Sport can never distance itself from politics

MOST of us have a collection of hats we wear. And depending on the situation, and often on how much it affects us as individuals or as a nation, we pull one out of our emotional wardrobe. The hat of reason is an easy one to wear at most times, certainly where other teams and nations are involved, but often is the first to be discarded when the issues come closer home.

The romantic hat is pretty popular as well. It looks good but is rarely of much use, a bit like wearing a fancy suit on a rainy day. It is the hat you put on when you say that politics and sport should never be mixed, for example. Or that batsmen should walk everytime they nick a ball or that bowlers should not appeal when they know that a batsman is not out. They are well-meaning but dreadfully naive; good for an occasional magazine story but no more.

And finally there is the convenience hat, one that you can keep twisting around depending on which way the wind is blowing. The wearer wants things to suit him all the time. If he is a white cricketer for example, in a white-opportunity climate, he is quite happy. However, it he is a white cricketer in an emerging society that seeks to give greater opportunities to those that didn't have them, then the world is suddenly wrong.

Of these, the romantic hat needs to be scrapped. Sport can never distance itself from politics, indeed never has. Zimbabwean cricket is in turmoil over the issue of black cricketers, governments are refusing to send teams to Pakistan, Sri Lankan cricketers are appealing to the government to overrule their own selection committee and South African cricket has just whipped up a devastating political storm.

My view is that given the popularity of sport, and its ability to sway huge masses of people, it must at all times operate under a broad political umbrella. The politicians and heads of State must lay down broad policy guidelines and within those, sports administrators must be free to run the game. If for example, political reality orders that India cannot go to Pakistan, then the cricket Board needs to accept that. Or if the government says that that black sportsmen need to be given opportunities as part of the evolution of a State, that is something you need to live with till such time as it gets repressive.

What happened in Sri Lanka over the dropping and subsequent selection of Marvan Atapattu is dangerous. Yet, what happened there was like a minor drizzle compared to the storm in South Africa. A protesting whine compared to the sounds of bugles and trumpets. The honeymoon is over in South Africa, the romantic hats are gone forever, replaced by the helmets of hard thought. What a good glue winning was!! Maybe they should keep inviting India!

The interesting thing about the events in South Africa is not that the race row erupted but that it stayed away for so long. It was always an uneasy truce but it has now slipped before the giant force of evolution. South Africa could never have continued being a white cricket community in a nation of blacks. Islands rarely survive floods.

Now the rulers are being attacked using the same methods they had employed. Suddenly those methods, happily enjoyed, are being branded unjust. There is outrage at the fact that a white player, one white player, was left out in favoured of a coloured player, one coloured player. Huge noises are being made about political interference in selection and I must confess I do not understand it.

For years coloured South Africans had no chance of being picked for their country, they had no access to facilities and even had to watch matches from cooped-up enclosures. That seemed acceptable to a whole generation of cricketers then who basked in their island of sunshine. Nobody talked of political interference or a selection programme that favoured one over the other. The convenience hat, you see. That is why the likes of Clive Rice, Pat Symcox and Fanie de Villiers really have no leg to stand on. They feel grieved on having lost out on a significant part of international cricket and while their grief is understandable it is no different from that of talented sportsmen in Africa and Asia who suffer financial isolation because of the political reality in their countries.

I must confess though that the reaction from the South African government staggered me by its intensity. These are not conciliatory words and I think the world must increasingly accept that they represent the new reality in South Africa. This is what Clive Rice said and as you read it, transport yourself to the situation fifteen years ago and they will seem strangely hollow.

"Nowhere in the world are players chosen on a quota system. I believe up and coming players in this country are crucified by politicians who are trying to get votes. I am not saying that players should revolt, but we are setting up for just that. Justin Ontong was picked for the national side because he is black, not on merit. Players should play for South Africa on their straight ability as players."

And this is the response that lays down what direction South African sport will go. I believe it is a necessary road in the development of a nation. "You were silent during the worst years of apartheid cricket and the only conclusion that millions of South Africans can make is that your silence was the result of your gain from apartheid. Either you become part of the solution, or you remain part of the problem. It is clear what you have chosen. Why not just pack your bags and go back to earning pounds (as director of cricket at Nottinghamshire) while committed South Africans continue building this country that was destroyed directly, and indirectly, by individuals of your ilk."

We must find a museum for that old romantic hat!