LAST WORD: In pursuit of a larger ideal

Things may or may not change as a result of a sportsperson’s taking a stand. But it throws light as much on a situation as on the humanity of the sportsperson involved.

This file photo taken on April 29, 1967 in New York shows world heavweight boxing champion Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) stating during a press conference that he refuses to go to the military service and fight in Vietnam. Ali lost his peak years as a boxer when he stood by his belief that America should not be fighting in Vietnam.   -  AFP

When a world champion pulls out of a competition to make a point, it is not only the world of sports that sits up and takes notice. “In a few days,” wrote the Ukrainian chess player Anna Muzychuk, “I am going to lose two World Champion titles one by one. Just because I decided not to go to Saudi Arabia. Not to play by someone’s rules, not to wear abaya, not to be accompanied getting outside, and altogether not to feel myself a secondary creature.”

Anna, world champion in both the rapid and blitz categories, and her sister Mariya both pulled out.

The Muzychuk sisters made a brave decision which at once raised their stature; from champion sportspersons they became the champions of human rights and gender equality. Sacrifices become meaningful only when you have something to lose. Anna lost her titles and prize money worth more than she would have earned in 12 tournaments, by her own admission.

The cynic might say that the argument is specious. If a sporting event is allowed only in countries which have clean records in democracy, treatment of their citizens, gender equality and ideal manner of dealing with minorities, then there would be few international competitions. People might hesitate to travel to the U.S. or India even.

Yet, when an individual sportsperson accepts professional and personal setbacks in pursuit of a larger ideal, sport itself is elevated beyond competition and towards something that makes us all human.

Sporting boycotts are usually political. America led the boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980, in protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviets pulled out of the Los Angeles Games four years later.

Sportspersons may or may not agree with the politics involved.

“I think it should be up to the individual,” said long distance runner Margaret Groos in 1980. “I don’t like having my livelihood wasted,” said another American long-distance runner, Garry Bjorklund, “I’ve run 17,000 miles since the ’76 Games in preparation for 1980.”

Sometimes there is a humanitarian principle involved.

In 1974 India withdrew from the David Cup final, handing the trophy to South Africa by default. “As a 20-year-old, I was disappointed,” Vijay Amritraj, India’s top player said, “but my heart felt wonderful that I had somehow supported the struggle of a people fighting just to live like everybody else.”

Sporting isolation did hasten the end of apartheid.

That politics and sports do not mix is untrue. Sport is often politics by other means, as the Olympic boycotts show.

Individual sportspersons following their conscience is not unheard of, but it is rare. Muhammad Ali lost his peak years as a boxer when he stood by his belief that America should not be fighting in Vietnam.

Things may or may not change as a result of a sportsperson’s taking a stand. But it throws light as much on a situation as on the humanity of the sportsperson involved. After all, what do they know of sport who only sport know?