The Power Of Sport To Bring About Political Change

Hakeem al-Araibi’s case shows how sport can act as a strong uniting force for good.

When Hakeem al-Araibi was freed last week after 76 days in a Thai prison, it was a victory for justice. And that victory came about largely through pressure from the international football community.

With former Socceroo captain turned sports broadcaster Craig Foster leading the charge, pressure came to bear on politicians in Australia, Thailand and Bahrain to free the refugee footballer.

And this week, there was an emotional moment when Hakeem resumed training with his local Melbourne team, Pascoe Vale, which Craig described as illustrating how sport can become a family.

Many people say that sport and politics shouldn’t mix. But in fact sport has a long history of bringing about change and shedding light on political situations.

At the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, US athlete Jesse Owens won four track and field gold medals, setting three world records. It was a slap in the face to Hitler’s claims of Aryan superiority which the dictator was hoping the Olympics would prove.

Jesse Owens takes gold over Germany's Lutz Long in the long jump at the 1936 Olympics
Jesse Owens takes gold over Germany's Lutz Long in the long jump at the 1936 Olympics

In 1968 in Mexico City, another world-shaking Olympic podium moment occurred, when Tommy Smith and John Carlos raised their fists to salute the fight for civil rights. Australian silver medallist Peter Norman wore a badge in quiet solidarity.

Norman, Smith and Carlos accept their 200 metre medals in Mexico City
Norman, Smith and Carlos accept their 200 metre medals in Mexico City

In the 1970s and 1980s, a long-running sports boycott on playing against South Africa, in sports including cricket and rugby, as well as the Olympics, was a key factor in the dismantling of the racist apartheid system.

Of course despite all the breakthroughs, the fight against racism remains a present-day battle. In the last couple of years, Colin Kaepernick, quarterback with NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, sent shockwaves as far as Trump’s White House for “taking a knee” rather than standing for the national anthem, drawing attention to police brutality.

And sport has also helped tackle issues of sexism. Billie Jean King’s threat to boycott the US Open led to equal pay which has since spread throughout the tennis world.

While in Australia, would the AFLW be the huge success it is today if not due to trailblazers like Sal Rees, who in 1995 entered the AFL men’s draft?

But as FIFA’s lukewarm response to Hakeem’s plight showed, a common theme is that it takes individual sports people to courageously fight to bring about change, while sporting organisations are often found dragging their feet.

On the flip side, when organisations do take a stand, like the NRL’s support of White Ribbon Day, individual players can often undermine the message through their own bad behaviour.

But at its best, the ideals of determination and achievement which underpin sporting achievements can break down barriers and shed a light on our common humanity.

Craig Foster will be a guest host on The Project tonight.