PLAY THINGS: The games nations play

Sports and politics have always been inseparable. Then why do we keep saying the two shouldn’t mix?
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First Published: Mon, Jun 03 2013. 07 58 PM IST
Mahendra Singh Dhoni addressing the media at Hyatt Regency in Mumbai on 28 May, 2013. Photo: HT
Mahendra Singh Dhoni addressing the media at Hyatt Regency in Mumbai on 28 May, 2013. Photo: HT
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is an acknowledged master of vapid comments, so it’s no surprise that his reaction to the ongoing Indian Premier League (IPL) spot-fixing fiasco was to say that sports and politics should not be mixed.
A few hundred assorted politicians, both past and present, have made this most penetrating observation multiple times. It’s a common headline in newspapers and news channels, who use it with no sense of irony in a country where every single sport is run by politicians (with the slippery exception of cricket, where if it’s not run by a politician, it’s run by someone with powerful connections to a political party).
In India, sports is all about politics, and only occasionally about athletic performance.
The truth is, politics and sports are inseparable, and has been so for centuries.
The exalted nature of the sporting arena, with it’s promises of fairness, achievement, loyalty, endeavour, and excitement is the perfect stage for politics. The Olympic Games, which lean so heavily on nationalistic values, have always churned with political spin. Our most critical debates on race, gender, religion, and social justice are played out on the sporting field. Think Muhammad Ali, swinging out against the Vietnam war, refusing to be drafted—”My conscious won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America,” he had said. “And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me...How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”
Or Ali, again, this time a swift one-two at his own sport—“Boxing is a lot of white men watching two black men beat each other up”. Think Ralph Ellison’s seminal novel Invisible Man, boxing’s relationship to black America is made painfully explicit when the protagonist, a young black man who is a gifted scholar, is forced to fight other young black men, all blindfolded, in a boxing ring for a college scholarship.
Politics and sports have entwined and meshed for both good and bad. Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s famous black salute during the 1968 Olympics sent ripples of anger through white America, and the always pro-establishment International Olympic Committee (IOC). Carlos and Smith finished third and first respectively in the 200m sprint at the Mexico Games, with Australia’s Peter Norman finishing second. At the podium, Carlos and Smith wore black socks, no shoes, and each man had a black glove on their left hand. When the US national anthem played, they raised their gloved fists, and bowed their heads—one of the most stunning moments of protest against the disenfranchised. The IOC of course immediately suspended Smith and Carlos from the US team, and ordered them banned from the Olympic Village.
The Olympics felt the repercussions of the cold war as well—the US and 60 other nations boycotted the 1980 Olympics, hosted by the then Soviet Union. If Carlos and Smith’s gesture was an awful breach of sports apolitic fabric, what was this? The Soviet Union returned the favour by refusing to send its athletes to the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
So much of South Africa’s troubled history can be told through sports—the violent riots in England and Ireland against apartheid when the Springboks rugby team toured the UK in 1971; the IOC banning South Africa from the Games in the same year (a ban that lasted till 1992); Nelson Mandela’s brilliant coupe of uniting black and white South Africa using the rugby World Cup in 1995—rugby was a detested symbol of white oppression in the country, before Mandela accomplished the seemingly impossible task of uniting the country behind an all-white Springbok team, who lustily sang an old song of black resistance, Nkosi Sikelele Afrika (God Bless Africa) at public functions.
I wish Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the rightfully proud leader of the Indian cricket team, and its most successful, could find the power in him to take a stance, and not remain mute when faced with difficult questions, like he did last week when asked about the IPL revelations.
This weekly series, which appears on Mondays, talks about all things play—from real to virtual, stadiums to playstations, and football games to board games.
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First Published: Mon, Jun 03 2013. 07 58 PM IST
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