The Straits Times says

Getting real about politics and sport

The call by President Donald Trump to fire National Football League players who knelt during the national anthem to protest against racial injustice was rejected by over two-thirds of American voters. Presumably, such action was deemed harsh and divisive. More tellingly, half of Americans said the protests were appropriate at the game, while four in 10 disagreed. While purists would recoil at the acceptance of politics in any sport, the unfortunate reality is that the two have long been intertwined. Separation might be well nigh impossible. This was emphasised in Europe as well when champion soccer club Barcelona went on strike to protest against the forceful actions of the Spanish authorities to squash the Catalan independence referendum.

It would be wilfully naive to state that sports can transcend politics when nations sponsor doping, boycott certain events and go to great lengths to stage the Olympic Games or World Cup. National sporting events often get state attention too. In the United States, a 2015 report showed how millions of dollars had been paid by the defence department to professional sports organisers to honour the military at games.

Certainly, sports should be about fair contest, inspiring people worldwide, and "the harmonious development of humankind", as the Olympic Charter declares. While these ideals should not be abandoned, one has to also acknowledge the reality of the mixing of politics and sports. It can be a force for good at times. For example, friendship struck by opposing players at the 1971 World Table Tennis Championship was said to have paved the way for US-China rapprochement the year after. Another instance was then President Nelson Mandela's appearance in a Springbok jersey at the 1995 Rugby World Cup final in South Africa which helped to unite an apartheid-torn nation.

Against this chequered backdrop, a sportsman or sportswoman can scarcely be blamed for adopting a position for a political or social reason. While rules should exist to discourage all and sundry from using a sports platform to express political beliefs, one must be prepared for instances when individuals follow the dictates of their conscience to make a stand on an issue.

As in the US, strong views will persist elsewhere about how such actions should be dealt with. At the 1968 Olympics, US athletes executing a "Black Power" salute even had their lives threatened. Making such sportsmen pay an unduly heavy price would be wrong when sports has been politicised in the past and will likely remain so in a political world. To regard the podium as sacred in some way would be a pretence when it is blatantly used to promote commerce and the image of those in power. Athletes who go overboard should be dealt with appropriately but they shouldn't be turned into scapegoats.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 11, 2017, with the headline 'Getting real about politics and sport'. Print Edition | Subscribe