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An Argument Against “Keeping Politics Out of Sports”

With the men’s FIFA World Cup happening right now, there’s been a spike in conversation about politics and sports. FIFA’s policies on athlete protests on the pitch have prompted a spike in phrases like “keep politics out of sports” circulating online.

“Politics in sports” can be interpreted differently. It could mean the political and personal opinions of individual athletes being expressed on their own time and outside of their sport like on social media. Therefore, it depends on the context of whether or not these actions impact their career. Alternatively, there are on-the-court or on-the-field actions, like protesting on the podium, during warm-ups, or during the national anthems. For the purpose of this blog, we will only be discussing the latter and at international sporting events, like FIFA or the Olympics.

The IOC (International Olympic Committee) has always claimed that the Olympics are politically neutral – its charter stating: “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”

Additionally, FIFA recently reiterated its negative feelings towards protest with its strict action against the “One Love” armbands. Many countries’ teams had planned to wear armbands with heart-shaped, multi-colored logos during their games to show their support of inclusion and diversity and raise awareness about the criminalization of homosexuality in the host country, Qatar. FIFA stopped this, stating that there would be yellow card penalties given to any player who wore an armband on the field.

Team Germany protested this ruling, posing on the pitch with their hands covering their mouths, stating via Twitter: “It wasn’t about making a political statement – human rights are non-negotiable… Denying us the armband is the same as denying us a voice.”

International Sporting Events are Political Themselves

One of the most common arguments for “keeping politics out of sports” is that sporting events should be about skill and not about personal opinions. While I agree that sports should be about skill and athleticism, I think it’s unfair to expect the athletes' politics to remain outside if the event itself is political.

Ever since these events began, they were based in countries competing against other countries. The very concept of the nation-state (or ‘country’), with a national anthem and a flag, is itself incredibly political. This means these events themselves are based on political entities.

If the athletes who have earned their spot on the international stage want to peacefully protest for (or against) values that expand way past the sport itself, that should be the individual choice of those athletes.

Peaceful Protest Doesn’t Have to Impact the Sport

Maintaining the purpose of the event is important. For that reason, most athletes don’t protest during competition, but before or after, like during warm-ups or on the podium. Protest often doesn’t impede the actual sport at all.

One of the most famous examples was at the 1968 Olympics, when USA runners and gold and bronze medalists in the 200m dash, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, held their fists up in what is known as the “Black Power Salute” as the national anthem was played. This action, as well as wearing black socks, black gloves, and “Olympic Project for Human Rights” badges to the medal ceremony, were intended to raise awareness about and protest the continued systemic oppression of Black Americans. The IOC president at the time and American citizen Avery Brundage forced the US track team to expel Smith and Carlos from the Games. While the athletes didn’t lose their medals, they faced immense backlash at and after the games from their home country and beyond, being ostracized and receiving death threats.

Human Rights are Not Politics

While I’ve claimed that the events themselves are inherently political, are the issues being protested even political themselves? Many debating this topic are claiming that most of the time these protests are not on inherently partisan topics, but matters of human rights.

Being able to love who you love and having access to human equality have seemingly been made “political” and many of those protesting, whether this is Team Germany or Carlos and Smith at the Olympics, justify their actions as their fight for human rights and not for a domestic political agenda.

Adjusting the rules to allow athletes to use their short-lived international platform how they choose, in a peaceful manner, without disrupting the sport could be a good compromise in this conflict.

An article for The Link Newspaper by Elias Grigoriadis said it best:

“At the end of the day, sports have a long history of being connected to social movements. If sports are part of our culture, we can’t vilify the most prominent members of said culture when they shed light on issues they feel strongly about.”

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