The job is only half done

Campaigns against racism do nothing to stem the thoughts that crystallise in racist abuse. If racism is to be rooted out, the thinking has to change, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

Amidst the trash talk, the fatuous predictions of absurd score lines, the stated thirst for a bloody revenge — amped-up versions of juvenile my-daddy's-bigger-than-yours squabbling seen in schoolyards around the world — before the most hyped cricket series ever, The Ashes 2006, South African captain Graeme Smith slipped in a chilling warning. Forget Australia, beware its crowds, he told Andrew Flintoff.

"It will be England's main challenge — how they handle playing in Australia," said Smith of the Test series in November. "The racism stuff was hard for us. Most of us enjoy banter — we had grown up in that environment — but I think the racism and some of the crowd behaviour in Australia was very wrong." While crowds in Australia — tongues loosened by pints of bitter — have sometimes enjoyed the leeway mischievous schoolboys with a cunning turn of phrase are apt to receive, recent incidents have been alarming.

The venomous and ugly tentacles of racism in sport don't restrict themselves either to cricket or to Australia. Last week England under-21 footballers, Micah Richards and Anton Ferdinand, complained that German players had racially abused them during the European qualification play-off in Leverkusen. The senior English side, meanwhile, took on Croatia in Zagreb: two months earlier Croatian fans had formed a human swastika, attracting censure by the UEFA. England's own football fans have shown they aren't above tasteless taunts, often racial.

West Indies cricketers have been likened to primates by Indian crowds; Lleyton Hewitt has pointedly questioned the credentials of a tennis linesman who happened to share the same skin colour as his opponent James Blake leaving no one in doubt about his implication; Irena Spirlea intentionally bumped into Venus Williams — both sisters have had to deal with racist abuses — only for daddy Richard Williams to call the Romanian tennis player "a big, tall white turkey".

Sajid Mahmood — who along with Monty Panesar is held up as a shining example of multiculturalism in English society, and is expected to be targeted by Australian crowds later this year — was heckled at home not by `white' Englishmen but by expat Pakistanis; Golfing great Jack Nicklaus famously said there were few "African-Americans" playing the sport at the highest level because they have "different muscles that react in different ways" shortly before an 18-year-old Tiger Woods burst on the scene; Spanish football coach Luis Aragones called Thierry Henry something he thought was ok in "colloquial language which we can understand within the framework of the football word", but evidently wasn't.

This list is by no means exhaustive: it isn't a smear list intended to call into question the moral rectitude of those involved. It merely highlights how widespread and deucedly difficult the problem is. There is trouble both with the framing of the problem and its solution. For instance, Positive Discrimination or Affirmative Action, a purported means of levelling the playing field, is illegal in certain countries on the grounds that it encourages "reverse discrimination", a concept that's just as tough to nail down.

England, surprisingly, has led the way in terms of sport legislation: Sport England, a body that works with the government and funds sports activity, makes it mandatory for those seeking funding to have put in place an anti-racism/sports equity statement and an action plan. The ECB with its campaigns, Clean Bowl Racism and Let's Hit Racism For Six, has complied.

Kick It Out, a campaign started as Let's Kick Racism out of Football in 1993, has been cited as an example of good practice by European parliamentarians. The ICC, its hand forced by crowd behaviour during the Australia-South Africa series, implemented an amended Anti-Racism code that allows countries to impose a range of punishments on spectators found guilty of racial abuse, ranging from ejection from the venue to a life ban.

Acting against anti-racist chants by imposing stadium bans, or indeed going as far as docking points or forcing a forfeiture on the offending team — FIFA initiatives earlier this year that were to be implemented in the World Cup but weren't — are admirable. But, do they really strike at the root of the problem? The most overt displays of racism may be prevented; perhaps a kid who might have otherwise internalised racist thoughts while watching sport with his dad in the stadium will now be exposed to political correctness.

But, they do nothing to stem the thoughts that crystallise in racist abuse. If racism is to be rooted out, the thinking has to change. Sport has a crucial social function: historically, it's played important roles in dealing with racial segregation. West Indies and South Africa among other nations, using the definition loosely, have been touched by sport's ability to dissolve boundaries. Baron Pierre de Coubertin seemed to have some of it sussed out. We could do worse than give his ideals the once-over.