Skip to content

There can be no normal sport in an abnormal world

War is not only about the killing by innocent young men (and increasingly women) but it is also big business. From this tragedy, we can begin to relearn the essential values of what it means to be human. The invasion of Ukraine by Russia has resulted in the unprecedented social, cultural, political, and sporting isolation of Russia. I hope this article will be a sporting one or received as such.

The political establishment, Vladimir Putin and his close circle – including the oligarchs – have been under attack. The oligarchs for years have stolen wealth enjoyed in Europe and America: why action only now?

I grew up under apartheid and was highly influenced by the anti-racist activism of Hassan Howa, who coined the phrase there can be no normal sports in an abnormal society. He was a leader of the South African Council on Sports (SACOS) and this slogan, I believe, best explains what is happening in the sporting world today. Sport-washing is the order of the day as the sporting community – corralled by the elites – have ditched their lofty principles of Olympism. The values of excellence, friendship and respect have fallen for blatant chauvinism in favour of narrow nationalisms, thereby ditching internationalism.

However, the absence of excellence is primarily intellectual as I will explain by using some examples of how media has helped to condition its readers into followers.

Some examples from the right flank

No love? The world’s No. 1 tennis player, Russian Daniil Medvedev, has been pressured by the British Tory Government and the establishment to publicly denounce Russian president Vladimir Putin in regards to the invasion of Ukraine. He has repeatedly said that he wants to “promote peace” but this does not seem to be enough for the marshals of democracy, if he wishes to play in Wimbledon. This prompted some response, but I quote George Galloway’s comments as they often invoke great reactions. He called the pressures by the authorities a crime as no one has been asked ever to publicly condemn their own government. What Medvedev is asked to do so is not demanded from the American and British entertainers and sports persons “whose governments, in total violation of international law, invaded Iraq and killed millions of Iraqis”.

There are other examples in other sports equally revealing the duplicity and hypocrisy of the elites who blatantly have been corralling “their citizens” to fall behind “the war effort,” which I will not discuss here. What I must add, however, is this: I have no doubt that there has been “spontaneous” support for the war from many ordinary folk, not necessarily mobilised by the elites; but the overwhelming mobilisation does come from the top. I view UEFA and its affiliates, particularly the English Premier League (EPL) and Spanish la Liga, as unashamedly hypocritical in their double-standards. The elites have spared no space sharing “their politics”.

The Real Madrid El Clásico match at the Bernabeu (watching on our TV screens) carried the slogan STOP INVASION. Yet these teams seemed to have no qualms playing in Saudi Arabia just this January in the Spanish Super Cup, earning megabucks whilst turning a blind eye to the deaths of hundreds of thousands and the untold destruction of Yemenis at the hands of the Saudi-USA led coalition. The president of Amnesty International Spain Esteban Beltrán called out this collaboration between the Spanish FA and the regime as ‘whitewashing’ the image of Saudi authorities. But UEFA, FIFA and political leaders were silent.

Then came the dastardly invasion of Ukraine just one month later (24 February). It is only then that they found their voice as, to them,  Ukrainians are more deserving victims of war than others. And they acted swiftly. Within record time, Russian athletes were expelled from almost all sports (some which I never knew even existed). The highlight was Putin, a judo practitioner, being stripped of his honorary status whilst Surfing Swimming withdrew the FINA Order award granted to Putin by the International Swimming Federation (FINA). But the bans include ordinary players too. The International Tennis Federation (ITF) released a statement on March 1 announcing “the immediate suspension of the Russian Tennis Federation (RTF)” whilst Russia was banned from the FIH Hockey Women’s Junior World Cup scheduled from April 1 to 12 in Potchefstroom, South Africa.

Other sports that excluded Russians include Archery, Badminton, Baseball, Softball, Taekwondo, Triathlon and Volleyball. FIFA was equally diligent by stopping Gazprom funding to UEFA for the Champions League and other critical events. Europeans, however, continue to obtain gas and petroleum from Russia. Notwithstanding this Realpolitik, Russian footballers were not so lucky: they were ruled offside and thus would not be able to participate in the play-off against Poland that was scheduled for March 24, stopping its players and the country’s hope of going to Qatar later in the year. The swiftness clearly suggests that these actions were coming largely, not solely, from the top. The powerful media houses, the state and private ideological state apparatuses were fully at work.

MEDIA plays their role…

It is almost a cliché that sports and the business of media are joined at the hip and, increasingly in the modern era, one cannot survive without the other. Sports has become a marketing vehicle to sell the products of the sponsor and the people. It is critical, they believe, to maintain their dominance over “consumers” so that we can be hooked into this iniquitous relationship.

The prevailing convention prior to Ukraine was for sports to stay away from politics and causes that will fragment the beauty of making money. Today it is not uncommon to see major international broadcasters, print and electronic media underscoring the right of resistance to injustice by the Ukrainians.

Of resistance, Molotov cocktails and shooting practice

The global media, particularly BBC and CNN and not excluding Al Jazeera, has really got behind the war effort. They have shared news inserts about how to make Molotov cocktails and other tools of resistance. CNN for their part carried the impassioned plea of Ukrainian Tennis star Elina Svitolina who told the world on air that “all prize money she wins at Monterrey Open will go to the Ukrainian army.”

The South African media generally, so low the media food chain, has simply repeated these sentiments, influencing their readers, listeners and viewers.

My beloved SAfm sports news, seeking to inform the public after a heated debate on the Ukraine-Russia conflict, ran an audio insert that obfuscated more than it informed. It was about the former Ukrainian tennis player Alexandr Dolgopolov, who informed listeners that he had joined the army to stop the Russian invasion. He was quoted as saying that he took his family to safety first and wanted to learn how to shoot. “By that time I had already started practising shooting, and I was very lucky that an ex professional soldier taught me for 5-7 days. They were really happy to help, once they heard my goal, big thanks to our friends from Turkey,” Dolgopolov wrote in a message posted on his Instagram, “I’m not Rambo in a week, but quite comfortable with the weapons, and can hit the head three out of five times, from 25 metres in a calm, practice environment.” After learning to shoot, he returned to Ukraine.

I did not call the radio station to complain – as the presenter thought I had – about his failure to provide a health warning about the violent nature of the news item. What I did say on air was that I endorsed the right to resist by all means as articulated by the athlete. I pondered, however, if this right was only afforded to Ukrainians. Would it also be offered to Palestinians, without some listeners resorting to bombarding the station with complaints by Zionist groups?

Closely linked to media is the marketing and branding of the sports movement.

Adidas and Puma and the marketing of oppression

German global corporation Adidas took dramatic steps to halt its partnership with the Russian Football Union over the Ukraine Invasion, joining other multinational groups. Their sports apparel rival PUMA did not let the competitor win the battle of ideas and marketing.

Yet Puma had for years resisted human rights campaigners like the BDS who were demanding that they quit their collaboration with Israeli military oppression and exploitation of Palestinians. Their default reply was “we don’t do politics” whilst they continued their support for occupation through their “sponsorship contract with the Israel Football Association, which governs and advocates on behalf of teams in illegal settlements forcing Indigenous Palestinians off their land in the occupied Palestinian territory” according to the BDS. This time around, PUMA could not help themselves in their boot-licking hypocrisy that underlines their commitment to white racial supremacy.

The Second half

Most professional sports matches are games of two halves. Earlier I presented the pace to isolate Russia from world sports. I have hinted above at hypocrisy and double standards amongst the rulers of the sports administration and world games. In this half, I hope to present dissenting voices that have been struggling to be heard.

Even Turkey, the only Muslim NATO member nation, has also laid on support for Ukrainian victims of war. However, former international player Aykut Demir, the captain and centre back of Erzurumspor, declined to wear a shirt denouncing the war on Ukraine. His reasons were simple: the lack of attention the world was paying to the struggles in the Middle East, in particular the civil war in Yemen, where a United Nations Report published late last year projected 377,000 people would have died from the war by the end of 2021 with millions displaced. Of those dying, most were women and children. “Thousands of people die every day in the Middle East,” said Demir. “I feel sad too. I share the pain of innocent people. Those who ignore the persecution there are doing these things … when it comes to Europe. I did not like to wear the T-shirt because it was not made for those countries.”

Action on oligarchs?

Earlier I bemoaned the delayed actions against the big money oligarchs that have stolen the beautiful game. Here I will explain it further and wonder if this action is too little too late or wonder if it is happening at all. Back in 2019, Forbes reported that Roman Abramovich’s net worth was approximately $12.9 billion, making him the 11th richest person in Russia. A mere six years earlier, in 2003, he took ownership of Chelsea F.C. Since he became boss, the club has won 18 trophies, including two Champions League titles, five Premier League championships, and most recently the 2022 Club World Cup.

The funding of football by oligarchs and oil sheikh ownership has resulted in major titles for their clubs, whilst effected fans power and influence has declined immensely.  The Chelsea club (and fans) owe an estimated $2 billion to Abramovich, according to many reports.

But Abramovich is a different kettle of fish as he has many powerful groups and interests lobbying for “his” wealth to remain untouched. Which reminds me of the Franklin Roosevelt saying about one or two of the backyard anti-communist dictator/s: “He may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he’s our son-of-a-bitch”.

One of the groups campaigning for him is the country’s chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau and Sheba Medical Center Director Yitshak Kreiss, part of Yad Vashem – Israel’s official Holocaust memorial. They urged Washington not to sanction Abramovich, who is a major donor to Zionist causes.

David Klion, writer and editor of Jewish Currents, commented in his piece entitled “Our oligarch” that his donations amounted to over half a billion dollars to various Jewish organisations and causes. Abramovich took out Israeli citizenship and soon became the second richest man in Israel. Klion ends his piece by quoting a 2020 BBC Arabic investigation, which revealed that “Abramovich has used front companies registered in the British Virgin Islands to donate more than $100 million to a right-wing Israeli organisation called the Ir David Foundation, commonly known as Elad. This organisation has worked from the 1980s to move Jewish settlers into occupied East Jerusalem. They also control “an archeological park and major tourist site called City of David, which it has leveraged in its efforts to “Judaize” the area, including by seizing Palestinian homes in the surrounding neighbourhood of Silwan and digging under some to make them uninhabitable”.

For Klion, the blame lies with Abramovich who he claims was responsible for nearly “half the donations Elad received between 2005 and 2018, the last year for which records are available, making him by far its largest funder. (Elad did not respond to requests for comment.)”

Whilst all this was brewing, the House of Saud was quietly and under the radar hanging 81 of its own citizens for what was reported as various crimes. Not many took issue with the killings nor the Saudi Arabia (backed) ownership of premier league side Newcastle United. Newcastle was bought by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund in October and, although both the club and the Premier League have insisted that the Saudi state isn’t involved in the running of the club, many fans are not convinced.

The Sun newspaper reported that the coach “Eddie Howe has revealed he is ‘well aware’ of the mass executions taking place in Saudi Arabia”. The Sun continued by saying that it was “the largest mass execution in the country’s history” and yet no action was taken against the team. The coach said he wanted to win matches, that was all!

Whilst real fans power like those of Celtic Football Club have over the past repeatedly been sanctioned by UEFA for the solidarity with refugees and other oppressed groups – in particular Palestine -, comments like Howe’s do not get any criticism from the powerful. In the face of a fine imposed in 2016, Celtic fans mobilised and paid it in quick time. These fans have for years spoken truth to power when it was unpopular and unsanctioned. I can only conclude that when UEFA removed Spartak Moscow from the Europa League in response to Russian aggression and moved the final of the Champions League, they were not playing ball but the politics of double standards.

Extra time?

Something must be said about the Egyptian street which, in sharp contrast to their repressive rulers, remains vibrant. We recall how the former captain of the Egyptian National Football team Mohammed Aboutrika was given a yellow card in 2009 for displaying on his jersey “Sympathise with Gaza” in Arabic and English.

The referee was simply abiding by CAF and FIFA rules, which prohibit religious and political slogans during the games, although this was a call for human solidarity.

In contrast, CAF – FIFA did nothing to Ghanaian footballer John Paintsil, who went unpunished for waving the Israeli flag in celebration of a goal scored by a team-mate in a match against Czech Republic in the 2006 World Cup. This was blatant propaganda as Israel was not playing and did not qualify for the tournament.

But that was then, when solidarity was out of fashion. Now, with us all rediscovering our higher values, it was left to the world squash champion, an Egyptian and African, to use his racket to smash racism. Even as champion, he was not spared censorship as his words have been excised from the official record. But as Ali Amr Farag once said, we have the means to record it. This is what he said after a match that he lost (whilst he won all our hearts):

“Nobody should ever accept any killings in the world, any oppression. But we’ve never been allowed to speak about politics in sports, but all of a sudden now it’s allowed. So, now that we’re allowed, I hope that people also look at the oppression everywhere in the world. I mean, the Palestinians have been going through that for the past 74 years and, well, I guess because it doesn’t fit the narrative of the media of the west, we couldn’t talk about it. But now that we can talk about Ukraine, we can talk about Palestinians. So please keep that in mind.”

Through his actions, he joins hundreds of top sports men and women who have stood up against injustice when it was not fashionable or easy.

Hassen Lorgat

Hassen is a social justice activist and writes in his personal capacity.

Hassen Lorgat