May 20, 2024

Does sport have room for protest?

Does sport have room for protest?
Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted into the US Army

In 1966, Muhammad Ali, the world heavyweight boxing champion at the time, refused induction into the United States Army. The reasons for his refusal were his religious beliefs and his objection to the Vietnam War.

There have been plenty of protests and socially conscious actions in sport in recent days.

We have seen athletes and various sporting disciplines and organizations going ahead to lend their support to causes such as Black Lives Matter.

Even though it came against the backdrop of muted social conscience in the sports world, it is not a new occurrence.

Back, way back, on Jan. 13, 532 A.D., at the chariot races in Constantinople, rival drivers from the Blues and Greens teams asked the emperor Justinian to pardon two of their followers who had been condemned to die. His refusal led to the Nika Revolt, six weeks of rioting that resulted in the deaths of 30,000 people.

In 1966, Muhammad Ali, the world heavyweight boxing champion at the time, refused induction into the United States Army. The reasons for his refusal were his religious beliefs and his objection to the Vietnam War.

Initially found guilty of draft evasion, Ali was fined $10,000 and sentenced to serve five years in prison. He was also stripped of his world titles, passport and boxing license.

He was able to stay out of prison as he appealed the decision but was unable to engage in boxing for a four year period between 1966 and 1970 when he was granted a license first by the New York State Boxing Commission and second, the City of Atlanta Athletic Commission.

The United States Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1971 and Ali went on to reclaim the world title twice, in 1974 against George Foreman in a fight dubbed “The Rumble In The Jungle” in Kinshasa, Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) and 1978 in New Orleans, Louisiana when he registered a split points decision to retake the title from Leon Spinks. This feat made him the first three-time world heavyweight champion. He was active for three more years, losing the title to Larry Holmes in 1979 before retiring in 1981.

During his enforced boxing exile, Ali used his time to take his protest across the United States, addressing students at colleges and universities in criticism of the Vietnam War while advocating racial justice and black pride.

The 200m meter final at the 1968 Olympic Games remains memorable, not for the race itself, but for the medal presentation ceremony where American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the gold and bronze medalists respectively went on to the podium at the Olympic Stadium in Mexico City, shoeless and with black socks. Smith had won the gold medal, breaking the 20 second barrier with a new world record time of 19.83 seconds with Carlos taking the bronze in 20.10 seconds.

They both raised their fists above their heads as the United States national anthem played. This was a silent act to protest racial discrimination. The two athletes, and silver medalist Peter Norman from Australia who clocked 20.06 seconds in that race, also donned human rights badges on their tracksuits.

Smith and Carlos’ actions led to their expulsion from the Games, the International Olympic Committee at the time saying,” it was a deliberate and violent breach of the Olympic spirit. The two American athletes were the victims of subsequent criticism and alienation from the U.S sporting fraternity. They were recognized for their actions with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award during the 2008 ESPY Awards.  In 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC unveiled a statue honoring their actions from 1968.

Norman found it rough in Australia, bearing the brunt of criticism from a section of the Australian media. He was also omitted from the Australian team to the 1972 Olympics in Munich, West Germany despite attaining the qualifying time several times over. His alienation continued with his omission from playing any part in the 2000 Olympics opening ceremony hosted in Sydney, Australia.

He would die in 2006, Smith and Carlos playing a role in his funeral as pallbearers.

The Australian Government eventually issued a formal apology to Norman in 2012, with one MP describing Norman’s gesture as “a moment of heroism and humility that advanced international awareness of racial inequality.”

The Olympic boycotts of 1976 and 1980 were protest to the politics and events of the day.

The 1976 boycott was in protest by various countries against the failure by the International Olympic Committee to suspend New Zealand from the games after its rugby team, the All Blacks, visited South Africa, which was then governed under the apartheid (segregation) system of government.

This period also saw South African sport isolated for close to two decades as many countries around the world severed all links, including sports to protest the apartheid regime.

The United States then rallied close to 62 countries to another boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980, this time against the USSR’s decision to invade Afghanistan in 1979.

The protests have continued over the years, two significant ones catching the eye in 2016.  American Football quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand, opting instead to take a knee for the United States anthem during National Football League (NFL) pre-season games for the San Francisco 49ers that year.  This was a protest against continued police brutality which had resulted in a series of several fatal incidents against black individuals.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way,” said Kaepernick.

Unable to play since 2016, he remains a reference point for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Ethiopian marathoner Feyisa Lilesa spent two years in exile before returning home after his actions in winning the silver medal in the men’s marathon at the 2016 Olympic in Rio de Janeiro.

Lilesa crossed his arms above his head in protest against the Ethiopian government’s treatment of his Oromo people.

Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton has come out quite vocally against racial injustice through his support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

These are just some incidences of athletes speaking out. I am pretty sure it is not lost upon them that sport today is big business and there has been a lot of ambiguity related to human rights.

Moving forward, sports entities and their commercial partners will need to find common ground in ensuring athletes are able to express themselves conscientiously.

Remember, sport, through its athletes, is a key influencer on key societal and cultural issues. It provides a voice that mainstream and social media platforms can effortlessly promote.

It also has the opportunity to impact not only a specific issue but the entire world too.

-Michael Kwambo