They move their body to move politics

How the movement of the body in sport can lead to a political movement…

Fists raised in protest

It’s a historical event, at the Mexico Olympic games in 1968 two African-American sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raise their fists on the podium during the American anthem in protest against racism. The segregation is not allowed since the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but is still present. Intolerance and racist crimes still poison the integration of the black community in the US. Their actions are relayed by a lot of media, and will have a huge impact on their career, such as banishment from the Olympic Village, and being banned from competition for life. They need to wait until the end of the Eighties so that the world deigns to recognize their action. Their courage will be truly honored only in the years between 1990 and 2000. 

40 years later, Barack Obama is elected President of the United States, the first Black American man in power, so we can think that the gesture of Smith and Carlos has helped to change attitudes in the United States. But we know that nothing is acquired, and that racism remains nested  in mentalities, especially with the arrival of Trump in power. That’s why recently, some athletes did the same protest against Trump’s politics, and for minority rights.

Those athletes who revolted

In 2016, the American football player Colin Kaepernick knelt several times and refused to put his hand on the heart and to sing the American anthem. He said : “I will not show pride in the flag of a country that oppresses blacks.”

Then, on September 2016, Megan Rapinoe, a LGBTQI+ woman, became one of the first white sports figures to ‘take a knee’ during the national anthem in support of Colin Kaepernick. She also protested against the difference in wages between male and female players. At the 2019 World Cup she refused to sing the American national anthem and to go to the White House in protest against Donald Trump’s minority policy. She described herself as a “walking protest when it comes to the Trump administration.” And she described Trump as “sexist,” “misogynistic,” “small-minded,” “racist” and “not a good person.” 

More recently, Race Imboden, a white fencer for the USA team, knelt on the podium during the national anthem at the 2019 Pan American games in Peru. He said, he “took a knee — following in the footsteps of Colin Kaepernick, Megan Rapinoe, Muhammad Ali, John Carlos and Tommie Smith: black, LGBT, female and Muslim athletes who chose to take a stand. I’m not a household name like those heroes, but as an athlete representing my country and, yes, as a privileged white man, I believe it is time to speak up for American values that my country seems to be losing sight of.” “Racism, Gun Control, mistreatment of immigrants, and a president who spreads hate are at the top of a long list”.

We can therefore see a surge of protest among athletes, whether they come from the black community, are women or less publicized sports athletes.

But what do all these gestures mean?

The raised left fist is a gesture of salute and a logo mostly used by leftist activists, such as Marxists, Anarchists, Communists or Pacifists.The raised fist is generally perceived as an expression of revolt, strength or solidarity. After the action of Smith and Carlos the raised fist became in the United States a symbol of Black Nationalism.

Kneeling is above all a sign of respect used during Mass, and also the forced position of the slave and the servant. But since this gesture was repeated in 2016 by American football players including Colin Kaepernick, this gesture has become a symbol of the fight against Trump’s policy. 

So why use this position? 

In some countries standing means pride and respect, you get up when someone important enters the room, you stand during the national anthem played at sport events …so we can make the hypothesis that kneeling would be in opposition to this position of pride, and perhaps even a reference to black slavery. 

Sport can have a very important media coverage, sport makes people gather together, some people are a fan of it, they watch and support their favorite athletes on TV every day. That is why acts like these can have a strong impact on the people following the sport, as did the act of Smith and Carlos which helped to change mentalities. By standing up against Trump, these athletes show to the rest of the world their disagreement with the policy put in place by the president. They are trying to change mindsets and hope others will do the same. 

Democracy in danger?

But as for Smith and Carlos, this gesture can have a huge impact on their career. A repression is made by the state to prevent this kind of act from happening, Kaepernick was blacklisted from the NFL, Rapinoe was singled out for criticism by the president. He said on twitter: “Megan should never disrespect our country, the White House and our flag. ” And we don’t know if Race Imboden will be able to participate in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. 

If such a repression is put in place by the state, if it prevents athletes to show their political positions and to assert their fundamental right which is the freedom of expression, are the United States really a democratic country? 

Written by Aimée Niau Lacordaire

Photo Credits

Black power…, Vision Invisible, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

นักกีฬา NFL หลายคนร่วมแสดงออกประท้วงเหยี ยดผิวต่อเนื่องจากกรณี ‘โคลิน แคเพอร์นิค’, Prachatai, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Alyssa Naeher & Megan Rapinoe, Jamie Smed, CC BY 2.0