Let’s agree that sports and politics mix — it’s a fact. But in recent history, when sports figures don’t reinforce the prevailing power structures is when this combination becomes more caustic.
In 1968, Tommie Smith and Jon Carlos — two African-American athletes — stood on the podium to receive their respective gold and bronze medals for a 200m race at the Mexico City Olympics. Representing their country in the most high-profile sporting event in the world, they each bowed their heads and raised a black-gloved fist up in the sky — the Black Power salute — as the US national anthem played. It was to become one of the most iconic images in the Olympics’ history. The silver medalist in the race, Australian Peter Norman, wore a badge in support of the cause without making the salute.
The two sprinters managed to transform a moment manufactured to represent glory, triumph and lofty patriotism to one of proud, yet solemn defiance. They used the platform they had earned while ultimately defending their country’s colors to draw attention to the struggle for racial equality at one of the most combustive periods in the history of the US civil rights movement.
Their reward: Returning to the US as outcasts. They were banned from representing the US in international sports for a year, while receiving death threats and public admonishments along the way. Despite earning their positions among the elite in the sports establishment, a government body took their silent stance to be such an egregious offense to the notion of patriotic representation that any achievements they made — Smith had set the Olympic and world record that year — would be sidelined due to what was perceived to be an affront to the established order. Norman was similarly treated upon his return to Australia.
Fast forward 55 years: Egyptian Kung Fu champion Mohamed Youssef wins a gold medal at an international tournament in Russia. While accepting his award, he wears a yellow shirt bearing the colors and logo that commemorates those killed during a brutal raid on a sit-in supporting ousted President Mohamed Morsi, while making the Rabea four-finger salute for the photo-op. His reward: Immediately being labeled an unpatriotic pariah. Upon his arrival back to Egypt, Youssef was interrogated by numerous security agencies to determine if he was part of a subversive anti-nationalistic plot. The media tore him apart for representing the Brotherhood instead of Egypt, a ridiculous claim for a man who has represented Egypt for years.
Youssef’s gold medal was reportedly confiscated by security forces, and the Ministry of Sports and Youth announced that he would be banned from representing his country for a year — which, it should be noted, is not within their purview; only the Kung Fu Federation is authorized to make such a declaration. This, in a country where world champions of any kind are at a premium.
For his part, Youssef said that he made the gesture to commemorate the deaths of his own personal friends and acquaintances in the massacre, where at least 525 people were killed at Rabea on August 14 alone, according to the official death toll (other counts put the death toll much higher). It was, by all “sane” accounts, a heartless, brutal police assault.
Youssef did not call for ousted President Mohamed Morsi’s return, and said repeatedly that while he has no regrets for what he did, it was not meant to be political. Of course, it should not go unsaid that the gesture is used by many in the context of calling for the reinstatement of the calamitous Morsi, especially by those who seem to absent-mindedly yearn for the return of his divisive and asinine reign — one that only helped shepherd Egypt to the brink of collapse. While Youssef surely understands the gesture’s overt political innuendo, his reasoning was humanitarian.
A similar situation occurred when Al-Ahly player Ahmed Abdel Zaher raised the four-finger Rabea salute after scoring the winning goal in his team’s African Championship campaign on Sunday. He said he made the gesture to honor those killed on the day of the massacre, “including police conscripts.” The result is another ongoing ostracizing campaign, including claims in court that Abdel Zaher threatened national security, and an immediate response from his club and, of course, the Ministry of Sport claiming that his gesture (which lasted all of three seconds) was both inappropriate and career-threatening.
International sports are almost always political, but there are attempts to fervently deny this and selectively vilify unsanctioned politicizations in sports. Who decides what is sanctioned? Governments, of course! In Egypt, this politicization of sports manifested itself in many ways in recent years.
When Egypt played against Algeria three times in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers, it took a revolution for the Egyptian public to finally accept that this rather dramatic sports event was being abused by the Mubarak clan to give the heir-apparent Gamal some political capital, by imposing his image as a “patron” of the sport during Egypt’s lone win in the series.
One would have always expected the entire athletic establishment to thank and congratulate fallen President Hosni Mubarak after any victory. It is worth noting that his National Democratic Party included Egypt’s victories in the African Cup in the catalogue of Mubarak’s “accomplishments.” No matter how it is framed, the attachment of sporting bodies to a government’s executive branch means that, one way or another, it is used politically whenever convenient.
The Ministry’s silly accusations that these athletes need to be banned and reprimanded like criminals for blending politics and sports should be tossed out. Instead, we need to acknowledge that the real issue at hand is that sports, like other endeavors involving Egypt’s government, is plagued with the same sense of inhibitive top-down, militaristic patronage, where the athletes are required to do as they are told regardless of the surrounding circumstances, and always extol their superiors along the way. Any failure to do so constitutes a mutiny of sorts, and in true militaristic fashion, mutineers face immediate “execution”— in this case, possibly meaning the death of these athletes’ careers. It should be noted that Youssef in fact did constantly praise the federation and proclaim his allegiance to it throughout his ordeal.
Perhaps Youssef and Abdel Zaher chose the wrong moments to make their gestures. In the end, their accomplishments involved a lot of teamwork with coaches, teammates and administrators, and their actions may implicate many of the team members standing by them who may not agree with the political implications of the gestures. It is also generally a bad idea to turn sporting soapboxes into pulpits of any kind, because of the negative potential repercussions of such a trend. A case in point is last week’s Nazi salute by a football player in Greece, in light of the worrying growing neo-Nazi trend there, particularly as represented by the Golden Dawn Party in that Mediterranean country.
If sports venues become political free-for-alls, who is to stop white supremacists from fielding their own team of skinheads with gigantic Swastika tattoos? Can you imagine their fans, and their reaction to playing other races? As if there was not enough hooliganism in sports.
Few will remember the true brilliance of Youssef as a Kung Fu champion now. A combination of his own gesture, and the rabid allergic reactions among both the political establishment and the media to anything that has a whiff of Brotherhood, have combined to promptly obfuscate that fact.
Youssef, Abdel Zaher, Smith and Carlos are not athletes who I would say purposefully mixed politics and sports. Aside from the underlying politics of Youssef’s Rabea gesture and the Americans’ Black Power salute, we realize that both cases involved socially conscious actors who saw it unfit to engage in fulsome celebrations while atrocities pass by unnoticed in the countries that they represent and bring so much pride to.
Besides being conscious, they were somehow personally attached to the atrocities. Smith and Carlos were part and parcel of the American civil rights struggle. Youssef had friends who died unarmed during a political protest. Both felt that the political establishments in power at the time of their athletic achievements were neglecting their respective atrocities.
At the end, such professional athletes are anything but unpatriotic. They all represented their countries, and no one can deny their patriotism in doing so. Anyone who has been in proximity of world-class athletes knows that to reach that level essentially means sacrificing a large chunk of their lives to attain that goal. They all, however, expressed a dignified rejection of the neglect of what are essentially universally legitimate human rights issues, whether racial inequality or police brutality.
It is sad that the political establishments chose to engage in witch-hunts against these athletes for an intransigence that does not seem to have as much to do with politics or patriotism as it does with inconveniencing the overlords in power.
Many online commentators mused that if Youssef had raised a photo of Colonel General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, he would have been praised. To me, that seems like an entirely plausible scenario.