Sport and politics have always mixed

US athletes Tommy Smith and John Carlos giving a Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics. Australian athlete Peter Norman (left) paid a high price for his support for Smith and Carlos' anti-racist stance.
Wednesday, February 8, 2017

In an article for The Conversation, Daryl Adair, a professor of Sport Management at the University of Technology, Sydney, makes a pertinent observation regarding the interaction between sport and politics: “It is sometimes said that sport ought to be separate from politics, or that politics should be removed from sport. These sentiments are well meaning – if idealistic.”

In his January 17 article “Sit on hands or take a stand: why athletes have always been political players”, Adair makes the case that high-profile athletes and sportspeople cannot remain indifferent to the wider social and political issues in which the practice of sport occurs.

Yet sport, being an activity simultaneously part of government policy, commercial money-making, health and fitness issues, and leisure-time entertainment, has been regarded as largely insulated from the cultural, social and political issues in wider society.

Athletes such as the late African American boxer Muhammad Ali rewrote the rules surrounding the engagement of celebrity sportspeople with political issues. Ali not only proved himself to be the best in his chosen sport, but used his high profile to speak out against racism and the Vietnam War. He was attacked and almost jailed for his stance, and became a widely reviled figure during the 1960s and ’70s.

Ali was subsequently admired for this stand against racism and war, but his image has been largely hollowed out of its radical and overt political and social content.

Sport has largely been seen as a “level playing field”. It is presented as an arena in which any person, regardless of their race, creed, ethnic background, gender or beliefs can succeed, depending solely on their talent and dedication to the sport of their choosing.

In Australia, sport is also an integral part of the national psyche. Sporting professionals are described as “heroes” and role models for our youth. They are strongly condemned for any indiscretions on or off the sporting field.

Sport is a crucial part of schooling, presented as an activity that builds character and through which social connections are formed. In New South Wales and Queensland, rugby league has long been the definitive football code, whereas in the rest of the country it is Australian Rules football. In recent years, as the two codes expanded nationally, these lines have blurred.

However, make no mistake – the “footy” faces strong competition. Soccer, or football as it is known through most of the world, was once dismissed derisively by the Anglo-Saxon establishment as “wog ball”.

Now, the national competition, A-League, is growing. A derby between A-League clubs Sydney FC and the Western Sydney Wanderers in October drew more than 61,000, making it the largest attendance at a regular season match for any football code in NSW. The Socceroos have an enthusiastic and growing fan base.

However, when it comes to political issues, sportspeople face a contradiction. Their profile enables them to comment and contribute on a wide range of issues, but they face objections when they run counter to prevailing consensuses.

Adair noted: “The off-field contributions of many athletes, such as by contributing to charities or virtuous social causes, are rarely the subject of media discussion. There is, nonetheless, much more public interest should an athlete present a dissenting perspective in respect of a sociopolitical issue via sport.

“Negative refrains typically include: athletes should ‘stick to sport’; that they are ‘using sport’ to advance a political agenda; and (like other celebrities) they are not credible advocates because they live in an elitist ‘bubble’.”

 

Peter Norman was an Australian sprinter who took the silver medal in the 200 metres race during the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. He is best known for standing in solidarity with gold medal winner Tommie Smith and bronze medallist John Carlos, the African American athletes who raised their fists in the Black Power salute while on the Olympic dais after the race.

 

The story of Smith and Carlos has been told repeatedly, but Norman’s role in one of history’s most famous sporting protests is less well known.

In the 1960s, a group of US athletes concerned about racism and violence directed against the African American community formed an informal activist group called Olympic Project for Human Rights.

These athletes, after prolonged debate, decided to take part in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. However, each athlete was encouraged to follow their conscience to protest the appalling conditions afflicting their communities in their own way.

Smith and Carlos were members of the group. They decided they would accept their medals shoeless to indicate the poverty affecting African Americans. They also decided to raise their fists in the Black Power salute, knowing full well the heavy consequences they would face.

They had expected to share gold and silver between them, but roaring up out of the Antipodes, Peter Norman blitzed the field to run second. His time of 20.06 was an Australian record that still stands today. Who was this mysterious speedster from Down Under?

In the 1960s, Australia was a very racist society that had in place a series of restrictive laws targeting the Aboriginal population, akin to apartheid South Africa. Angered by this situation, Norman was an anti-racism advocate.

Supporting Smith and Carlos, Norman wore the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge while on the dais accepting his medal.

For that act of solidarity, Norman would pay for the rest of his life. Norman, though qualifying several times for a spot on the Australian team for the 1972 Munich Olympics, was excluded. He retired from athletics soon after.

He never ran competitively for Australia again. He died of natural causes, ostracised by the wider sporting community, in 2006.

In a 2015 Griotmag.com article, Riccardo Gazzaniga wrote of Norman: “Back in the change-resisting, whitewashed Australia he was treated like an outsider, his family outcast, and work impossible to find.

“For a time he worked as a gym teacher, continuing to struggle against inequalities as a trade unionist and occasionally working in a butcher shop. An injury caused Norman to contract gangrene which led to issues with depression and alcoholism.”

“As John Carlos said, ‘If we were getting beat up, Peter was facing an entire country and suffering alone.’

“For years Norman had only one chance to save himself: he was invited to condemn his co-athletes, John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s gesture in exchange for a pardon from the system that ostracised him. A pardon that would have allowed him to find a stable job through the Australian Olympic Committee and be part of the organisation of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.

“Norman never gave in and never condemned the choice of the two Americans.”

Norman stayed true to his conscience, always expressing support for his friends and fellow athletes from the United States. When he died, Carlos and Smith were the lead pallbearers at his funeral, carrying Norman’s coffin to its final resting place in Melbourne.

Norman was issued a posthumous apology by the Australian Federal Parliament in 2012. The move to apologise to Norman was not driven by the Australian Olympic Committee or any sporting body, but by a concerned MP. The fact that the apology was so late in coming must raise serious questions about the state of race relations in Australia today.

The idea that sport and politics are mutually exclusive is a fiction. When African American NFL player Colin Kaepernick controversially refused to stand for the US national anthem last year, he did so because he fully understands the problems of police violence and poverty that afflict the African American community.

Kaepernick has faced a serious backlash against his actions, precisely because he deliberately stepped outside the bounds of what is considered acceptable political conduct by a prominent Black American athlete.

He is no Michael Jordan — a submissive superstar, a value-free brand salesperson.

Jordan was not entirely value-free, simply standing for a certain set of ideals, those of his corporate sponsor. Jordan, the spokesperson for Nike, declined to take a stand on important social and political issues because it would threaten shoe sales. Being a shoe salesperson proved more important than tackling issues of racism.

Jordan and others like OJ Simpson before his murderous rampage, are the archetypes of the non-political, bland corporatised athletes with Black faces. They are clean-cut, articulate and suave — effective at selling their brand, but not at challenging racial injustice.

When Norman was asked, years later, about the stand he took with Carlos and Smith, he stated simply: “I couldn’t see why a Black man couldn’t drink the same water from a water fountain, take the same bus or go to the same school as a white man.

“There was a social injustice that I couldn’t do anything about from where I was, but I certainly hated it.

“It has been said that sharing my silver medal with that incident on the victory dais detracted from my performance. On the contrary. I have to confess, I was rather proud to be part of it.”

Athletic and sporting achievements are worthy of admiration and respect — but taking a stand in solidarity with the oppressed is certainly no less admirable and inspirational.

[A slightly longer version of this piece was published at Rupen Savoulian's blog.]