorse the status quo than it is often realised.
As U2 bassist Adam Clayton declared in the late 80’s, ‘There are people who would say that you shouldn’t mix music and politics or sport and politics, or whatever. But I think that’s kinda bullsh*t.’ Couldn’t have put it better myself!