Sport has mostly triumphed over pettiness, meanness and divisive geopolitics, writes Nirmal Shekar

THE often romanticised and sometimes fraught relationship between politics and sport has been debated quite vigorously in almost all societies since the dawn of recorded history — perhaps from a much earlier time in the history of our species if you were to believe evolutionary psychologists.

If you peeled away all the layers upon layers to get at the truth, it is actually a very complicated issue that, nevertheless, has a rather simple ideological underpinning — it is a battle between utopian dreamers on the one hand and feet-to-the-ground realists on the other.

It would be quite obvious from the ongoing India-Pakistan cricket series that there is more to sport than mere sport, that politics has a huge sway over fans’ emotions.

How many of us have ever been able to enjoy an India-Pakistan contest without the emotional excess baggage of history that most of us carry? Even if we did achieve that miracle, will all the hype surrounding the contests, particularly in the media, and the toxic tirade carried out by a few poisonous pedagogues in our society, allow us a moment of calm and equanimity to relish the fare dished out by the cricketers?

Through millennia, several political leaders have tried to use sport as an emotional weapon to sway the masses to suit their ends — however sure they might have been that their choice would turn out to be destructive in the long run.

Perhaps many of these politicians have underestimated the human potential for goodness and cultural sophistication, believing, often mistakenly, that we are mere lab rats in a grand political experiment; and that our love for sport can be exploited endlessly.

It takes an absolutist mind to play with dangerous labels such as Us versus Them but a lot of expertise is not needed to stoke primordial emotions — as we have seen time and again in the 20th century and what little of the new millennium we have lived through.

Interwoven factors

When you talk about politics and sport, a complex web of — often interwoven — factors come into play. The display of ideological differences, nationalism, racism, gender politics…you name it and there it is. It is almost a catalogue of civilisational shortcomings.

“Sports and politics do mix. Behind the scenes, the two are as inextricably interwoven as any two issues can be,” said the late tennis great Arthur Ashe, as erudite and humane a sportsperson as I have ever met in over three decades in sports journalism.

To be sure, Ashe was no pessimist. He was witty, intelligent and extraordinarily optimistic — and it was the last attribute that helped him triumph over almost insurmountable odds to become one of the most popular American sportspersons.

But like this author, Ashe knew that a problem had to be acknowledged, understood in all its nuances and analysed intellectually, before it can be fixed. This is very much true of the issue of politics and sport.

Like Ashe, there have been hundreds of sportspersons — and millions of lay fans — who have, while discounting the feel-good populist-politician style aphorisms about the unbreakable wall between politics and sport, still managed to get the best out of sport, both for themselves and for the society.

For every face of evil — men who have tried to hijack sport for pernicious reasons — such as an Adolf Hitler, there was a great man representing the triumph of the human spirit, one such as Jesse Owens.

Ugly rivalries

Cold War politics and the ugly rivalries that it spawned; the Munich Olympics massacre; apartheid and its atavistic racist politics; the nationalistic frenzy that often rears its ghostly head whenever so-called arch-rivals such as India and Pakistan play each other…politics in sport has left behind many ghastly scars.

Yet, sport has mostly triumphed over all the pettiness, meanness and political cowardice. This is largely because a huge majority of sports fans love the spectacle for what it is, unmoved by the language of partisan politics.

Roger Federer, that most sublime of sporting artists, has more fans in India than he does in his own small country. Sachin Tendulkar is a cricketing god in Australia, not merely in his own country. And generations of Brazilian maestros have been the best loved footballers in almost every nation that plays the great sport.

All this shows that no matter the dark shadows cast by politics, sport can be counted on to build bridges between peoples of vastly different cultures and unite them in the celebration of one of the most deeply soul-lifting human activities.

But the onus is certainly on the politicians and sports administrators to build on the goodwill generated by fans at the ground level.

Take initiative

Then again, sportsmen themselves can take the lead and do their bit to try and keep politics, race and everything that plagues sport out of their arena. And many of them have indeed done just that.

Filbert Bayi, a Tanzanian world record holder at 1,500m said in 1978 that he would like to stay away from the Commonwealth Games in New Zealand because a Kiwi rugby team played in South Africa. “It is humanity that counts more than competition,” said Bayi.

Whatever the Orwellian belief — Sport is war minus shooting — it might be in order to remind ourselves once in a while that sport is meant to be the anti-thesis of war. It was designed to build bridges between nations and peoples, not walls.

I will leave the last words to The Greatest.

“I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong. They never called me ‘nigger,’ said Muhammad Ali while refusing — as a conscientious objector — to be drafted into the US army to fight in Vietnam.

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