Like it or or not, sport will always be political
The idea that the Olympics, or indeed any other global sporting event, is not "political" couldn't be further from the truth. It's not that the Olympics ought to be simply about sport, but the idea that sport can be neatly disentangled from the political happenings of the world is utopianism at its very worst.
As Colin Kaepernick, and many before him have demonstrated, politics will always manifest in the arenas of sport in the context of global modernity. And since the debate around racial injustice burst onto the mainstream with the murder of George Floyd last summer, individuals and teams - including England's football team - have increasingly opted to take the knee in solidarity.
"The competition doesn't reside in some plane of existence removed from the struggles of everyday life"
The Olympics is no different. The competition doesn't reside in some plane of existence removed from the struggles of everyday life around the world. Whether it's the horrors of war, authoritarianism and genocide, or questions of mental health, sexism, racial injustice and gender identity, the Olympics, historically, has always been mired in the political struggles of its era.
Two of the Olympics' most enduring historic moments are arguably the sight of the swastika-adorned Berlin Olympics of 1936, which was perhaps the greatest propaganda platform for the Nazi regime at the time. In stark contrast is the image of African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos making the Black Power salute on the podium at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, to protest racism in the recently desegregated US and to express solidarity more generally with the oppressed around the world.
The Sudanese judoka Mohamed Abdalrasool did not attend his scheduled fight with Tohar Butbul, an Israeli athlete, for the 73kg competition. 👇 #TokyoOlympics #Judo #Sudan #Israelhttps://t.co/Naj0FFNv6F— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) July 26, 2021
And this is the point: The politics that the Olympics tries so hard to shield itself from are actually part of the fabric of the event, given it reflects the prevailing political zeitgeist, as it did in 1936 with the glorification of fascism, and given the participation of athletes with their own experiences of social and political struggle, as was the case with Smith and Carlos.
If there are people who truly believe the Olympics is about sport and not politics, the Tokyo Games will have ruthlessly stripped away that illusion.
These games have already witnessed a plethora of political activities sparking a steady flow of lively debate. There have been overt and very deliberate gestures, protests and boycotts, such as Sudan's Mohamed Abdalrasool and Algeria's Fethi Nourine making global headlines by deliberately withdrawing from the judo event, rather than face Israel's Tohar Butbul. "We worked a lot to reach the Olympics," said Nourine, "but the Palestinian cause is bigger than all of this."
If that geopolitical minefield wasn't enough, the men's badminton doubles, of all places, served up the testy and hostile spectacle of Taiwan triumphing over the People's Republic of China in the final. China claims Taiwan as part of its territory, despite Taiwan having a fully autonomous democratic government. In recent years, China has openly threatened Taiwan to join the People's Republic or face "consequences" - it's no surprise that the triumph of Taiwan in badminton prompted the ire of Chinese nationalist trolls. "You can lose to anyone," raged one Chinese troll, "but Taiwan separatists."
Perhaps the most dramatic and genuinely scary reminder that politics accompanies the Olympics whether you like it or not, is the case of the 24-year-old Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who, after mildly criticising Belarusian sports officials, was essentially abducted from the Olympic village and spirited away to Tokyo airport, where she was to be deported to Belarus to face the wrath of the regime.
"Athletes themselves are politicised by different terrains of injustice and oppression"
Belarus has a history of beating, torturing and using athletes as nothing more than propaganda pawns for the Lukashenko regime. This is precisely why Tsimanouskaya refused to board the plane.
Though one might herald Tsimanouskaya as an anti-authoritarian heroine, the reality is that while she is objectively brave, she was also simply an unfortunate victim of an authoritarian regime that brooks no dissent. There's little doubt that she would rather just be an athlete, free from "politics" and the regime that tried to make her one of its victims.
Authoritarian regimes make victims daily all around the world, but, in the case of Tsimanouskaya, the Olympics brought what would've been an otherwise obscure case of authoritarian repression to a global audience. It's not athletes who politicise the Olympics, but rather that athletes themselves are politicised by different terrains of injustice and oppression - the Olympics is just where such politicisation becomes highly visible.
Opinion: Drown out the boos when England takes the knee - Sam Hamad writes https://t.co/4uMQx8kb1u— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) June 21, 2021
It's worth noting that the official body that holds the Olympics would never have held Belarus to any kind of serious scrutiny for her thankfully unsuccessful abduction. If the Olympics were to suddenly bring human rights abusers to account, something it has never done, you might wonder how many nations would be left to compete, including some of the largest and most financially lucrative ones.
The Olympics doesn't exist as an official site of protest against the evils of the world, but it nonetheless reflects such evils and, at times, resistance to them. This year, the LGBT African American shot-putter Raven Saunders perfectly encapsulated the inescapable politicisation of the Olympics with the 'X' shape made by as she stood on the podium to receive her silver medal on Sunday.
Saunders explained that despite the gesture being symbolic of her multifaceted identity, it wasn't just about her or people like her, but more generally, "for oppressed people" - the 'X' being representative of the intersection of oppressed people all around the world.
Those who angrily denounce athletes for "politicising" the Olympics either support the status quo of oppression wherever it exists or simply don't understand that as long as political struggle is necessary, the politicisation of all globalised sport will be a certainty.
Sam Hamad is a writer and History PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow focusing on totalitarian ideologies.
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