Sports and politics mix: they always have and always will. Anyone who suggests the contrary is in fact making a political statement. Each time the national anthem is played on the sports field, it is a celebration of nationalism. An acutely political act. Players with hands on their hearts singing the national anthem while standing on the medal podium is the most celebrated sight in sport. Nothing can be a more potent symbol of aggressive nationalism. And when you stand in front of the world but don’t sing with billions watching, in an act of silent resistance like Iran did last night, it will stay on as a powerful imagery of peaceful protest, which will be talked about the world over for days on end.
Iran’s gesture from last night was much like Tommy Smith and John Carlos standing on the podium in Mexico 1968 performing the black power salute is one of the most powerful images ever. It was also the strongest political indictment of racism using the Olympic platform. While Smith and Carlos were criticised and banned at the time, they have now been accorded the status of legends of American sport.
India too has had its share of political moments in sport. The standout was the refusal to perform the Hitler salute in front of the German chancellor at the opening ceremony of the 1936 Games. Though the Berlin Games were ultimately to be remembered for the exploits of black American athlete Jesse Owens, whose triumph disproved Nazi theories of Aryan superiority, the Indian decision not to salute Hitler was also a grand gesture of defiance – in sync with the dominant stream of Indian nationalism at the time. The Indians were the only contingent – apart from the Americans – not to perform the raised arm salute as a mark of respect for the tyrannical German chancellor.
Some have asked what will happen to the Iranian footballers when they go back home. How will they be treated by an authoritarian regime for what they did? Will they be pulled up and punished and if so can the world do anything about it?
We don’t have answers to such questions yet. What we can say, however, is none of these men are unaware of the consequences. They know what awaits them. And yet they did what they did. Made a statement in front of the world and attracted global attention. Far more than a win or a loss, this is an act that has endeared the team to many. It shows a kind of courage and resilience that they will need in abundance once they are back home. And it is this courage that will allow them to deal with whatever comes their way.
What the Iranian act from last night has done is it has yet again brought to the fore the point that sport makes room for peaceful protest and draws international attention to things in a manner that few other spheres are able to do. Global events are and will continue to serve as platforms for peaceful protest and will forever be used to make larger political statements.