NO BOUNDARIES Nirmal Shekar

Sport must emulate the Mandela spirit

With an India-Pakistan cricket series appearing to be ever more unlikely in the near future, we once again realise that the role politics plays in sport is a nightmare rather than a fairy-tale, and it may not be an inappropriate time to delve into the larger issue of the relationship between sports and politics.

Ideally, sport should have little to do with the foreign office, the External Affairs Ministry, or whatever a country chooses to call its government arm — and all-seeing eyes — that oversees its relations with other countries, particularly ones that are called neighbours.

From a particular point of view, this might seem as pleasant as shaking hands with a friendly stranger and exchanging phone numbers after a nice chat at Starbucks. All is well with your life and with the world in general as you drive home thinking how blessed and lucky you are.

It has happened to me more than a few times and in more than one country. In fact it happened to me in a country where I met this lady at a local café where we spent half an hour not understanding more than a word or two of what the other person was saying. While she could not make a long conversation in English, I was hardly fluent in her mother tongue. And the first message of greeting that I received on New Year’s eve that year was from this woman who I never saw — and never will see — again.

What the hell, I thought; it takes more than a common language to make friends. We are well equipped with so many other virtues that can bring us together.

Believe it or not, a few weeks later, the Pakistanis embarked on a major misadventure on the Kargil heights and the newspapers I read carried stories of how the brave Indian soldiers guarded their borders and chased the intruders away — Pakistanis, and my half-hour friend’s countrymen.

“Politics governs everything we do — the game we play, the way we played them, and who we play,” wrote John Arlott, the greatest cricket commentator I have had the privilege to hear, and a man who did more for coloured South African cricketers than most people have.

In an Italian restaurant in London, I met Arlott and I think of the two minute conversation that followed as one of the very special moments of my career as a sports writer.

I had read much of what he had written and was familiar even more with what he had said in front of a microphone and I quoted him verbatim

“Say that cricket has nothing to do with politics and again say that cricket had nothing to do with you,” he had written.

“Do you still think that is true?” I asked the great man, without whose strong stand, England would have travelled to South Africa in 1968-69. “I think you will live longer than I to see if it’s true,” replied Arlott.

Wrote Mike Selvey in The Guardian: “Without that letter Basil D’Oliveira wrote to Arlott, that England tour at least would have taken place.”

“In the fullness of time, apartheid would have been brought to its knees just the same. But there, surely, in simple uncertain green scrawl, and in Arlott's humane response to it, was a catalyst,” wrote Selvey.

It would be absurd to say that politics and sports are separate. “However you slice and dice, politics are an enduring, constant and historic presence in sport,” wrote sportswriter Dave Zarin.

This is very much true and it does not take someone with 37 years in sports journalism to endorse it. If you come up with five reasons to prove that politics and sports are separate, I can come up with 10 reasons to counter your argument and prove that they are doomed to be bound together always.

If there are quite a number of people who believe that sport is an opiate of the masses, then that is precisely why Presidents and Prime Ministers and various stripes of royalty seek to embrace and support sport in their public discourses.

Surely only a lunatic politician would shout from the dais that he is a Tendulkar fan, and therefore deserves the vote of the audience. But clever politicians have found other novel ways in which to send the message across to endear themselves to their constituency of voters using sports as a tool.

Nationalist frenzy

This apart, the nationalist frenzy among fans makes it very easy for smart ‘leaders’ to swing things their way.

No matter all this, it is sport’s intrinsic capacity to arouse tribal passions that is the key to its special appeal.

“The star spangled banner,” is no more powerful than hundreds of other anthems that are more than mere rituals. They arouse in the players a fierce sense of nationalism; and they also remind the sportsmen that their performances go way beyond personal pride and glory and the mere satisfaction of taking part in an important contest.

But in the eyes of a few, these things are vices rather than virtues. Wrote George Orwell, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century: “Sport is an unfailing cause of ill-will. Sport is war minus the shooting.” But back in January 1999, when I saw the crowd in Madras stand up as one to cheer Wasim Akram's triumphant team on their victory lap, I did realise that Orwellian cynics may not always be right.

Then again, a few goose pimple moments apart, sport can be used as a trump card and a magic tool by politicians and corporate honchos to whom money and power were the only things that mattered.

Arlott is a rare example of a man who obeyed his conscience, no matter what.

Yet, as highly evolved human beings we would always like to look at the sunny side of things just to stay sane.

Twenty one years ago, 62,000 people, all white, in a crowd of 63,000, rose as one and chorused — bayed — a silver-haired old man’s name as he entered the stadium where the world rugby championship final between South Africa and New Zealand was going to be played.

At the end of the day, the South African captain Francois Pienaar humbly said to the white-haired man in Springbok colours — until then a symbol of race supremacy — who presented the winner’s trophy to him. “Mr President, it [the victory] is nothing compared to what you have done for the country.”

If the stands were a bit moist after hearing those words, it was understandable. For the name of the white haired former boxer, and a man who had spent 27 years in an all-white South African prison, was Nelson Mandela, one of the greatest statesmen of all times.

But the truth is, these emotionally charged, unforgettable moments of uber sportsmanship stand out so much only because they are rarer than snow leopards.

So India versus Pakistan matches are not — and never will be — mere sporting contests. And those who think they are, may be out of touch with reality.

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2021 4:34:54 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/nirmal_shekar/sport-must-emulate-the-mandela-spirit/article8472153.ece

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