Gladiators in the ring, activists out of it

We can’t take the politics out of sport, and nor should we want to, writes Rafi Alam.

Peter Norman stands beside Tommie Smith and John Carlos, at the 1968 Mexico City Games.
Peter Norman stands beside Tommie Smith and John Carlos, at the 1968 Mexico City Games.

As anyone would figure from a quick glance at the newspapers, Australia is sick of ‘politics’. So too, it seems, is the International Olympics Committee (IOC). In the fairy-tale land of the IOC, sport can be cleaved of politics for at least a few weeks every four years. So it came to be that Damien Hooper, an Australian boxer, was forced to apologise for wearing a shirt bearing the Aboriginal flag to an Olympic boxing match.

Allegedly, this was a political act.

This palpable fear of politics mixing with sport is exacerbated by a peculiarly Aussie form of wilful ignorance and political indifference, mired with ‘moderation’, which ignites the media to jump on any athlete who dares to advance an intellectual point.

To Australians, the idea of political expression – nay, an opinion – outside of a town hall meeting invites a sickening feeling from our ‘working families’ and ‘unbiased media’.

But why is this, and why did the Australian Olympics Committee (AOC) find it necessary to penalise an Indigenous man for showing pride in his heritage? Why, when there have been far more vivid and even brutal displays of politicking in Olympics history?

African nations boycotted the 1976 Montreal Games in response to the IOC’s refusal to ban New Zealand, after that country’s rugby team toured apartheid South Africa earlier in the year.

The boycott was integral in bringing about the eventual end of apartheid but was deemed politically-charged. So Australia tiptoed around it, as we did much of the Western condemnation of South Africa at that time.

And what of the hypocrisy of the IOC? Recently, they lauded the inclusion of the first female Olympian from Saudi Arabia. This was cast as a win for human rights. Not a political win, however. Politics has no place in sports, remember.

The acts of Mr Hooper look significantly less offensive when compared to incidents such as the Blood in the Water match, where violence erupted in a water polo match between recently occupied Hungary and the Soviet Union in 1956. Sure, violence is always a tragedy but could an observer honestly suggest that the feelings of humiliation, anger, and hurt felt by the invaded Hungarians were invalid or could be cast aside in the spirit of ‘sportsmanship’ so easily? Right or wrong, similar situations arise between Arab and Israeli teams frequently, albeit peacefully.

But alas, in Australia, we are ashamed of athletes who demonstrate conscience. Mr Hooper is one example, paralleled in contemporary memory with Cathy Freeman and her bold, inspiring decision to carry the Aboriginal flag after her victory in 2000. This was political only in the sense that the personal is political; recognition of Indigenous pride becomes political only in a country that is still unable to reconcile its own existence with the destruction of another’s.

We would do well to remember Peter Norman. In 1968, he set the fastest Australian time for the 200m sprint, a record he still holds in 2012. But despite his remarkable achievements as an athlete, he is barely known to the Australian public.

At the 1968 Mexico City Games, Norman wore an ‘Olympic Project for Human Rights’ badge while the two African-American athletes at the podium – Tommie Smith and John Carlos – held their heads down and raised their fists during the American national anthem in protest of racial segregation in the United States. To put this in context, this was a time when black people were still being lynched, still being shot, and still denied a vote in some states.

While all the athletes were penalised, the two Americans are now understood to be national heroes for standing up for what they believe in. Likewise, another athlete at the 1968 Olympics, Czech Vera Cáslavská, turned her head away during the Soviet Union national anthem, in protest of its invasion of her homeland. She was punished, both by the IOC and the new authorities of Czechoslovakia, but was revered by her people and is now considered a hero.

What happened to Peter Norman? Thrown into the dustbin of history. He was silenced, stripped of his medals, and banned from the Olympics. He died a broken man in 2006, with only one Australian recognition of his legacy, a mural in Redfern. He was purposefully not invited to any Australian Olympics events, except one, in 2000, when the Americans invited him after hearing that the Australians had refused. Incredible.

Most nations tend to recognise their heroes after the status quo disappears or is radically changed. But Australia seems to be stuck in a cesspool of its own punctilios and demureness, something the Aussie ‘mythos’ attempts to reject. Perhaps Australians are just frightened of engaging with politics, or fail to understand that politics is not a separate sphere of life, but suffuses through all of our lives, for better or for worse.

Australia, especially its media, needs to understand that the very existence of the Olympics is political; that every dollar spent on it is political, and that every homeless person shoved to another side of the city is political. We need to allow our athletes to have a conscience so that we aren’t intellectually forsaken.

When the Germans and the English stopped fighting war and started fighting soccer it was not a rejection of the political, it was a radical rethinking of the dominant politics of the time into one of empathy and love. When Jesse Owens won the most gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, it was an attack on the politics of Nazism and a victory for the politics of anti-racism.

And when Damien Hooper wears an Aboriginal flag, it is a political attack on Australian mainstream sports culture – a culture that ignores and sometimes defends the oppression of Indigenous people, in both the present and the past.