(A)political Games

This article first appeared in Farrago (Issue 5, 2012). Every issue, my column “Life S’port” will tackle a different sporting concept.

In South Africa, you can learn a lot about the nation’s racial dynamics by watching sport. At least that’s what I did when I visited the country three years ago; I tended to skip the monotonous museums and head straight for the crowded stadiums instead.

My first experience at a South African rugby match will almost definitely be my last; there was something unnerving about sitting among a homogenous collective of giant Anglo-Saxons with thick Afrikaans accents. There was so much testosterone flying around that afternoon that I returned to my hostel with a hairy chest.

My trip to the football – the European kind, that is – was just as intimidating. Not only was I the whitest member of the audience, but as the only person without a vuvuzela I was also the quietest. Scared for my safety, I spent the duration of the match with one eye on my hip pocket and the other on the clock, impatiently waiting for the 90th minute to strike.

The most diverse crowd I came across was at the cricket. While the audience predominantly consisted of Indians and Aussie expats, the game still managed to draw significant groups of both black and white fans. Together they were united by a common cause: cheering against Australia.

There were no surreal scenes of black and white hands grasping one another in harmony. But for a country whose grand contribution to the 20th century was a nationwide policy of discrimination based on skin colour, this was progress.

Such progress not only speaks volumes about the magic of cricket, but reveals the potential power of sport in general. As much as sport can divide populations and incite savage tribalism, it can also mend wounds or, at the least, shrug parties free of political tension.

Who said the Olympics weren’t political?

Sport can be a force for both good and evil. And there’s no better testament to that than the Olympics.

When the Ancient Greeks concocted the competition 3000 years ago, it was branded as an apolitical event. To ensure the safety of athletes, competing nations called a lunch break on their wars, legal disputes and death penalties.

The Olympics thus gave rise to civilised behaviour, if we’re to excuse the fact that show-pony athletes competed naked, fans participated in drunken orgies and a sport known as pankration was considered normal. Google it.

These days the Olympics have a bit of everything. Every four years, 200 nations come together, each determined to get their hands on the valuable natural resources of gold, silver and bronze. What could possibly go wrong?

A summary of contemporary Olympiad history reads like a 20th century textbook. All the classic narratives of the era – from civil rights movements to global wars to technological innovations (read performance-enhancing drugs) – are reflected in the carnival’s unintentional political narratives.

Most notably, the United States and the Soviet Union – both concerned about a lack of international attention – temporarily turned the athletics field into a battlefield. Their mutual hate for one another brought boycotts back into vogue, making the Olympics about as apolitical as Gina Rinehart.

Yet for all the unfortunate conflicts the Olympics have inherited from the world at large, the international competition occasionally feeds us with inspirational highlights.

Korean athletes march under a united flag (Guardian).

I think of North and South Korea marching under a Unification Flag at the 2000 and 2004 Games. Cynics might have considered it an artificial gesture. But it was a step in the right direction, even if it was only to educate the Northerners that not everyone marches with dead-set precision.

Moreover, there’s something wonderful about watching athletes from hostile nations shake hands before an Olympic event. Sure, they may be kicking each other in the face or wrestling one another to the ground within seconds, but their fighting is all conducted in the name of peace.

Then there’s the intrinsic joy for poverty-laden underdogs. Who doesn’t get excited when nations like Togo pick up bronze medals in kayak slalom? On the overall medal tally, such a result is negligible. But the collective ecstasy the award brings to nations more synonymous with corruption than competition is immeasurable.

These tear-jerking moments are perhaps nothing more than misleading teasers, but they momentarily offer us the prospect of utopia. They let us live vicariously as naive Miss World contestants, affirming the possibility of world peace.

It’s impossible to predict what brand of Olympic spirit London will bring. Already the ostensible similarities between the “2012” logo and the word “Zion” have got Iran a bit hot and bothered, but as of yet there have been no boycotts staged or bans implemented. Relatively speaking, I’d consider that a good start.

With the likes of Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Israel/USA competing in this year’s event, there will be more than a few match-ups worth watching. But for the sake of humanity, let’s hope sport is the real winner in 2012.