COVID-19 has hugely affected – and is still affecting – lives across the world. Isolation, economic shutdown and contact tracing have impacted our psychology, our daily routines and social activities. Among many effects, the potential threat to people’s mental health, including of those whose jobs has been lost as a result of the pandemic has been widely discussed. Among those who have to work from home there are many who will be struggling to adapt to improvised work spaces and those who have to cope with caring children while struggling to be productive in their work. At the same time, the widespread, ongoing struggle with the issues of race and inequality have sprung to the fore in the midst of the global corona virus pandemic.
My doctoral research is concentrated on sport diplomacy as a soft power tool and its impact on Japan’s foreign policy and image, with a focus on the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 – now postponed to 2021. The issues of race, racism, social injustice and protest made many athletes speaking against these issues, have allowed me to rethink the role sport has played as a form of protest through athletic activism. Social inequality and classism is not new to society but it perhaps came as a surprise to many that it took a global pandemic to accelerate the processes of rethinking issues of social inequality that have affected the lives of minority groups in our society perhaps especially in America and the United Kingdom.
In the light of this, what I seek to address is not the recent revelation of inequality in our society, but the neglect and suppression faced by influential sports men and women who are ready and willing to create change in society. I think that this is the right time to address the dual otherness and myth associated with sport and politics and to recognise the growing importance of our sports men and women who are interested in creating real societal change. Conceivably, athletic activism is non-normative in the world of sport; the idea that sport can create a progressive change in society is still a recurring debate in the academic field. Sport contributes to positive change in society, it also represents various hegemonies of oppression and inequality such as sexism, racism and homophobia. Sport has been linked with the provision of violent masculinity and a predilection for war. Participation in sport reveals the inequality of gender and race which is adhering to the maintenance of the social status quo. Sport is often viewed as a medium for consciously and unconsciously echoing the gender divide, a distinctive version of masculinity and underpinning of sexist ideas.
However, discussing this in relation to athletic activism, the narrative that sport and politics should not mix stems from the long stereotypical definitions (ideologies) and cultural perceptions attached to both. Sport is viewed as unifying, uncorrupted and positive while politics is often seen as complicated and dirty. On the other hand, activism or protest is seen as a complex form of societal politics. Protest as a form of social movement is a political means and a weapon of the weak and oppressed used to voice their discomfort. In the sporting world, protest by sport activists is a way of expressing discomfort towards societal and political problems. The already perceived idea of protest is among many reasons why athletes may find it difficult in sport to speak out. Secondly, the top down approach and idea that sport is an advanced tool for change in society especially in matters of race, racism, fairness and (arguably) the advancement of all disempowered people in society is another issue faced by the sport activist. A top down approach in this case means that in the sporting world, policies made to create awareness of social issues are made by the governing bodies of sport organisations; however, the fight against racism, for example, is actually manifested through athletes’ gestures which may prove to be a better way of reaching out to educate people in the audience for the event.
History has shown that athletic activism even with its non-normative state had been a recurring activity in the world of sport. The black power salute and protest by Tommie Smith and John Carlos is an example which was not an act of rebelliousness as many thought of at the time, but an expression of the desire to truly change the world and to create an awareness using the platform provided by the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico. Fast forward to recent times, the take a kneel protest by American football quarterback, Collin Kaepernick, who began to kneel during the national anthem prior to every game. Fighting against the oppression of black people, people of colour and social injustice in the American system is also an example of sport activism. However, just like Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Colin Kaepernick was a victim of the idea that sport should not be associated with any form of protest or political activism that may challenge the stereotypical nature of purity and distinction related to sport. While there are guarded activist like LeBron James who will not conduct certain forms of protest that will jeopardize his career, it is time for the sporting world to rethink the benefits and impacts sport activists can have in society if given the appropriate support to convey their message. In modern-day sport, the recent issues of police brutality and the protests for justice arising from the killing of George Floyd and many other victims of police brutality has provided an opportunity for a rethink on protest through sport, with a focus on some of the real issues and narratives ignored when in the form of the ‘take a knee’ protest by Colin Kaepernick and the prior ‘I can’t breathe’ protest by LeBron James.
However, the broader social protest against racism, social injustice and police brutality from citizens, activist and the mainstream media calls for a bottom up approach in tackling these issue. In sport, this could mean that athletic activists who are willing to speak out should be encouraged to do so without fear of the consequences. This is crucial because as a result of a global pandemic and the revelations about racism, inequality and classism, the world and especially America is moving into a reformative stage in addressing these issues; it is important for the world of sport to adapt and adjust in its methods. In 2020, athletes have been able to recognise and use the powers they have to influence society using both social media platforms and the mainstream media. Sporting stars such as Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Raheem Sterling – and recently Marcus Rashford – have shown the strength and influence the modern-day athlete possess. However, governing bodies of sport organisations must be clear that athletes like Tommie Smith John Carlos and Colin Kaepernick are not protesting against the sport, or nation, they represent, but against the society that sport reflects.
Finally, in order to fully justify the importance of promoting a sporting world that will be impactful in shaping the future of communities, individual stakeholders and the environment, sport organisations need to look beyond the capitalist imperative of extracting profit from the public while trying to distract sports activists and their audiences from the real, unequal, conditions of their existence. Sport organisations need to exercise caution when encouraging athletes to be driven by market forces and profits rather than focusing on the fight against societal issues. What this mean is that a bottom up approach needs to be acknowledged and athletes needs to be given adequate support by the governing organisation they represent.