Yes, Sports and Politics Do Mix. Get Over It.

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When Baron Pierre de Coubertin founded the Modern Olympics, he designed the Olympic Rings to include the colors of every flag of every nation, linked together to symbolize the inclusivity of the games and the idea that national differences could be set aside to engage in the struggle of sport. The Baron was so insistent on peaceful competition, that in the early games, he suggested that no national flags be waved and no national anthems be played to avoid the games becoming shows of nationalistic jingoism.

Though de Coubertin sought a strong demarcation between the affairs of politics and sport, even he acknowledged that sport could not shield us from the strife, injustices, and racial inequalities that existed in the world: “Wars break out because nations misunderstand each other. We shall no have peace until the prejudices which now separate the different races shall have been outlived. To attain this end, what better means than to bring the youth of all countries periodically together for amicable trials of muscular strength and agility?[1]

In the years that followed the first Modern Olympics in 1896, sports and politics evolved into strange bedfellows, perhaps against the Baron’s best wishes. Just one year before de Coubertin’s death in 1937, Jesse Owens made a powerful statement at the 1936 Berlin Olympics when he—a black man, kicked some Nazi white supremacist ass in front of Hitler himself, winning four gold medals. Hitler made a sorry attempt to politicize the Berlin Games, believing them to be an attestation of the strength of the Aryan race, and with Owens’ victories, Hitler refused to personally hand him his medals. In Albert Speer’s Inside the Third Reich, Speer wrote: “He was highly annoyed by the series of triumphs by the marvelous colored American runner, Jesse Owens. People whose antecedents came from the jungle were primitive, Hitler said with a shrug; their physiques were stronger than those of civilized whites and hence should be excluded from future games.[2]

Fast forward to the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. 1968 was perhaps the apex of racial and political tensions in the country. The Vietnam War entered its bloodiest and most violent phase when North Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive into South Vietnam[3]. Just one year prior, in 1967, Muhammad Ali (perhaps the largest political activist in sport history) was sentenced to five years in prison (later overturned) and banned from boxing for three years for refusing to serve in a war he said would force him to “…put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs?” In April, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on the balcony of his motel. Two months and one day later, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, CA.

By the time the 1968 Games kicked off in October of that year, the United States was in a state of divisive political and racial tumult. After winning a Gold and Bronze medal in the 200m dash, Tommie Smith and John Carlos famously raised their fists with a black power salute as the National Anthem played. For their peaceful activism, both were subsequently stripped of their medals. Smith and Carlos shared the podium with Australian Peter Norman who won the silver this year. In solidarity with his fellow medal winners, Norman donned a human rights badge and was banned by his own country from ever participating in the Olympics again (incidentally, Smith and Carlos were both pallbearers at Norman’s funeral when he passed)[4].

There’s a lot of rich history to be explored with sports and politics, but I’d like to fast forward to current events. On September 1, 2016, San Francisco 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the National Anthem, a controversial move he justified because he was “…not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color..To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.[5]” In the games since Kaepernick’s initial protest, various NFL players joined him in solidarity, including teammate Eric Reid and various members of the Seattle Seahawks.

The collective outrage that unfolded over Kaepernick’s protests was massive. “He’s disrespecting the troops,” some bellowed. “He hates the police” cried others. Tomi Lahren, (who happens to be a real idiot) referred to Kaepernick as a “whiny, indulgent, attention-seeking cry baby.[6]

The culmination of anti-Kaepernick sentiments came from none other than the President himself this past weekend. At a political rally in Alabama, President Trump stated “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired![7]

If the President’s words were intended to trigger mass firings of peacefully protesting football players, they had the opposite effect. Hundreds of players and owners (including Jerry frickin’ Jones) responded by kneeling in protest. The Pittsburgh Steelers remained in the locker room during the National Anthem. And the NBA Champion Golden State Warriors decided they weren’t going to make the traditional champion’s visit to the White House.

Many of the Fencing community’s most cherished athletes responded with vigor as well. Daryl Homer, the 2016 Olympic Silver Medalist wrote on his Instagram:

“…I think it’s important today more than ever to say outright that I kneel with [Kaepernick]. I’ve had the privilege of sitting down with John Carlos and hearing first hand about the world he lived in prior to and the repercussions of his action, in Mexico City. Like Kaepernick he was black balled by an establishment, and became a social pariah. He has since in hindsight become an image of African American (& American) strength, principle, and fortitude. Today (and everyday) it’s important for each of us to take a stand in our own way. I don’t and have never followed the NFL. If you do I’m not knocking you just imploring you to stay woke/ think about the systems these organizations (or ones like them) have put into place/ and find your own form of activism to help combat them. It feels far away at times but let’s not forget that these are the same systems people of color battle daily in economic, professional, athletic, and personal areas of our lives.”

Race Imboden, a 2x Olympian and Olympic Bronze Medalist wrote that he had “Been to the White House 2 times. One of the greatest honors of being an Olympian. If I make another team under Trump. I won’t be attending.” His teammate Alexander Massialas chimed in: “I’ve been to the White House twice as well but I can’t stand behind bigotry and hate. #UnitedWeStand.”

Sharing these powerful statements on my page, I was amused horrified by some of the responses. Here’s a few of them:

  • “Your an asshole and I hope you never make another them for the USA….” First of all, the word is “you’re,” and why does it always seem like these wingnuts use excessive amounts of ellipses?
  • “You are an idiot just like all the other snow flakes.” Wut.
  • And perhaps my favorite: “Could we stay out of politics!? There is so much to say and discover about fencing.”

No. We can’t “stay out of politics.” If you haven’t figured it out, politics and sport belong together. They always have. Sports are the ultimate platform for facilitating social change and starting national conversations when our nation’s leaders fail to (or fail to do so tactfully). It wasn’t the President of the Côte d’Ivoire, Laurent Gbagbo who ended five years of a brutal civil war in the country; rather, Soccer star Didier Drogba who succeeded in urging his fellow countrymen to lay down their arms after the team made the 2006 World Cup finals[8]. Ali gave voice to the brutality and immorality of the Vietnam War in his conscientious objection to participating. John Carlos and Tommie Smith empowered the voiceless in a time when the voiceless needed it perhaps more than ever. Kaepernick kneeled, seeking a similar outcome.

What you’re seeing now, with the involvement of Daryl Homer, Ibtihaj Muhammad, Race Imboden, and Aleander Massialas isn’t a bastardization of sport. It’s a continuation of a tradition as old as time. Get over it, and perhaps, join them in solidarity.

[1] http://thesportjournal.org/article/the-idea-of-peace-as-coubertins-vision-for-the-modern-olympic-movement-development-and-pedagogic-consequences/

[2] https://sites.duke.edu/wcwp/research-projects/football-and-politics-in-europe-1930s-1950s/hitler-and-nazi-philosophy/

[3] http://www.cnn.com/2014/07/31/us/1968-important-events/index.html

[4] http://www.npr.org/2017/09/25/553478047/trump-the-nfl-and-the-powder-keg-history-of-race-sports-and-politics

[5] https://www.theringer.com/nfl/2017/9/26/16365282/protest-debate-colin-kaepernick-alejandro-villanueva-police-brutality

[6] https://mic.com/articles/160973/what-did-tomi-lahren-say-about-colin-kaepernick#.NdUO0HupB

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2017/sep/22/donald-trump-nfl-national-anthem-protests

[8] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/football/international/2318500/Didier-Drogba-brings-peace-to-the-Ivory-Coast.html

3 thoughts

  1. Well written and well said as usual Damien. After spending 4 years abroad I’m now coming home and as you yourself said “It’s like you’re Simba returning to Pride Rock after running away to Timon and Pumba.” The world is a big and beautiful place and its taught me so much about humanity and acceptance; I hope I can help be an instrument of positive change with my return the same way Simba was.

  2. Well written, as always. Thank you for helping us all to keep things in perspective.
    You are entirely correct that it is impossible to separate politics from international competition. That is, after all, the entire point of international competition; country vs country. Whether on the pitch, the ball court, the piste, or the floor of the U.N. General Assembly, it’s still competition.
    It is important for all of us to remember that much of this is about personal expression, which we here in America regard as a fundamental freedom. This often clashes with others’ sense of patriotism and duty, but that clash does NOT invalidate the freedom of expression. It just makes it uncomfortable. As you said, “get over it.”
    I have been proud to represent my country on 4 Veteran Pan-American teams. That will never get me an invitation to the White House (unless they have so many A-list athletes that turn them down that they get TRULY desperate!), but if one were ever extended to me I would attend. I would not do so out of support for Donald Trump, but out of respect for the office of the country which I have represented. In the military one would often find oneself disliking a higher-ranking individual, and the saying would always be, “Respect the rank and uniform, even if you can’t respect who’s wearing it.” It would be the same here; I would be respecting the office of President of the United States, regardless of the individual who might be actually occupying that office at the time. It’s a bit more of an old-school attitude, I realize, but that’s how I was raised and how I’ve lived my life. And I’m just as entitled to that as the people who are protesting.

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