Prising open the doors of prejudice

Sport has a part to play in knocking down the walls of detestation and replacing them with high plateaus of understanding. It can help mankind reach beyond colour, faith, gender and the other things that are allowed to cloud the picture, writes Peter Roebuck.

Since time began the building of open, harmonious and multi-racial societies has counted amongst the noblest of causes. Not that it has ever been a straightforward task. Recently Croat and Serb teenagers engaged in fisticuffs outside a tennis stadium in Melbourne.

Irishmen and Anglo-Saxons have often been at daggers drawn. Zulu and Xhosas can make uneasy bedfellows.

It is so much simpler to have one story, one language and one song. And so much duller.

Sport has a part to play in knocking down the walls of detestation and replacing them with high plateaus of understanding. It can help mankind reach beyond colour, faith, gender and the other things that are allowed to cloud the picture.

Determination is needed. In the 1920s Bombay staged an annual cricket tournament featuring teams representing the Hindus, Muslims, Parsees and Europeans. Gandhiji objected to this on the grounds that players with different beliefs ought not to be rivals but colleagues. And so, slowly, it has come to pass.

Sport has gradually prised open the doors of prejudice. Around the world, numerous mixed teams produce superb performances. To watch a Premier League match is to observe black and white players working in perfect and sometimes beautiful harmony. Even cricket has been affected.

New Zealand's current side includes a promising batsman of Maori origin and a dusky spinner.

India's cricket team includes a range of faiths and backgrounds. But, then, India seldom forgets itself. It is a mark of maturity that the President is a Muslim and the PM a Sikh. South Africa's recent victory over Pakistan was inspired by Ashwell Prince, Hashim Amla and Makhaya Ntini. Someone ought to frame the scorecard and send it to the old guard. Someone ought to send it to Kevin Pietersen.

English teams nowadays depend on people previously obliged to live under their imperial yoke. Over the years immigrant families have contributed enormously to their adopted country's athletics and soccer outfits. Happily cricket is also appreciating their abilities. Duncan Fletcher's squad for the forthcoming World Cup in the Caribbean contains seven players with sub-continental connections, as well as two white Africans and an Irishman.

Readers must decide for themselves the number of competent cricketers the selectors have been able to muster. Regrettably, Australian cricket lags behind but other activities have managed to cross the divide.

Nor has progress been restricted to a few sports. Previously disadvantaged competitors are making their mark not just in the traditional areas but also in upper crust sports whose doors were once firmly closed to them, including golf and tennis. Recently an Indian triumphed on the prestigious European tour. Arguably the finest player golf has known has coloured skin.

Black players have prevailed at Wimbledon, James Blake is ranked in the top 10 and an Indian doubles pairing have been admired wherever they played. And that is merely to scrape the surface.

Does it matter? Does not the world put sport in a different category? Certainly it takes more than a few inspired athletic performances to break down the barriers. But every bit helps. To watch an Olympic sprint has been to admire the majesty of black runners.

Adolf Hitler was forced to watch as the greatest of them all, Jesse Owens, won several gold medals at the Berlin Games. Africa and Arabia have dominated the longer races, and each victory surely takes the world a step closer to reaching the promised land described in Martin Luther King's dream.