Protests in Sports – Instances When Athletes Decided Enough Is Enough
Occasions were athletes took a stance against the establishment, often disrupting the status quo.
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The Iranian football team, despite suffering a 2-6 defeat to England in their opening FIFA World Cup 2022 clash, were venerated by their fans for their act of valour. Before the start of play, the players had shown solidarity with the anti-government protestors back in their home country by not signing the customary national anthem.
Two days later, the German footballers launched a unique protest against the governing body, FIFA. After not being allowed to wear the 'One Love' armband to show solidarity to the LGBTQ+ community, German players covered their mouths in a gesture symbolising they were being silenced.
"Denying us the armband is the same as denying us a voice. We stand by our position," Germany's statement read.
Instances of protests from athletes are not new – history will show a plethora of examples, many of which had an everlasting impact on regimes, society and the world. In this article, we will look at such instances of protests in sports, in a chronological order:
1. Lewis Hamilton (2020)
Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton has always been a major proponent of racial indiscrimination and diversity in motorsports, where we don’t often see people of colour.
In the 2020 Tuscan Grand Prix in Italy, the British racer sported a T-shirt demanding the arrest of the police officers who allegedly killed Breonna Taylor.
Taylor, a 26-year-old African-American woman, was shot dead in Kentucky by law enforcement officers during a drug operations investigation. Demanding justice, Hamilton wore a black T-shirt which read 'Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor.' The back of the T-shirt read 'Say her name' along with a picture of Taylor.
“It’s been 6 months since Breonna Taylor was murdered by policemen, in her own home. Still no justice has been served. We won’t stay silent. We have to continue to raise awareness. I think we just have to continue to push on the issue,” Hamilton later Tweeted.
Being the only black driver in the history of Formula 1, Hamilton taking such a stance ensured the world knew about the incident. Only ten days after the race, a detective was indicted for endangerment, while it was also determined who fired the fatal shot.
2. Colin Kaepernick (2016)
Colin Kaepernick is an American football quarterback, who used to represent the San Francisco 49ers in the National Football League (NFL). Back on 26 August 2016, ahead of his team’s third preseason game, he sat during the national anthem to protest against racial injustice from the police, and in the following week, the quarterback knelt while the anthem was being played.
On his stand, Kaepernick said “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour. To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
His decision was met with a lot of criticism, including from former American president Donald Trump, who asked teams to ‘fire’ players who disrespected the national anthem.
Kaepernick was let go by the 49ers in 2017, and has not been able to find a team ever since, which many see as a politically inspired ostracisation.
Yet, in 2020. Kaepernick made the headlines again following the death of George Floyd. Kaepernick's kneeling stance has since become an universal symbol of resistance against racial discrimination, as athletes all across the globe 'took the knee' to show solidarity to all victims of injustice and demanded equality.
3. LeBron James & Others (2014)
Only two years before Kaepernick’s resistance, American basketball players made the headlines for their 'controversial' T-shirts.
Players from Cleveland Cavaliers and Brooklyn Nets, which included the iconic LeBron James, wore T-shirts saying ‘I can’t breathe.’ These happen to be the last words of Eric Garner, the 33-year-old African-American horticulturist who died after being put in a chokehold by a police officer.
With an athlete of LeBron James' stature and fandom voicing his opinion on the incident, public demonstrations increased manifolds until July 2015, when Garner's family reached an out-of-court settlement with the City of New York.
4. Andy Flower & Henry Olonga (2003)
Though it is not very common, there are incidents of cricketers protesting on the field. In a match against fellow African side Namibia at the 2003 ICC Cricket World Cup, Zimbabwean players Andy Flower and Henry Olonga wore black armbands.
This act was a protest against former president Robert Mugabe’s regime, as Flower and Olonga stated the armbands signified the ‘death of democracy’ in Zimbabwe.
Both Flower and Olonga risked their cricket careers with this act. The former eventually retired after the tournament, which many assumed was a result of pressure from the government.
Olonga had an arrest warrant issued against him for treason, while he also received death threats. To save himself, the former cricketer sought temporary refuge in England.
5. Billie Jean King (1973)
Back in the 1960s, female tennis players received much lower remuneration than their male counterparts. After winning the women’s singles in the 1972 US Open, former tennis star Billie Jean King received $15,000 less than the men’s champion, Ilie Nastase.
She demanded equal prize money for both male and female players. Former men's number 1, Bobby Riggs tried to refute her by claiming women are inferior to men in this sport. The pair competed in a game that is famously called the 'battle of sexes,' and King emerged victorious in straight sets.
Courtesy of her perseverance and conviction, King fulfilled her goal soon after as US Open became the first major tournament to have equal prize money for male and female categories. Eventually, the other grand slams also followed suit.
6. Tommie Smith & John Carlos (1968)
Almost five decades before Colin Kaepernick taking the knee, American track and field athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos protested against racial injustice during the national anthem. After winning gold and bronze medals in the men’s 200m sprint at the 1968 Summer Olympics, Smith and Carlos stepped barefooted on the podium, wearing black socks and black gloves.
While the American national anthem was being played, the pair raised their fists as a symbol of solidarity and racial equality. “If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro,” Smith said after the incident.
Smith and Charles were ostracised following their demonstration. Upon returning to USA, the pair were criticised by both public and the media, while family members also received death threats.
7. Kathrine Switzer (1967)
The Boston Marathon was initially considered a men’s event, until Kathrine Switzer re-wrote history back in 1967. Women were prohibited from participating in that event, albeit there was no official rule.
The organisers did not initially spot Switzer as she wore a hoodie to cover her long hair, but once it fell off, race manager Jock Semple noticed the then 22-year-old lady.
He tried multiple times to get the race bib off Switzer, but all of his attempts went in vain as she ended up completing the full marathon distance.
Switzer's courageous act inspired more women to compete in running, and athletics in general, as females were not encouraged to participate in sports back in the 1960s. Five years after her effort, the Boston Marathon was officially made an all-inclusive event.
8. Muhammad Ali (1966)
It is only befitting that one of the most famous instances of protest in sports involves one of the biggest sporting icons – Muhammad Ali.
Back in the mid-1960s, USA lowered the standards of their military requirements to draft as many people as they could during the ongoing Vietnam War. Despite being dyslexic, legendary boxer Muhammed Ali was classified as ‘fit for general military service’ and was drafted into the army.
The boxer denied, saying “Why should me and other so-called Negroes go 10,000 miles away from here, in America, to drop bombs and bullets on other innocent brown people who've never bothered us?”
Ali ran the risk of becoming public enemy for his stance, which he eventually became. Media reports claimed he was too scared of joining the army, while his decision of religious conversion was also talked about.
As the last nail in the coffin, he was found guilty of draft evasion and all of his titles were stripped off. Though the verdict was overturned three years later, Ali spent crucial time from his peak fighting court cases instead of bouts in the ring.
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