Sport Diplomacy & the Pandemic of Racism: Addressing Issues on Athletic Activism & Protest

Sport Diplomacy & the Pandemic of Racism: Addressing Issues on Athletic Activism & Protest

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.








The Sporty Sister

The Sporty Sister

This week our guest blog comes from Ryan Goodwin.

St Mirren ground

St.Mirren by Ryan Goodwin

Growing up in Paisley, it felt very easy to be ushered into a world of culture. Once, I remember being told by my Glaswegian grandfather that Paisley was “Glasgow’s artsy little sister” and in fairness, I think he may have had a point. Look through a list of people from Paisley. There’s a decent-sized list on Wikipedia (which may not be entirely accurate) that’ll do the trick. The whole thing is awash with actors and artists of some degree.  But also sports heroes.  You see, as well as Paisley being an “artsy sister” it also remains a Scottish town. We are not all actors, and we definitely have interests that are not all aligned with sitting in a smoky theatre in turtlenecks. But Scottish people do have one general, accurate interest – we love our sport.  And not just a little bit, either. Football, of course, can incite massive amounts of passion to Scottish people as much as it can to any other people worldwide, but this translates into how many people go to games.

According to –but then reported in national media last year – the top league in Scottish football was the highest attended in Europe per capita, with 0.29% of the total population attending weekly games in the 2018/19 Scottish Premiership. England, our closest neighbour, only has around 0.06% of people going to Premier League games down south, and Spain have only 0.05% going to La Liga. So, Scots turn up – but how about on a local scale?  Well, in the 2018-19 season, St. Mirren’s average home attendance was 5,352 people throughout the year. That, when looking at the population of Renfrewshire as a whole, amounts to around 3% of the total population – a decent amount more than the average of the country going to top-flight football games. That doesn’t even account for people who may go to other close-by teams such as Celtic and Rangers, or teams in lower leagues like Greenock Morton and Partick Thistle.

And besides football? The other professional sports team to be based in Renfrewshire, Glasgow Clan, who play in Braehead Arena, had an average home attendance of 2,728 people across the same time period. Whilst there might be something of an overlap, i.e. people that may go to both St Mirren and Clan games, this is still a very good number of local people going to see just two local teams.  Of course, just because these are Renfrewshire teams, it doesn’t mean it will all be Renfrewshire crowds – especially when taking into account away supporters visiting for the day. But in football there may be people from Renfrewshire going to support neighbour teams in Glasgow, so the number attending sport could be slightly higher or lower than the numbers quoted at St. Mirren and Clan games.

What matters most that this town cares about sport in the area.  But now we live in a world of COVID-19.  When professional sports return, it may take a while for anything close to crowds of this magnitude going to see a game. That’s families not spending time at a game, that’s people not having their weekly heartbreak, that’s people with a void that was once filled.  Obviously, the sports will still be there. Streaming, on TV, on the radio and in the paper, but what becomes of the people who go weekly? No doubt a vast majority will rush back to their seats when they are allowed to do so, but it’s sad that many people in Renfrewshire so used to being at an event will now remain tucked away for the time being.  And what about the players? The kids in the park, or in community centres and church halls, falling on mats or trying harder and harder in learning to skate. It’s a real gut-punch to see that cease so suddenly, yet ultimately necessarily, disappear.  Though, as lockdown looks to be ending and the sun keeps rising, sports will return one day, in the way that they used to. Soon, those from Glasgow’s “artsy sister” town can watch a team in purple on ice, or a black-and-white team on grass, in a way will truly feel normal again.

Ryan Goodwin is a writer, you can follow him on Twitter @RyanGoodYin

Sport & Sport Diplomacy: Save the Dream

Sport & Sport Diplomacy: Save the Dream

On the 6th and 7th of April 2019, the sports diplomacy organisation Save the Dream, organised the International Youth Forum ‘When Sport Breaks Down Walls.’ Save the Dream implements and promotes activities to empower youth through safe access to sport and to its educational and social values. Held in Berlin, the forum coincided with the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace and was an important step in promoting the use of sport for youth leaders as a tool of public diplomacy. It kicked-off a global campaign to raise awareness on the importance of using all possible peaceful means to break down walls which still exist today.

The Forum gathered eighty youth leaders from around the world and the messages conveyed during the event reached a global audience of more than 713,000 people. Those in attendance took part in the White Card Campaign (an online campaign organised by Peace and Sport that raises awareness for peace through sports) and the youth leaders worked together to produce a Final Declaration, that all attendees pledged to promote and to further support.

A report was published on November 9, 2019 marking 30 years since the fall of the Berlin wall and reflecting on the outcomes of the International Youth Forum. In reading the report, it is clear that there remains a lot to be done, but it also offers a strong reminder of the achievements which are possible when working together. It echoes a positive message of unity within society, while focusing on the power of sport to inspire and empower people across nations, regardless of faith and socio-economic condition.

CCSE Professors Contribute to Tokyo Policy Forum on the Paralympics and Social Change

CCSE Professors Contribute to Tokyo Policy Forum on the Paralympics and Social Change

CCSE Professors, David McGillivray and Gayle McPherson recently returned from a week in Tokyo, Japan, as part of an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)-funded Japan-UK project focused on the Paralympic Games and Social Change. The project is designed to build Japanese research capacity around disability studies and sport to positively impact the lives of people with disabilities. In March 2019, six Japanese colleagues visited the UK to learn about disability sport studies and visit Stoke Mandeville, while in June UK colleagues visited Tokyo for a week to understand more about the way the Paralympic Games 2020 are to be leveraged to the benefit of people with disabilities in Japan. Professors McGillivray and McPherson participated in a tour of games venues, helped host a policy forum and shared future research plans during a symposium held at the Houses of Parliament, attended by members of the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee, government ministers and Japanese academics in the field of disability sport.  

Parasport events like the Paralympic Games are often heralded for raising awareness of disability-related issues and for transforming attitudes towards people with a disability in the host nation, and internationally. However, building on several large comparative research projects undertaken over the last five years, Professor’s McGillivray and McPherson have demonstrated the need for concrete, resourced and effectively leveraged strategies if the enthusiasm and excitement generated by events is to be sustained in the longer term.  The project continues until December 2019 and progress can be followed at