Australian Open
The Australian Open quarterfinal match between Canada’s Denis Shapovalov and Spain’s Rafael Nadal at the Melbourne Park, Australia, on January 25, 2022. Image Credit: Reuters

Australian Open 2022 is back in the news. First, it was Novak Djokovic’s revoked visa that hogged the headlines. And now slogans on Peng Shuai have grabbed the attention after security staff at the Melbourne Park confiscated a banner and T-shirts bearing the slogan: “Where Is Peng Shuai?”

Chinese tennis star Peng has been in the news since she reportedly accused an official of sexually assaulting her in the past. Her prolonged absence followed by sporadic appearances in public became a concern among the global tennis community, which is why the slogans surfaced at the Australian Open.

Slogans and statements have always appeared in stadiums. Most of the time, they are in support of players or the teams. But when they take on a political or a social hue, sports officials have a problem. They have been swift to crack down; some careers have ended when athletes have made statements that ruffled feathers.

Why sport scoffs at political statements

Why is that? Officials are prickly when it comes to provocative matters. So over the years, sport and politics have had an uneasy relationship. All sports organisations have banned players and spectators from making political statements. But is the slogan on Peng a political statement? Former women’s tennis number one Martina Navratilova doesn’t seem to think so.

What about “Black Lives Matter”? It’s definitely not a political statement. That’s why most sports teams worldwide take the knee before a game. But when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem at the start of National Football League games to protest police brutality and racial inequality in the United States, it sparked a storm. He never played again.

In 2014, English cricketer Moeen Ali was banned from wearing “Free Palestine” and “Save Gaza” armbands by the International Cricket Conference. The ICC said their regulations prevent displaying “political, religious or racial activities or causes during an international match”.

Politics and the Olympic spirit

Perhaps the most enduring image of a protest at a sporting event is the Black Power salute at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists at the podium and were expelled from the Games.

A rule in the Olympic Charter reads: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” But strangely, the Olympics have been the scene of numerous protests, political and otherwise.

In 1908, Ireland boycotted the London Games at Britain’s refusal to grant independence. Decades later, 62 countries led by the United States boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In retaliation, four years later, the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact nations abstained from participating in the 1984 Los Angeles Games. So much for the Olympic spirit.

There are many more instances of athletes using sport to convey messages against political and social injustices. That’s because sport offers a global platform to express their talent, and in their moment of triumph, sportspersons feel compelled to tell the world their feelings. They also know that the world’s attention is on them, with television cameras trained on them — the best time to get the message across.

The problem is all sports organisations frown upon such practices. Political statements can harm bilateral relations of countries, and protests can also impact sponsorships. That’s why the organisers come down heavily on protesters.

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It brings us to the question: Should political and social statements and messages be allowed in stadiums? I think they should be kept away from sporting arenas. Sport should remain unadulterated. For it’s a test of skill between players, a contest that brings abundant joy to a legion of supporters. Any distraction would diminish the quality of the competition and its enjoyment. Let’s keep it true.

This is not to say that we should turn a blind eye to social and political injustices. I do back taking the knee. It’s now done with the organisers’ consent so that it doesn’t affect the game. It also shows what the sports fraternity is behind the cause. Not just one sportsman. I guess that’s the way to go.

Besides, there are other platforms to bring issues to the attention of the world. That doesn’t include the Melbourne Park.

Now, let’s enjoy tennis.