The ECB apparently had no objection to Moeen Ali’s “Save Gaza” and “Free Palestine” wristbands, but the ICC has ruled them out of order. Those who believe that sport and politics should be kept apart will doubtless approve that decision. Others may think Moeen Ali’s decision to use a Test match to make a political statement about a foreign country inappropriate for an England cricketer. One might observe, however, that it was quite a small statement, which would surely have gone unnoticed by most of us if the media hadn’t brought it to our attention.
It’s a matter on which few of us are likely to be consistent. In the 2003 cricket World Cup, two members of the Zimbabwe team, Andy Flower and Henry Olonga, wore black armbands in the first match played in their home country, and released a statement declaring that they were doing so as a protest against “the death of democracy” in Zimbabwe.
This was a brave gesture generally applauded by people critical, with good reason, of President Mugabe’s dictatorial regime. Neither was able to play cricket for Zimbabwe again. Flower of course went on to be England’s coach-manager, while Olonga received death threats and was branded an “Uncle Tom” by the Zimbabwean government. It was the end of his cricket career. He now lives in Somerset with his Australian wife and children, and still feels unable to return to Zimbabwe. Given that Flower is still employed by the ECB, it would be remarkable if it had condemned Moeen Ali’s gesture.
Ideally most of us would like to see sport and politics kept apart, but, given the importance of sport in the world today, this is frankly impossible. The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, has just called for Fifa to take the 2018 football World Cup away from Russia because of its actions in Ukraine. This won’t happen, unless the situation there becomes much worse, and indeed probably shouldn’t.
In 1980, the US government banned American athletes from taking part in the Moscow Olympics after the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Margaret Thatcher tried to persuade the British Olympic Committee to follow suit. It declined to do so, and, as I recall, left the decision to individual athletes. Almost all went to Moscow and we now remember the Games for the gold medals won by Seb Coe, Steve Ovett and Alan Wells. I am sure that the athletes were right to go.
The most effective sports boycott was that applied to apartheid South Africa. This was controversial for a long time and provoked bitter argument. Those who believed that maintaining sporting links was the best way of encouraging the apartheid regime to modify its racist policies were neither insincere nor hypocritical. I was in that camp for a good many years, and not only because I wanted to see great cricketers like Graeme Pollock and Barry Richards playing Test cricket and the Springbok rugby team touring here. I now think I was wrong, and that the boycott contributed to the eventual collapse of apartheid, certainly more quickly than continued engagement would have done.
The most famous of individual political protests was made by Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medallists in the 200 metres at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968. As they stood on the podium and the American national anthem was played, both bowed their head and raised a black-gloved hand as a demonstration against the racial discrimination still suffered by black people in the USA. (Smith raised his right arm to symbolise power, Carlos his left as a symbol of unity.)
The gesture was met with loud booing, and was condemned by the IOC as “a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit”. Both men were expelled from the American team and the Olympic Village. Both received death threats on their return home. They have since been honoured for their part in promoting the civil rights movement.
It’s a difficult question, this relationship of sport and politics. Nobody can pretend they can be kept separate, and not only because governments – and not only dictatorial ones – see the staging of events like the Olympics and World Cups as a propaganda opportunity. If governments do this, why should individual sportsmen not act in like manner? Yet it is natural that the bodies responsible for international sport should take a dim view of gestures made by individuals. It’s not something about which many of us are likely to be consistent.
We may approve of the Flower-Olonga stand against the barbarities of the Mugabe regime, all the more so because they were protesting against what they saw as the death of democracy in their own country, while being more doubtful of a gesture made against the government of a foreign state. Yet this is illogical. If sport is international, so are human rights. Yet our own judgment is likely to be governed by our own perspective. Would those who approve of Moeen Ali’s gesture be equally supportive of a sportsman who wore a wristband calling on Hamas to stop firing missiles into Israel?