Why play the Jekyll and Hyde roles?

Sports and those involved with it belong to something larger than the immediate and the convenient.

In this file photo, supporters of Iranian soccer team Esteghlal hold flags of their favourite team at the Azadi (freedom) stadium, in Tehran, Iran. Recently, Sahar Khodayari, an Iranian female soccer fan, died after setting herself on fire outside a court after learning she may have to serve a six-month sentence for trying to enter a soccer stadium where women are banned. She was known as the ‘Blue Girl’ on social media for the colours of her favourite Iranian soccer team, Esteghlal.   -  AP

The power of sport to change society is one of its enduring cliches. But sometimes it takes an avoidable tragedy before a governing body is forced to act and breathe life into that cliche.

In September, a young female Iranian football fan, Sahar Khodayari, tried to sneak into the all-male stadium dressed as a man to watch her favourite club Esteghlal play. She was spotted, arrested and charged. Outside the court where she was expected to be sentenced to six months in prison, she set herself on fire. She died in hospital. She was 29, and came to be known as the “Blue Girl” after the colours of the club.

The club Esteghlal, tweeted thus: “Our dear Sahar burnt herself to death…(after) going to the stadium to support her Esteghlal. She supported us despite the politics made it illegal for her, but what we can do to support her? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. We are cowards.”

The combination of despair and self-loathing is devastating. ‘Esteghlal’ means independence; ‘Azadi’, the name of the football stadium, means freedom. “Football has the power to build a better future,” FIFA had declared grandly in 2013, repeating a credo that sounds impressive but is seldom acted upon. Doublespeak is alive and well seven decades after George Orwell coined the word.

But now, wonder of wonders, FIFA has told Iran the country could be suspended from the game if they continued to follow their all-male policy, and so for the first time in four decades, women will be allowed into the stadium for a World Cup qualifying match. That game will have taken place by the time you read this, and the question that will be asked is, why did it take FIFA so long to act? Often in hindsight, doing the right thing can turn out to be far simpler than we imagined.

Popular sports bodies play the Jekyll and Hyde roles to perfection, emphasising on the one hand their ability to change the world, and then under pressure hiding behind the excuse that they are, after all, merely governing bodies and interfering in a country’s internal affairs is bad form.

What throws a bridge across these two often contradictory approaches is the fact that human rights violations cannot be contained by geographical boundaries. To paraphrase John Donne, no man is an island; every man’s death diminishes me for I am involved in mankind. It is the same with countries. Human rights violations affect all of us, however far away we may be from its place of origin.

After all, sporting sanctions did help in dismantling apartheid in South Africa. It meant that for the first time a person of colour could watch Test action from behind the bowler’s arm, and not packed into a cage. Not all Olympic boycotts may have originated from a pure thought, but at the very least they indicated that sports and those involved with it belong to something larger than the immediate and the convenient.