Greenbacks and Green Tops: Sport, Politics and Society

As the commemoration of Nelson Mandela has monopolised the headlines, cricket reporters have sought tenuous links between Mandela and the game. Unfortunately, rugby has all the best tunes – the 1995 World Cup as national reconciliation – but South African cricket’s relationship with the Apartheid regime, the controversial rebel tours and the post-reinstatement racial quotas are worth probing, if only as an investigation of the troubled and twisted relationship between sport and politics. The rebel tours were a classic case of complicity and denial – players ignoring politics, ignorance as a defence against accusations of collusion. The extent to which rebel tourists were reintegrated relied much on the sympathies of their employers, with the English and Australian players briefly ostracised, but allowed to return to international cricket. For the West Indians who toured, visiting South Africa, no matter the stand you took when there, was treasonous, an insult to the racial solidarity and power that the success of the West Indian side represented.

The English and Australian tourists were mainly those who missed out on Kerry Packer’s lucre, the rebel rand offering a useful supplement to skimpy incomes. But taking the money required a certain calculated innocence, the ability to turn a blind eye and convince yourself that you were only there for the sport and that politics should never mix with the game. The desire not to know, to avoid the dilemma became paramount, the dichotomy maintained with a scientific water-and-oil certainty. Convince yourself that knowing what is happening is opposition, ignorance neutrality. In reality, for sports stars, as with pop stars performing at the lavish birthday parties of Central Asian despots, ignorance is complicity, the choice to look away condemning.

Yet who decides when it is dark enough to look? Apartheid South Africa was explicitly banned from competing internationally, meaning that overseas players were defying their sports’ governing bodies. However, when England have discussed the ethics of touring Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, it was a question for the individual nation or individual players. The Australian leg-spinner Stuart MacGill chose to abstain from his nation’s tour of the country, but it is far more difficult to make an ethical objection when you are choosing to withdraw as an individual. The courage required to turn down the rare opportunities to play international sport is enormous, especially when the rewards for moral fortitude are scant beyond platitudes.

The mantra of the anti-Apartheid campaigners to tried to keep South Africa alienated was “no normal sport in an abnormal society”. Yet the idea of a “normal” society – or an “abnormal” one – is troublesome. Athletes are threatening to boycott the Winter Olympics in Sochi due to President Putin’s recent legislation curtailing LGBT rights, but India has recently recriminalised gay sex. Would anyone boycott the IPL over this legislation?  Degrees of normality are impossible to ascribe, and boycotts perceived as petty would doubtless discredit them as a mode of political pressure.

Moreover, the idea of normal sport in an abnormal society is, in some ways, oxymoronic. Sport is a part and product of society, rather than luxurious or uncontaminated. South African cricket was shaped by Apartheid’s discrimination as much as West Indies cricket was influenced by post-colonial pride. The free market as practised in Britain is evident in the Premier League’s hyper-capitalism and inflated wage packets and transfer fees. Anzhi Makhachkala’s boom and bust is inseparable from Russian oligarchy and their insecure whims. The best writers on sport have recognised this – two of cricket’s finest, CLR James and Mike Marqusee, have written about sport as a product of history and society. Perhaps not coincidentally, both James and Marqusee wrote as Marxists, fascinated by the interaction of economics, history and society. They simply chose cricket as the case study.

Furthermore, sport carries a symbolic power. Nelson Mandela wearing a Springbok jersey was a powerful emblem of racial reconciliation. Sport is taken seriously across the world, and, as an important part of people’s lives, carries a social significance. Rebel tours legitimised Apartheid by acknowledging it as a suitable host for a contest with value for many people. The official ban made their blackleg actions particularly galling, sporting acceptances of the status quo. For an individual making a stand against a regime, the situation is far harder. Their stance is very rarely supported by powerful sporting organisations. Too often, the unhelpful binary – “sport and politics must not mix” – is invoked. In reality, separation is impossible.

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