A memory from my days on my college squash team haunts me regularly, ca. 1987. On one of our long van rides to a match, which averaged about 6 hours, we were somewhere between Ithaca and somewhere else, when our coach, breaking the silence, said, “I think it’s totally ridiculous that the Olympics are boycotting South Africa teams from participation in the Olympics. Politics has no business in sport. Something like that only penalizes the athletes. What do you think, Matt?” I remember distinctly that as my silence lengthened and my face reddened and tingled, words would not come to my mouth. Normally a galvanizing, good-time-Charlie, Coach was known for his larger-than-life personality, and everybody, myself included, worshipped him. Though Coach often led conversations, he never called on someone, classroom style. Was he calling on me because he knew I participated with other students in the regular gatherings outside of the Olin Library, protesting Apartheid and advocating divestment of any university financial interest in South Africa, then in the grips of a racist, white supremacist regime reluctant to grant full civil rights to its majority Black citizens? Indeed, at that time, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had been boycotting South Africa’s participation in the games since 1964 due to this system of segregation. Was he really espousing this position or was he calling on me because he thought I might disagree with him and thus, start a lively debate on the topic? Either way, I largely froze, and said something noncommittal, like, “I can see it from both sides.”
Some 35 years later, I found myself wanting to scream as my own history seemed to be repeating itself. During the Winter Olympics recently in Beijing, Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, was frequently asked the uncomfortable question of China’s dismal human rights record, particularly the ethnic cleansing program underway against its minority Uighur population. His response has been his stock and trade any time this kind of uncomfortable question is put to him: “The Olympics are not about politics. They are about uniting the world around our common love of sport.” In making this statement, he was not only conveniently forgetting that the IOC used its considerable clout to protest Apartheid for more than 20 years, but also this was a particularly galling statement to make a day after China voiced solidarity with Russia in its standoff with the US and NATO at the Ukraine border. Which is to say, that, contrary to Mr. Bach’s wishes, China doesn’t see the Olympics as a chance to unite the world, but rather, emboldened by the show of power that hosting the Olympics represents, has put its significant heft behind one side of a brewing international standoff. Additionally, the games in Beijing came only two months after Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai “disappeared” after revealing that she had been sexually assaulted by a retired member of the Chinese Communist Party. In the face of these atrocities, countries, if they spoke up at all, issued a “diplomatic boycott” of the games. From what I can gather, this meant that there wouldn’t be any international treaties signed in China during the games, but that they would still send their teams and that the games will go on as scheduled. I imagine this is so that world leaders don’t punish the athletes, to use Coach’s logic, but say something in meek protest. I think these countries are saying their own version of, “we can see it from both sides.”
If I could go back in time to that moment in that van ride, I would say the following: “Coach, I think your argument is incorrect. Nothing happens in a vacuum, and from the smallest political unit of the family all the way to geopolitical superpowers, the container is everything. Indeed, politics is everything and infuses everything we do, from how we interact, to the conditions in which we go to the bathroom (Coach would appreciate a vulgarism here.).” I might add that, in fact, games with rules are nothing other than an expression of and metaphor for collective living. Thus, like anything else, playing sport is entirely dependent upon the context in which it takes place. And no athlete or sport is exempt. This fact is so obvious that those claiming otherwise must be participating in a willful and self-serving deception, further proving the point that Thomas Bach is a politician and not a sportsman, much less a humanitarian.
If Coach were to object to my line of argument, I’d ask him to think of athletes in systems that deny them power and exploit them for financial or political gain. I’d ask him to think of Peng Shuai, or of the athletes within the regime of the Russian Olympic Committee, or of the women in the National Women’s Soccer League, or of the athletes of the NCAA, alienated from the fruits of their labor reaped entirely by their institutions. I’d ask him to think of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. I’d ask him to think of any athlete whose parent used their child in the service of their own needs for fame, riches, and vicarious success. I would have to say that from this vantage point, some 35 years later, I’d say to Coach that until and unless large governing sport bodies fully acknowledge the reality of their political power, and use it to speak back to power in the service of the further liberation of humanity, sport will never realize its potential of being the truly unifying force that Mr. Bach and those like him pretend to celebrate.