The soccer teams of Saudi Arabia and Iran have just been knocked out of the World Cup tournaments having lost their matches, but the real question is, should they have been allowed to compete in the first place?
The question speaks to a much larger issue of the place of politics and the fight for human rights in sports.
The question has been around for a long time, dating back at least to the controversy over Olympia, Leni Riefenstahl’s film about the 1936 Berlin Olympics. (Was Riefenstahl defying Joseph Goebbels when she refused to turn off the cameras for the 200 meter sprint — the race where Jesse Owens, the black athlete from the U.S., beat Germany’s Aryan runners — or was she doing the bidding of the Fuhrer? The jury is still out on that question.)
Below we present the pros and cons of mixing politics and sports and then ask you to take our quick poll.
Remember when, in 1980, President Jimmy Carter forced U.S. athletes to boycott the Summer Olympics in Moscow after the Soviet Union refused to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan?
(The USSR was supporting the pro-Soviet regime in its fight against the Islamist insurgency. We won’t even talk about how that worked out, facilitating the rise of the Taliban, al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.)
Who could forget the dashed dreams of Carl Lewis and the rest of the U.S. Olympic team, young people who had dedicated much of their lives to the goal of participating in the games. Lewis went on to compete in the next three Olympics, winning a total of nine golds and one silver. However, many of his 1980 teammates never had the opportunity to compete in an Olympics again.
As is usually the case when countries use sports for leverage, it is the athletes that are the victims, paying a heavy price for little tangible outcome.
One of the beauties of sports is that it offers an alternative to the often harsh realities of real life. It is a place where differences can be put aside, showing us instead a model of co-existence. Friendly competition between those who have honed the body to performance level, share a love for the sport and excel in it can offer us a higher vision of ourselves above the pettiness of actual experience.
To sully this image with politics is truly a shame.
Although most of us might not remember the raised fists (the Black Power salute) of U.S. athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympic medal ceremony for the 200 meter run, we are all certainly aware of Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest and the debate it provoked.
Was the debate a good thing? Although we seem to have a hard time keeping uncivil reactions out of hot political issues at present, bringing those issues to the surface and talking about them is a good thing.
For better or worse, every aspect of our lives has become politicized. Moreover, we have conferred celebrity status on our star athletes, who now oftentimes use this elevated position to promote their political goals. We should not be surprised at this state of affairs as we have created it.
Moreover, politics in sports has also moved some abusive countries in the right direction. In 2012, the International Olympic Committee gave Saudi Arabia an ultimatum: Let women compete or stay home. They complied. By the next Olympic games in 2016, Saudi Arabia had doubled the number of female athletes on its team.
Although some said at the time that inclusion of women on the Saudi team did not translate to greater rights for Saudi women at home, it must be recognized that change is the kingdom comes slow. It is fair to say in retrospect that the strong arm tactics of the Olympic committee gradually did trickled down and result in change on the ground for women in Saudi Arabia.
Most of us in the West take women’s rights for granted, but we have forgotten that it was only in 1967 that Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to compete in the Boston Marathon (and that the race director Josh Semple tried to rip off her number while she was running).
Every tactic – including sports — should be used to humiliate human rights abusers to change their policies. We can only imagine what might have happened if the Olympic committee would have kicked out Iran for forcing its athletes to forfeit matches against Israelis instead of competing with them.
The Iranian people might be one step closer to joining the family of nations and living lives free from injustice.
Please take the time to participate in our poll below: