Five great sporting moments in the arena of justice and freedom

All of a society’s activities mirror that society. This ranges from literature to education to what gets produced in films and theatres. But perhaps one activity that mirrors a society to an even greater extent than others is sport.

All of a society’s activities mirror that society. This ranges from literature to education to what gets produced in films and theatres. But perhaps one activity that mirrors a society to an even greater extent than others is sport.  

Sports teams often seem to embody the communities, cities, or countries they represent, or at least some idealized version of it.  

Consider the Springboks – during apartheid they were almost the physical manifestation of the South African state, a group of big, dour men who ground their opponents into dust. After South Africa became a democracy, the Springboks changed, and instead they have become increasingly diverse, representing the best of what South Africa can be, people from very different backgrounds working together to overcome adversity and achieve something of greatness. 

And while sport not only mirrors the society in which it exists it can also be used as an outlet for political expression. Sportsmen and women have often used their platforms to raise awareness of injustices and bring the attention of the world to show where liberty is under threat.  

Here are five times when sports people stood up for liberty. 

1. South African cricket walk-off of 1971 

At the end of the 1960s South African sport was under pressure. Growing international outrage around apartheid meant that there were increasing calls for South African sportspeople to be isolated. The 1960 Olympics in Tokyo were the last time that a South African team competed in the tournament until 1992, after the South African Olympic committee was expelled by the International Olympic Committee.  

South Africa’s national football federation had also been kicked out of FIFA, the game’s global governing body, for prohibiting mixed-race teams from representing South Africa. 

Rugby and cricket were two sports whose international relations were fairly normal, given South Africa’s race madness (although, for example, the South African cricket side only played against the ‘white’ Commonwealth, and the All Blacks rugby team did not select Maoris so as to not offend apartheid sensibilities). 

By the end of the 1960s pressure was growing on the international cricket community to ostracise South Africa because of apartheid. England had been due to tour South Africa in the 1968/69 season but this was cancelled due to the selection of Basil d’Oliveira, a South African-born coloured cricketer.

 D’Oliveira had left South Africa for England, as racial discrimination was hampering his cricketing ambitions. He soon forced his way into the England team and made his debut in 1966. Despite giving a good account of himself in the 1968 English season against the touring Australians, he was not selected for the subsequent South African tour. However, an injury to another player, Tom Cartwright, saw D’Oliveira selected in his place. A spanner in the cricketing works was that D’Oliveira’s selection was unacceptable to the South African authorities, with Prime Minister John Vorster famously saying the team had been selected by the anti-apartheid movement rather than the English authorities. 

The incident led to hardening attitudes against South Africa and this was effectively when the country’s cricketing isolation began, with South Africa’s tour of England being cancelled. Australia toured South Africa in 1970 – the next time South Africa played an official international match was against India in 1991. 

South Africa was scheduled to tour Australia in the 1971/72 season. Prior to the tour there were growing concerns that it could be marred by anti-apartheid protests, as had been case during the 1970 Springbok rugby tour of Australia and there was growing unease among Australia’s cricket authorities about South Africa’s racial policies. 

As a way of salvaging the tour the South African Cricket Association (SACA), the governing body for (white) cricket at the time, said it supported the selection of two players of colour, for the Australian tour (something which the apartheid government rejected). 

South Africa’s top cricketers also supported the move. As part of this protest, in a match between Transvaal and the Rest of South Africa in April 1971, after the first ball was bowled (by Mike Proctor to Barry Richards) the batsmen and all the fielders walked off the field. A statement by the players was handed to the South African Cricket Association, the governing body for (white) cricket which read: ‘We fully support the South African Cricket Association’s application to invite non-whites to tour Australia, if they are good enough; and further subscribe to merit being the only criterion on the cricket field.’ 

Reacting to the protest, The Age, an Australian newspaper said: ‘Surely no one will be surprised that the Springboks, against the wishes of the South African Cricket Association, are to be kept lily-white. This is a logical extension of the ugly and immoral doctrine of apartheid. And surely no advocates of sporting ties with South Africa will tell the tour’s critics to “keep politics out of sport.”’ 

Some will argue that this was simply a self-interested move by South Africa’s cricketers to protect their international careers. This may be so, but the move to stand up against a racist and immoral government was also a brave one and possibly reflected the growing realisation among some white South Africans of the immorality and evil of apartheid. 

2. Zimbabwe’s black armband protest 

During the 1990s Zimbabwean democracy found itself increasingly under threat as it faced attacks from President Robert Mugabe and his Zimbabwe Africa National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). Although there had been a number of human rights abuses since he had come to power in 1980 (notably the Gukurahundi, which saw 20 000 Ndebele Zimbabweans killed in the early 1980s) the world began increasingly to take notice of Mugabe’s tyrannical bent in the 1990s.  

As opposition to his rule increased – notably through the formation of the Movement for Democratic Change – Mugabe’s authoritarian tendencies increased, along with poor economic decisions which saw Zimbabwe’s economy crumble. Farms owned by white people were seized and violence by the government against political opponents became commonplace. 

With this as a backdrop, the 2003 Cricket World Cup was held in Africa for the first time, with most games being in South Africa. However, all Zimbabwe’s group games would be at home, with two of Kenya’s fixtures in Nairobi. 

In Zimbabwe’s first match, against Namibia, captain Andy Flower (and widely regarded as Zimbabwe’s greatest-ever cricketer) came out to bat wearing a black armband. Henry Olonga, the first black person to play cricket for Zimbabwe also wore a black armband. The two had decided to wear the armbands to protest the continued attacks on democracy and human rights by the government.  

The two were the only players to wear black armbands and no other players, with the exception of one teammate (Flower’s brother, Grant), were aware prior to the match of the protest. The pair had also decided that the symbolism of a black Zimbabwean and a white Zimbabwean standing up together against tyranny would be important. 

They released a statement after the game which read, in part: ‘In all the circumstances, we have decided that we will each wear a black armband for the duration of the World Cup. In doing so we are mourning the death of democracy in our beloved Zimbabwe. In doing so we are making a silent plea to those responsible to stop the abuse of human rights in Zimbabwe. In doing so, we pray that our small action may help to restore sanity and dignity to our nation.’ 

At subsequent games a number of people in the attending crowds followed the lead of Olonga and Flower and wore black armbands. 

Olonga, especially, came in for heavy criticism from the government, with a government minister, Jonathan Moyo, calling him an ‘Uncle Tom’. Olonga was also reportedly charged with treason, a crime that carries the death sentence in Zimbabwe. 

Neither Olonga nor Flower played for Zimbabwe again after the tournament, with both leaving the country. Flower has gone into cricket coaching while Olonga was recently seen on an Australian television singing competition. 

3. Raised fist salute at the 1968 Olympics 

The 1960s was a turbulent time for much of the world. In Africa and Asia decolonisation was continuing apace while war raged in Vietnam. At the same time, in the Western world the generation of people born immediately after World War II were coming of age, and demanding change, particularly in the United States, where this clash of generations was exacerbated by protests against the Vietnam War, and by the civil rights movement. 

Against this background two American athletes, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, decided to make a political statement at the 1968 Olympic Games, held in Mexico City. In the 200m dash Smith came first, with Carlos coming in third. Australian Peter Norman came second. 

To raise awareness around racial injustice and poverty in the US, the two American athletes decided to attend the medal ceremony with no shoes, but wearing black socks. 

They had also planned to each raise a right fist, clad in a black glove. However, Carlos forgot his gloves, so he wore Smith’s left-hand glove, a suggestion made by Australian Norman. 

To boos from the crowd, the two raised their fists and bowed their heads while the US anthem, the Star-Spangled Banner played. 

The two athletes were expelled from the Games and received much criticism when they returned to the United States; they and their families received death threats and were largely ostracised by the American sporting community. There was also a backlash in Australia for Norman, who was also not selected for the 1972 Olympics, despite managing the qualifying time. 

However, in the years since, Smith and Carlos have been largely rehabilitated and their brave actions acknowledged. 

Some will argue that Smith and Carlos’s actions are similar to those of American football player Colin Kaepernick, who was famously one of the first high-profile athletes to ‘take the knee’. Although both protests were ostensibly against racial injustice, Kaepernick’s cause is largely one accepted by the American and global establishment while Smith and Carlos were going against acceptable mainstream opinion. Carlos and Smith’s protest also came at a time when black Americans faced real injustices and in the same year that George Wallace, the governor of Alabama, won 14% of the vote in the US Presidential election, running on an explicitly racist platform. 

4. Bruce Fordyce at the 1981 Comrades Marathon 

Bruce Fordyce is one of South Africa’s greatest long-distance runners, having won the Comrades Marathon nine times between 1981 and 1990 (having come second in 1980). He also held records for the fastest man over 50 miles and 100 km. 

In the year in which Fordyce won his first Comrades, 1981, he decided to wear a black armband while running the race to protest against apartheid, as well as express his disagreement with the apartheid government’s exploiting the event as part of the 20th anniversary of the apartheid republic. The Comrades used to be held on 31 May, celebrated as South Africa’s national day prior to 1994, first commemorating Union in 1910, and subsequently the country’s becoming a republic in 1961, long a goal of Afrikaner nationalists. 

Fordyce had first planned to boycott the race because of the plans to link it to the republic’s anniversary, but subsequently decided to compete with the black armband. 

During the race Fordyce was booed for wearing the armband and was also pelted with rotten tomatoes. Despite this he still won and declared the wearing of the armband as ‘one of the proudest moments in my life’. 

5. Muhammad Ali refusal to serve in Vietnam 

Muhammad Ali is acknowledged as one of the greatest boxers that has ever lived. However, his pugilism was not restricted to the boxing ring. 

During the Vietnam War, Ali was conscripted in 1967 to serve in the South-East Asian country. Already the world heavyweight champion, Ali said he would not serve in the army as it was against the teachings of Islam, a religion he had converted to some years before. 

Said Ali: ‘Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?’ 

As a result, Ali was stripped of his boxing titles, fined, and sentenced to five years in prison for evading the draft. 

He remained out of prison while appealing his sentence. In 1971 his conviction was dismissed on a technicality and Ali was free to carry on with his boxing career.