You cannot separate sports and politics

Athlete activism is here to stay whether or not you like it

PHOTO: Zhang Kaiyv / Unsplash

By: C Icart, Staff Writer

Content warning: mentions of sexual assault, genocide, racism, and police brutality 

We are less than a year and a half away from the next Summer Games. In light of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, will Russian athletes be allowed to compete? The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is going back on a previous recommendation to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from the Paris Games and “is now examining a ‘pathway’ to allow athletes from Russia and Belarus to take part in the 2024 Olympics, with some restrictions.” After all, one of the fundamental principles of Olympism is that “sports organizations within the Olympic Movement shall apply political neutrality.” But is it possible to separate sports from politics? Not really.

China has a particularly bad track record when it comes to sports and human rights violations. Calls to boycott the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing due to the genocide of Uighur Muslims and the disappearance of Peng Shuai after accusing a top Chinese official of sexual assault are two of many possible examples. “Kyiv [ . . . ] says at least 228 Ukrainian athletes and coaches have been killed in Russia’s invasion.” Is it possible to overcome this reality with white flags and not playing the Russian and Belarusian anthems? “Political neutrality” in sports is a lie that benefits powerful nations. Sporting events have always been political despite efforts to downplay this reality. FIFA Uncovered is a documentary highlighting how soccer and politics are intertwined, and have been for a long time. As Miles Coleman, the producer of the documentary, puts it, “Football and politics are in bed together and to ignore it is either to play willful ignorance or you don’t like how they are relating and you wish it would all just go away. The question isn’t whether we can remove politics and football. The question is what do we do about it?”

Politics play a role in deciding where significant sporting events like the World Cup and the Olympics are held. Despite the exorbitant costs (the Sochi Olympics costed around 50 billion dollars), countries compete for the opportunity to host, probably because it can boost their economy and their “global trade and stature.” Governments use these events for sportswashing, which “is the use of sports to present a sanitized, friendlier version of a political regime or operation.” For example, Qatar spent “at least 220 billion dollars” in luxury accommodations and infrastructure projects. They promoted the World Cup using famous celebrities like David Beckham while being accused of “modern day slavery.” But sportswashing can go beyond hosting; sponsoring teams or simply participating in sports can also be a form of sportswashing. An article by Sports Illustrated traces sports washing all the way back to the ancient Olympic Games. 

Governments also use athletes for political purposes. For instance, Brittney Griner became a political prisoner after being caught possessing a small amount of cannabis oil in Russia, where she played basketball in the ​​Russian Premier League. Logically, it makes sense that athletes sometimes also use their platform to make political statements. We must challenge the idea that politics and sports only interact when athletes engage in political activism. Athletes staying quiet on political issues would not magically make sports apolitical.

Sports have historically been one of the first places where marginalized communities have been accepted to participate and can be a driving force for social inclusion. This does not change the fact that oppressive ideas such as racism still affect sports today. After all, this year’s Super Bowl was the first time in history two Black quarterbacks faced off. 

In recent history, athletes taking a stand (or a knee) in support of Black Lives Matter is the most visible display of political activism in sports in North America. In 2020, the NBA was incredibly vocal. “Black Lives Matter” was painted on courts. Players wore jerseys displaying messages like “Black Lives Matter, Say Their Names, I Can’t Breathe, and Anti-Racist,” among many more. After a police officer shot Jacob Blake, NBA teams opted not to play in protest, halting the playoffs for three days

For some athletes, competing in and of itself is political. This is the case for the Haudenosaunee Nationals, a lacrosse organization. They “are sanctioned by the sovereign Haudenosaunee Grand Council and are governed by the Haudenosaunee Nationals Board of Directors.” Haudenosaunee territory is on both sides of the border between the lands colonially known as Canada and the United States. The Haudenosaunee, like other Indigenous nations, are sovereign. As a result, they maintain a nation-to-nation relationship with Canada and the United States and travel internationally using Haudenosaunee passports. 

The Haudenosaunee government has issued passports since 1923, and the Haudenosaunee Nationals teams still encounter resistance today when they enter and travel to lacrosse competitions. Notably, in 2022, the Irish government accepted the Haudenosaunee passports of athletes traveling to Ireland for the Lacrosse World Championships. This is 12 years after the team had been denied entry to the UK. UK Daily News reported, “The Canadian government, too, has been known to confiscate Haudenosaunee passports and dismiss them as ‘fantasy documents.’” The team is hopeful they will be allowed to compete in the 2028 Olympics considering the Haudenosaunee “not only created the game, they are currently 3rd in the world, based on their bronze medal at the 2018 World Championships.” Every time the team competes, they “assert their nationhood and sovereignty in the geopolitical arena.”

Depending on the sport, professional athletes have massive platforms and are sometimes watched by millions of spectators. This situation gives many of them the power to create change by highlighting social justice issues. Not to mention, athletes often risk their careers to speak up for themselves and the toxicity and violence that sometimes goes on within sports organizations.

The idea that sports and politics could and should be separated is a myth that silences changemakers. In an article she wrote on the topic, tennis superstar Naomi Osaka mentioned that LeBron James was told to “shut up and dribble” by a news anchor “after he discussed racism, politics, and the difficulties of being a Black public figure in America during an ESPN interview in 2018.” Osaka does not let the backlash deter her: “Just because we are athletes doesn’t mean we are unaffected by what happens around the country, nor does it obligate us to keep our mouths shut.” Athletes may not have an obligation to become activists, but they should have the right to be.