Politics and sports: walking a fine line

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Politics and sports have long been intertwined, and this fact rings true now more than ever. There are many modern indications of the intersection between the two: athletes taking the knee to promote racial equality, wearing shirts with influential messages, or even boycotting events on the international stage.

While there is no questioning that the two are connected, opinions on whether they should be connected are divided. Some fear that having this overlap hinders the enjoyment of the sport at its core. Sport can of course be a bridge that connects us, but with politics in the mix, this unity may be impeded by controversial political views. On the other hand, others feel as though having the overlap is beneficial and may lead to positive results. Seeing sporting icons speak up about important political issues could, after all, be the driving force that starts a revolution.

Recently, we have seen the amount of good that can come from the power that athletes hold. Marcus Rashford, striker for Manchester United and England, campaigned for the continuance of the free school meals programme. He successfully helped bring about a government U-turn to guarantee the programme could continue to help underprivileged children. This is only one example of how politics and sports together can change the world for the better. The campaign was hugely influential, and the outcome has helped families across the nation.

We have seen the amount of good that can come from the power that athletes hold

Lewis Hamilton, F1 driver and seven-time world champion, says that what he fights for is not political in nature, but rather concerning human rights. But the change he hopes to make again shows that sport and politics together can help create a better future. Hamilton has been instrumental in ensuring that F1 addresses vital issues such as racial inequality. He has used his platform to support the Black Lives Matter movement, and continues to fight for more diverse representation within F1 and in the world more generally.

But despite the positive change that can come when politics and sport meet, major sporting organisations such as FIFA and the have re-emphasised that there should be a clear line between the two.

Thomas Bach, who is currently President of the International Olympic Committee, and also won gold for fencing in the 1976 Olympics, firmly believes in the importance of a politically neutral Olympics. Bach’s views were shaped when he witnessed first-hand the adverse effects that can occur when politics and sports meet. Historically, the have been boycotted a handful of times. In a recent article, Bach spoke of the boycotts of the 1976, 1980 and 1984 games. He described the devastation that African athletes felt when having to pack their bags and leave in 1976 due to a last-minute decision by their governments to boycott the games.

The world of sport does not exist in a vacuum, but perhaps there is a line that needs to be drawn

In 1980, a boycott of the hosted in Moscow was led by the US, in protest of the USSR invasion of Afghanistan. Bach strongly opposed the boycott, but recalls how the voices of the athletes held little to no weight in the decision. In the end, the boycott had no political effect as the war between the USSR and Afghanistan continued for another nine years.

This caused the USSR to lead 14 nations into boycotting the subsequent games held in Los Angeles – another public display of political hostility at the expense of athletes. The boycotts did little to alter the trajectory of political issues. Instead, the athletes who had worked hard to qualify for the were reduced to watching their dedication and ambition thrown away just so that their governments could make a statement.

Whether we like it or not, politics has become an underlying theme in sports. While at times this overlap promotes desirable change, at other times it can be seen as an abuse of political power that negatively impacts athletes. The world of sport does not exist in a vacuum, but perhaps there is a line that needs to be drawn.

The argument that third parties such as the government should be prevented from using their political authority to intervene in sports in a way that would negatively affect athletes is strong. Athletes, meanwhile, ought to be allowed to use their platform to fight for positive change, especially on issues that are more in the realm of human rights issues, rather than purely political concerns. Though separating sport and politics may be difficult, if the right boundaries are set by both sporting organisations and individuals, perhaps the right balance may be found sooner rather than later.

Image: Nathan Rupert via Flickr

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