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Sport put to the test by the politicization of athletes

Manchester United players wave the Ukrainian flag ahead of their match against Manchester City on March 6 in Manchester.

“Coubertin’s sport is dead and buried, the fiction of his apoliticism is behind us”, says Jean-Michel De Weale, professor of political science at the Free University of Brussels. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), the main defender of this doctrine, has itself abandoned it, endorsing the unprecedented wave of sanctions against Russian sport immediately after the outbreak of war in Ukraine.

However, many athletes did not wait for this blank check to express themselves on the conflict, confirming that their commitments are at the heart of a “repoliticization” world sport already sensitive in 2021 with the controversies surrounding the Euro football championship – UEFA had refused the illumination of the Munich stadium in the colors of the rainbow planned to protest against a Hungarian law deemed homophobic – and the case around Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai. How did they get out of the reserve that has long been imposed on them?

Read also Euro 2021: UEFA refuses the illumination of the Munich stadium in rainbow colors for Germany-Hungary

A few historical precedents have certainly remained in the collective memory, precisely because of their exceptional character… and the banishments they have caused, such as the raised fist of African-American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the 200-meter podium. at the 1968 Olympics.

The advent of the era of globalized spectator sport later reinforced the prohibition of political messages in sports arenas. When, for example, footballer Robbie Fowler expressed his support for the striking Liverpool dockers in March 1997, showing a message under his jersey after a goal in the European Cup, he was fined by UEFA.

The shift marked by Black Lives Matter

This had included in its regulations the prohibition of any political message after the Swiss selection, during a match against Sweden in September 1995, had unfurled a banner “Stop it, Chirac” to protest against French nuclear tests in the Pacific.

“The novelty today is that the athletes who take a stand are heard, even supported and relayed, in any case they are no longer sanctioned”, notes Carole Gomez, director of research at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations. In 2017, American football star Colin Kaepernick, blacklisted by NFL teams (the North American professional league)had again paid a high price for his commitment against racism and police violence.

Read also: Colin Kaepernick and the NFL: an agreement that suits everyone

Three years later, thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, many American athletes took up his knee-down gesture and forced the professional leagues to join the mobilization. “Black Lives Matter marked a shift that has spread across Europe. The world of sport, in view of its own values, can hardly reject a movement against racism, homophobia or poverty.notes Jean-Michel De Waele.

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