Politics in sport is seen as unwelcome only if it questions those in power

A one-day international cricket match between India and Australia, at Sydney, is briefly halted by two protestors who invade the pitch, on 27 November 2020. The protests were the latest face of a nearly ten-year long campaign to stop the India-based Adani group from building a coal-mining project in the ecologically sensitive Galilee Basin in northern Australia. COURTESY STOP ADANI
16 February, 2021

On 27 November 2020, a one-day international cricket match between India and Australia, at the Sydney Cricket Ground, was briefly halted by two protestors who invaded the pitch. Soon identified as Ben Burdett and Joshua Winestock, the two men were dressed in T-shirts, which read “Stop Adani,” and “Stop Coal #StopAdani Take Action” on the back. Each of them carried a placard with the State Bank of India’s logo over the words, “No $1BN ADANI LOAN.” The incident seemed to have caught everyone by surprise, including the SCG’s stadium security, and the spectators, commentators and players. Simultaneously, a crowd of about 50 protestors demonstrated outside the stadium and the Indian consulates in Canberra and Melbourne. Both men managed to remain on the ground for several minutes before being escorted off. They now face a possible fine of 5,000 Australian dollars and a ban from the stadium’s grounds.

The protests were the latest face of a nearly ten-year long campaign to stop the India-based Adani group from building a coal-mining project in the ecologically sensitive Galilee Basin in northern Australia. The Adani project would release vast quantities of carbon emissions, endanger the Great Barrier Reef and dispossess multiple indigenous communities from their land. In addition, the mining project has faced financial constraints since inception. The coal mine had been rejected for funding by at least 89 potential financiers, including the top banks of the world, before plans of SBI coming to the rescue surfaced.

The mine’s Australian detractors say that the SBI’s rescue loan makes Adani’s actions in Australia relevant to an Indian audience too. The SBI’s loan has faced controversy over charges of crony capitalism ever since it was granted shortly on the heels of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Gautam Adani’s visit to Australia in 2014, to attend the G20 conference in Brisbane. A media release by the Galilee Blockade—one of several environmental groups opposing the mine—stated, “Millions of Indian taxpayers who are watching the first game of the Indian cricket tour have a right to know that the State Bank of India is considering handing their taxes to a billionaire’s climate wrecking coal mine.”

Despite the gravity of the ecological impact of the mine, cricketing authorities, commentators, and spectators on social media were not thrilled by the mingling of protests with the solemn and apolitical pursuit of international sport. Much consternation has been expressed over the response time of ground security, and the consequent breaching of the COVID-19 bubble under which the game was organised. This line of criticism is aptly summed up by the headline of an article covering the protest in Sportskeeda, an Indian sports-news platform, which read, “We don’t need no gross pitch invasion.” The article bemoans “dragging activism to a cricket pitch, where it clearly does not belong, in service of a ‘politically driven agenda’.”

This criticism strengthens an already pervasive perception about the orthogonal relations between politics and sport, and any disruption of which is considered a “gross” perversion liable for punishment. This narrative has repeated itself countless times in the history of sporting protests, which goes back centuries, and each time it has been belied upon closer investigation by the very authorities who seem to swear by it. Nevertheless, it has persisted in history because this narrative serves the interests of the powerful and the authoritarian, much like it continues to do today, for the Adani group and the Australian and Indian governments. Such criticism is also never expressed when sportspeople take stances that align with the political narratives of those in power.

A crowd of about 50 protestors demonstrate outside the Sydney stadium and the Indian consulates in Canberra and Melbourne against the Adani mine in northern Australia, on 27 November 2020. COURTESY STOP ADANI

The relationship between authoritarian leaders, the crowd and sport as a spectacle is epitomised by the screenplay of the Hollywood period-drama Gladiator. Commodus, an incompetent and authoritarian emperor of Rome uses gladiators in the Colosseum, (literally sportsmen in a stadium of their time), to keep subjects happy and distracted from the ineptitude of his regime. When Maximus, a righteous former commander of a Roman legion is introduced as a gladiator, intrigue reaches fever proportions and the spectacle is supercharged. However, Maximus, notably representing the tyrannised as a democratically inclined erstwhile peasant, subverts the power dynamic between the leader and the crowd by hijacking the mob’s attention with his heroics, and then directing it towards the tyranny and ineptitude of Commodus. Finally, in a crowning drama, this gladiator slays the corrupt emperor in full public view in the Colosseum and gives Rome, figuratively, back to its people.

Take away the victorious Hollywood finale, and the rest of the story can be seen as the archetype of the relationship between Colin Kaepernick, Donald Trump, and the American media. In 2016, Kaepernick, an American football star and black-rights activist, knelt during the pre-game national anthem, to protest police killings of black youth. Following this President Trump and his followers incessantly attacked him. Maximus’ story also resonates with Tommie Smith and John Carlos—two black athletes who raised the black power salute at the 1968 Mexico Olympics—or the story of Muhammad Ali, the boxer, before that. The fact that the history of gladiators is so ancient gives the lie to the popular perception that sport is apolitical. On the contrary, sport as a spectacle is inherently political, and it has a proud history on both the players’ and spectators’ sides to account for it.

Perhaps the most ancient of these examples is the story of Spartacus from the first century BCE—the screenplay of Gladiator seems to be inspired in part from his legend. Spartacus, a slave gladiator, rose to popularity before he went on to lead a rebellion and a war against the mighty Roman empire of its day. In the present day, the national pride that previously arose from the raw violence of war has been sublimated into the theatre of sport. International sporting events have acquired centre stage, not only in framing a nation’s understanding of itself and the world’s understanding of it, but has also been central in protests against Nazism, racism, sexism, colonialism and many other political ideologies.

To cite an example from cricket, in a 2003 World Cup match, Henry Olonga and Andy Flower, two Zimbabwean players wore black armbands to protest “the death of democracy in Zimbabwe” under the regime of Robert Mugabe. Naseer Hussain, the former captain of the English cricket team, said they had “proved to be great men.” Needless to say, the Zimbabwean authorities and public had a different opinion. 

This is not to say that sportspersons have always occupied the centre stage in protests involving sport. In a previous match of the same series that Burdett and Winestock disrupted, which was held in Mumbai, members of the audience had protested the Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2019, before they were forced out of the stadium. The authorities at the stadium went so far as to ban people from wearing black to the match.

The most compelling anecdote of a spectator’s protest comes from Britain, where Emily Wilding Davison, a suffragette fighting for the right of women to vote, broke into the 1913 Epsom Derby’s race track. She then tried to attach a sash of her campaign’s colours to Anmer, King George’s favourite horse. Davison could not attain her objective and lost her life in the attempt, but her heroic sacrifice, at the most influential British sporting spectacle of her time, garnered enormous sympathy and attention for the suffragette movement. Back then, Davison, too, was criticised on precisely the same lines as Burdett and Winestock are today. The Sydney Cricket Ground protest magnified this success manifold with the technology available to them in our information age.

Along with Davison, all these protestors belong to oppressed communities and paid a price for their actions. Kaepernick struggled to be picked for his next NFL season; Ali lost his title; while Henry Olonga went on to be charged with treason, punishable by death in Zimbabwe, and was forced to flee.  

And the parallels with Gladiator do not end with the role of the sportsman and audience. It is no accident that all the protests mentioned have occurred at a time of increasingly authoritarian regimes, such as those of Trump, Modi or Mugabe. Their escalation in our times signals that the traditional avenues of voicing dissent, as well as the constitutional forums for dealing with political issues, have weakened. In Australia and India, an increasingly corporatised media stays largely silent about the environmental ravages of multinational corporations as well as state excesses. The judiciary in India has largely given up its role in challenging the dictates of the ruling regime. Voices of dissent have frequently been silenced in the country. The dismantling of these spaces has necessitated the strengthening of political actions in sport.

Stop Adani protestors outside the Indian consulate on the day of the India Australia cricket match, on 27 November 2020. The Adani project would release vast quantities of carbon emissions, endanger the Great Barrier Reef and dispossess multiple indigenous communities from their land. COURTESY STOP ADANI

The most telling similarity many of these protests share is that those who criticise protests at sports are often fully aware of the deeply political nature of the sporting enterprise. This is immediately clear when one puts into context India’s sporting relations with Pakistan, or the history of sporting relations with South Africa during apartheid. Sport, throughout its long history, has been used to normalise authoritarian states. A telling example of this is the Nazi state’s use of Theodor Lewald, a civil servant of part Jewish ancestry, to canvas international support for the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Lewald, one of the key members of the German Olympic Organizing Committee, recognised well the enormous political implications of hosting a successful Olympics for Germany’s international political-relations. Meanwhile he continued to play up the apolitical and race-neutral character of the games in urging other nations to participate.

International sport has also been a space to emphasise broader progressive stances. In 1962, Indonesia started the Games of the New Emerging Forces—or GANEFO—, an international athletic event, in protest against their suspension from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics for denying entry cards to Israel and Taiwan during the 1962 Asian Games in Jakarta. It was an explicit attempt to link sport to the politics of anti-colonialism after the 1955 Bandung Conference—a meeting of recently decolonised Asian and African states. The GANEFO, at the time was not seen merely as a competition of athletics, but as a powerful political tool and a vehicle for international soft power. The western attempts at subverting the games only added to this cadence.

The Indian cricket team, too, has a long history of representing political positions. Former Indian cricket captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his team have sported a green helmet, symbolising the army, in an international game—a gesture widely praised for its nationalistic symbolism by the same sections of social media which criticised the SCG protest. More recently, several Indian cricketers, including Virat Kohli, Sachin TendulkarRohit Sharma, Suresh Raina and Anil Kumble tweeted using a hashtag, popularised by the ministry of external affairs in a press release, to rebuff widespread international criticism of the Indian government’s crackdown on the farmers’ protests. These tweets, of various cricketers and other celebrities, seemed to be worded in a suspiciously similar pattern. Taking stands in support of the government often does not face the same flak that critics level against anti-establishment voices in sport.

Given these deep ties to history, the question remains why sport has still managed to retain its image as an apolitical enterprise. Once again, one can turn to Sportskeeda for help. Their article criticising the SCG protest argues, “For long, sports have been a unifying factor, going beyond countries, nationalities and everything in between. It brings people together for the love of a solid, good game – embodying the quintessential sporting spirit.” Once an organised sporting spectacle begins, the seemingly apolitical rules of sport do bolster such an interpretation of the “sporting spirit.” Indeed, team sports consisting of different races, religions and ethnicities performing as a unit have provided stellar examples of the same throughout history. This public face of sport, however, hides the inequities of caste, class, race and gender which hide behind the scenes.

Many Indians are familiar with the assembly line of upper-caste players from Delhi and Mumbai, who have represented India. Cricketing fans would be hard-pressed to argue against the hidden oppressive structures of caste which create this history. Afro-Caribbean cricketers who played in India have also spoken about facing racist harassment. Similarly, sporting teams fielded from aparthied South Africa or Nazi Germany attempted to hide their social hierarchies of status behind the logic of choosing the best players with claims of “merit” regardless of class, caste or race.

Sporting spectacles, thus, come to serve a dual purpose for authoritarians: they provide an entertaining distraction from the everyday issues plaguing governments, and also help create an image of unity-in-diversity and cohesion, which is often critical to narratives justifying the status-quo within their regimes. Protests in sport often hurt both these authoritarian goals. This is why the ambush marketing of protests usually prompts the massive deployment of public-relations and strict action by sporting authorities, historically loyal to the state, against those daring to interrupt the show with a cause.

These dynamics are so inherent to sport that they have reproduced themselves countless times before. But the sheer reach that sport presently has is unprecedented. Modern authoritarians have perfected the art of using a spectacle to distract from the burning issues of their times, and to do so, need to reach audiences larger than ever before. The numbers of people political actions in sporting events have managed to reach and its ever-widening scope in the information age, sets this apart from premodern protest in sport. But this is a double-edged sword, as it empowers protests to reach further than they ever have before too.

The 2020 India-Australia series was watched by over a hundred million viewers; the second match in the series broke viewership records. This meant that Burdett and Winestock were able to raise awareness on a whole new scale for the protests against the Adani group’s coal mine, even though efforts to publicise the environmental ravages of the company had been going on for years. These protests show us that the sport’s hold on the crowd is larger than the dictator and the sportsperson’s influence alike. Protests such as the ones at SCG leverage this power-dynamic against regimes that seek to concentrate power within themselves and their ideologies. As long as they exist, one can expect many more repetitions of this cycle.