On India’s first tour of South Africa, it struck me as Kapil Dev was preparing to bowl the first delivery that this would be the first time non-Whites were watching the action from behind the bowler’s arm. Nelson Mandela recalled how as a young man he had vociferously supported Neil Harvey when Australia toured — but from within cages square of the wicket where the non-Whites were herded.
I asked Sir Colin Cowdrey, then ICC President how he and his team had reacted to such an arrangement when England toured in the 1950s. “We never mixed politics with sport,” he replied a bit stiffly. And I felt deeply disappointed because Cowdrey had been a boyhood hero of mine.
Only the terminally naive or the self-serving can pretend that politics and sport do not mix. In the 1970s, the great Garry Sobers travelled to racist Rhodesia to play cricket. It nearly ruptured relations within and outside the Caribbean. Guyana threatened to ban him, and even India briefly considered pulling out of the 1970-71 tour if Sobers were to play. “Had I known the furore my visit would have caused, I would not have gone,” said Sobers, after tendering a formal apology. He was called “politically unconscious” by Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley
Is being “politically unconscious” reason enough for an individual sportsman to visit a country for sport, an action which would automatically lend legitimacy to the acts of its government? The question is in the air as I write this, and tennis stars Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal prepare to visit Saudi Arabia for an exhibition match in December. The alleged murder of a journalist by Saudi Arabia in their Consulate in Istanbul raises many questions. Should sportsmen carry the burden politicians refuse to? It is a difficult question; let’s just say that those who do are deserving of greater respect.
On the other hand, can sport be played only in ideal democracies without skeletons in their cupboards? Do such countries even exist? Sport is an ideal world, even a fantasy world. When it comes up against the real world, the rules of the latter should apply.
Countries have a way of attracting sportsmen who claim to be politically unconscious — look at the rebel tours of South Africa. Even a man with the conviction of Muhammad Ali, who had lost the best years of his career because he refused to fight in Vietnam, didn’t see the irony in taking on George Foreman in the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ in Zaire. It gave the country’s dictator Mobutu Sese Seko the oxygen of publicity.
Often sport is politics by other means, the 1936 Olympics in Berlin under Hitler being a good example. International sportsmen must tread carefully.
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