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Tokyo Olympics commentary: Sport cannot be apolitical and it must stand up to injustices

'Stick to sports' is a phrase used to silence people but sport cannot ignore the injustices and inequalities of society because it is not separate from it but an extension of it.

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There’s no such thing as “stick to sports”.

It’s a phrase that is so often used to shout down those with an opinion that doesn’t align with yours. It’s an epithet that the Olympic Games effectively lives by with its strict “no politics” stance.

Indeed, sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos were suspended and sent home from the 1968 Olympic Games after staging their now-iconic “Black Power” protest during the medal ceremony for the 200-meter event.

While it’s right that sport should try to prevent itself from being hijacked by politicians – of either side of the political divide – trying to use it for their own benefit, it is naïve or ignorant to believe that this isn’t happening.

Also read: German sport director temporarily suspended by UCI for racist comments during men’s time trial

Cycling held its road world championships in Qatar – a country with a bleak human rights record – in 2016 and it’s only a year before the nation holds the FIFA World Cup. Meanwhile, the track cycling worlds were due to be held in Turkmenistan – a nation with an authoritarian dictator and another terrible human rights record – later this year and have only been moved away due to COVID-19 concerns.

The cyclocross world championships are still due to be held in Arkansas despite the introduction of anti-transgender legislation in the state.

Also read: Inside the battle to boycott Arkansas’ bike races

The stance held by many sports to deny politics only serves those that wish to ignore society’s ails and abandons the rest. Sport may be where we turn to forget our troubles, but it is a reflection on our world and the people within it and it cannot be avoided.

If the last week at the Olympic Games has shown us anything, it is that to talk about sport is to address the difficult subjects such as racism, mental health, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, inequality, and much more.

In these last seven days, we have seen Simone Biles, the world’s best gymnast, step out of one of the biggest competitions of her life to care for her own mental wellbeing. That was swiftly followed by Tom Dumoulin returning to an international podium for the first time since he took time away from racing to focus on his own mental health.

On that same day, the German cycling sport director Patrick Moster shouted racist language in an effort to motivate one of his riders during the men’s time trial. He has since been temporarily suspended by the UCI and sent home from the Olympic Games.

Also read: Time trial silver as good as gold for Tom Dumoulin

In a rarely seen move, a small number of German riders spoke out vociferously on social media against Moster’s behavior and denounced it. The IOC welcomed the decision to send him home but had any of the podium finishers been aware of what had happened and staged any sort of protest they would have faced an unspecified punishment for their actions under the IOC’s ban on protests.

The temporary suspension of Moster by the UCI is a welcome one as the matter is investigated, but it also rings hollow when there are stakeholders involved in the sport with horrific human rights records. Standing up for one injustice while openly allowing stakeholders to sportswash their atrocities is a failure.

Taking a stand

On Wednesday, we also witnessed Masomah Ali Zada, a refugee from Afghanistan, compete in the women’s time trial event. Ali Zada has been through more than most to get to the Olympic Games and was once deliberately driven into while out training with some other women in her native Afghanistan.

Ahmad Badreddin Wais, a Syrian refugee who fled the brutal civil war in 2014, also contested the men’s time trial.

In a world where refugees are so often used as political pawns to be treated as nothing more than bargaining chips, that there is a team made up entirely of them is an inherently political move – whether the IOC believes it to be or not.

To continue to censure athletes from speaking out about injustices and inequalities when they have the platform the Olympic Games affords them is wrong and shows the IOC to be out of touch with society.

Also read: Meet the two road cyclists of the Refugee Olympic Team

“Protesting and expressing yourself is a fundamental human right,” British sprinter Dina Asher-Smith said, according to the Guardian, ahead of the Olympic Games. “If you were to penalize someone for standing up against racial inequality how on earth would that go? How on earth are you going to enforce that?

“When people feel strongly about something, particularly when it’s something that’s so close to your heart – and as a black woman you think about racism – I just think you can’t police people’s voice on that. That’s an incredibly difficult thing to do.”

The widescale restrictions on protests was due to remain intact for the Tokyo Olympics and it was only after an outcry that the IOC loosened some of them, allowing athletes to quietly protest in the field of play – such as taking the knee – and during post-event interviews. However, the ban is still in place for podium ceremonies.

Athletes such as Colin Kaepernick – or Smith and Carlos – shouldn’t be hounded out of their sports for standing up for injustice.

Momentum around athlete protests and speaking up for social injustices and inequalities are growing but there is still a long way to go. Discussions around mental health are also improving but that too has some way to travel.

Sport can be and is a force for good, but it can only be that way if it embraces those difficult topics and be unafraid to stand up for them.

In soccer, the various national and international governing bodies have refused to punish players for taking a stance against racism. However, UEFA [the European governing body] denied a request to light the Allianz Arena in Munich in rainbow colors during a football match between Germany and Hungary.

It was in protest against Hungary’s laws banning the sharing of information deemed to be “promoting homosexuality or gender change” with people under the age of 18.

In Formula 1, world champions Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel have spoken out about those same laws ahead of the upcoming Hungarian Grand Prix, though the wider response within the sport has been relatively muted. The sport has also had its pre-race stand/kneel against racism that has often seemed rushed and stilted.

Sport cannot continue to ignore the world’s problems and injustices, and more needs to be done to take a stand.

There is no such thing as “stick to sports”.