United on the Mexico podium by their fierce opposition to racism, Tommie Smith, Peter Norman and John Carlos used the medal ceremony for what has become an iconic moment of public protest. Its durability as an image of anti-racism in sport and beyond is testament to the global platform the Olympics provided. Even before satellite TV and digital media, the dignified audacity of the three medal-winners became an overnight world-wide news story.
The Sydney Olympics in 2000 offered another iconic Olympic memory of sport and race. As the twenty-first century began Eric Hobsbawm’s, description of the role of sport in providing a popular expression of national identity amongst the debris of globalisation became increasingly relevant: ‘The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of named people.’ As part of this process a sporting contest can sometimes crystallise social or political changes within a nation. When Cathy Freeman, the Australian Aboriginal sprinter, streaked around the track to win the 400 meters gold medal, kitted out in an all-in-one skin-tight green and gold Lycra suit complete with hood, she was chased every inch of the way by the light of thousands of camera flashes capturing her moment of glory. This was more than an instant of supreme sporting achievement. For Australia’s Aboriginal community it represented recognition and inclusion from the majority white population - however temporary it ultimately proved to be. Inequality, discrimination, racism, and disputes over land rights didn’t disappear just because Cathy was a national heroine. Her success was the exception, not the rule, but for a moment it pointed to a different version of Australia.
These moments of opportunity provided by sport are vital in constructing any kind of progressive conversation around issues of race and nationality. Especially in the wake of London’s 7/7, one day after the city was selected to host the 2012 Games, a caricature of multiculturalism has been used as cover to break with the kind of celebratory diversity that the Olympics bid had seemed, at least for one of those moments, to represent. In Singapore, as the London bid presentation approached its climactic ending, Seb Coe welcomed on stage thirty youngsters, ‘Each from East London, from the communities who will be touched most directly by our Games. Thanks to London’s multicultural mix of 200 nations, they also represent the youth of the world...’ And what a mix too. ‘Their families have come from every continent. They practice every religion and every faith.’ Was there any box in the table of diversity these kids didn’t tick? It was a compelling image of London as a global city. But this was a flimsy populism, a kind of corporate multiculturalism, a presentation of a cosy team picture of unity through diversity which obscured the realities of representation.
As he paraded the youngsters ‘representing’ London across the Singapore stage it might have been useful to ask Coe, or even the kids themselves, a few questions: What was it like living in and growing up in Tower Hamlets, Newham and Hackney, among the poorest boroughs in the city? What jobs did their parents have, if they had jobs at all? What opportunities in terms of health, education and housing could they look forward to? How confident were any of them that they and their families would be able to afford the tickets to watch the Games they were on the stage to promote?
The forces of integration and difference reflect a set of power relations and consequential resistance which, like the national identities they help to define, are always in motion. These help to portray the ways in which all national identities are never entirely fixed but a process in motion. Sport plays its part, a very important part, in this process, but its role is partial and over-hyped at the expense of examining why the black athletes who represent Britain on the pitch, in the ring, or on the running track are not replicated in anything resembling equal numbers on Trade Union executives, or on the front benches, or on the committees that run sport’s governing bodies.
Writer on race and sport Dan Burdsey provides a poignant and powerful observation of how the racialisation of sport is often experienced. Apart from the athletes on the track, ‘You will often see a significant presence of minority ethnic people in the stadium: they will be directing you to your seat or serving your refreshments. The racialised historical antecedents, and continuing legacy, of these roles - entertaining or serving the white folk - should not be lost within the contemporary clamour of positivity.’ An Olympic Park built at the epicentre of three of Britain’s most multicultural boroughs which is experienced in this way will expose much of the inclusion and exclusion which persist in our society, or at least it should if anybody cares to notice.
Mark Perryman is the author of the forthcoming Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be available at a pre-publication 15% discount now from www.orbooks.com/catalog/olympics/