South Africa, Taiwan and Colin Kaepernick: what happens when sport gets political?

  • Sport and politics have always had a mixed relationship. When should athletes make statements? History has shown it is incredibly complicated and tough on the athletes
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 October, 2018, 8:04am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 October, 2018, 9:39pm

Nelson Mandela famously declared during the 1995 Rugby World Cup that “sport has the power to change the world”. It was a defining moment for South Africa: Mandela had just been democratically voted in as the first black president after the dismantling of apartheid.

He wore a Springboks jersey during the final between South Africa and New Zealand, sending a heartfelt message to the world about unity. It was a hugely symbolic gesture. The reality outside of that Hollywood-like scene (Morgan Freeman even immortalised Mandela in Clint Eastwood’s Invictus) is much more complicated. Apartheid ended in South Africa, but the country stumbled and ultimately failed gloriously to sort itself out after Mandela’s 1994 election.

Unemployment and crime skyrocketed, the government was hit with a boatload of unpaid foreign debt and a diaspora of white Africans gutted the country’s workforce and economy.

South Africa now has one of the world’s most alarmingly high unemployment rates for a supposedly “developed” nation at over a quarter of the population, and a crime rate that “borders on a war zone” according to its police minister.

What this all means is that what Mandela did was an amazing gesture, and his campaign against apartheid can’t be discounted whatsoever, but reality is messy. South Africa was not ready socially, financially or bureaucratically for such a massive shift in politics, and it ended up destabilising the country and causing irreparable damage. Mandela’s jersey choice had altruistic intentions, but ultimately rang hollow through the halls of South Africa’s recent history.

The asterisk on top of all of this is South Africa still has quotas for the amount of black players it is required to field for its rugby teams, a short-term fix and form of affirmative action that does nobody any good in the long run.

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The intersection of sport and politics has always been a tricky dance. Muhammad Ali famously protested the Vietnam War and conscription, but ended up carving out a substantial portion of his prime boxing years in the process.

Jesse Owens defied the Nazi regime at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but when he returned home, the United States failed to allow him to become a beacon of change when it came to race relations – and he ended up living the rest of his life in abject poverty.

Most recently, still unsigned quarterback Colin Kaepernick sent the National Football League’s fans into a feverish debate after he decided to take a knee during the national anthem. It’s been almost two years since Kaepernick has taken a snap, blacklisted by an ownership group who see his protests as anti-American.

The list of examples is endless. Every time I cover a tournament or game featuring Taiwan, I’m making a political decision not to call the team ‘Chinese Taipei’. The Republic of China (Taiwan’s official name) competes under this moniker for a number of international events, most famously when it comes to International Olympic Committee events, as Beijing still officially considers Taiwan part of the People’s Republic of China.

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The issue is a whack-a-mole, as soon as it seems to be dissipating, it rears its ugly head again, as it was reported this week that China’s leaders asked its golfers to skip the LPGA Taiwan Championship due to a renewed push for sovereignty by the self-ruled island after the election of a pro-independence president.

When CBS recently polled Americans as to whether they think athletes should be vocal about their political beliefs, two thirds said they thought it was a bad idea, unless the athlete was on his or her “own time”, meaning not acting in any official capacity with their team or sport.

It makes sense, as most employers don’t allow their employees to be overtly political on company time, but if millions of people were tuning in to watch you send emails and attend mind-numbingly boring office meetings, it may be a different ball game.

America may be an outlier in terms of political sentiment given its current state of affairs, however it is clear many people don’t watch sports to engage, they do it to escape. What Mandela was trying to do was to show that rugby, and sport in general, can cross ethnic and political lines like nothing else.

The problem may lie in this very demographic quagmire. You don’t have to fill out a political ideology questionnaire to cheer for a team, or a country, and a player doesn’t have to make their political stances public to play for a team.

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Yet when its players get up on a soapbox, they risk alienating part of their fanbase that does not agree with their viewpoints. We ask our athletes to be heroic and carry all those stereotypical virtuous character traits, but it’s only digestible in a sportingly homogenous way. To be truly heroic is to risk upsetting the status quo, something antithetical in the realm of athletics where rules and regulations reign supreme.

Sadly, there is no right answer to this question. Sports and politics is a mixed bag painted in countless shades of grey. But this is where the beauty in all of this may lie, that in progressing as a society, we need to continue having difficult conversations with each other about tough subjects.

Escaping into the world of sports to get away from reality is a legitimate reason for not wanting athletes to raise a fist or take a knee. But the world we live in is complicated, and breaking from regularly scheduled programming may be what people need to dislodge themselves from archaic viewpoints, apathy and even racism.

Here’s to continuing the fight both on, and off, the field.