Fed up with the mainstream media? Support radical, challenging, independent media instead! Subscribe to Red Pepper · Close this message

Race to the Line

With John Carlos, one of the Mexico ‘68 podium protesters, on a speaking tour of Britain, Mark Perryman describes the continuing clash of race and the Games
24 May 2012

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/




10 ways to support Red Pepper

Whether you've been subscribed to Red Pepper for the last 20 years or have just found us, here are some simple ways you can help boost our impact.

Caring, survival and justice, versus the tyranny of the market

This weekend The International Women's Conference takes place in London

Save Shaker Aamer – his freedom announced but still not home

Shaker Aamer, held in Guantanamo for 14 years, needs support at this extremely tense time as he awaits release, writes Becky Lawrence

Ireland: Water protesters face jail as political policing ramps up

Ireland's movement against water charges is being criminalised by a nervous state, writes Oliver Eagleton

gerry oates 25 May 2012, 12.26

I was worried that Kathy Freeman was carrying too much expectation upon her shoulders and have read her accounts of that race showing that she felt all that burden at the time but she won through nevertheless with one of our own athletes joining her on the podium,Katherine Merry.I enjoyed the smile of relief as she crossed the line in third place and this gave me a great deal of pleasure to see her achieve so much.
So the athletes perform and the dark corners of exclusion and discrimination remain.Recall the tennis player Yvonne Goolagong – it was only after her plying career was over that she became aware of her native heritage and from then on se worked hard to bring the benefits of sport to the youth of the aboriginal nation.
Corporate sponsorship seems to be an insidious component of the modern Games.Many big brands hope to make a killing while breathless commentators wish the public to emotionally respond to the travels of the Olympic torch “scarcely one hour’s journey”from everyone in the nation.
I do quiver -because I imagine it going through Essex where six months ago the police violently evicted 83 families from their own land at Dale Farm at a cost which might have built a small sports stadium

Mark 25 May 2012, 21.08

Thanks. The Torch relay reveals the potential of the Games as a truly popular-democratic event. Why not allow hundres, thousands to follow the torch bearer walking and running the highways and byways as it criss crosses the country. Yet none of that happens, the crowds kept to the kerbsides, and this is supposed to be an invent to inspire participation! The Olympics combines overblown expectation and cronic lack of ambition. It could have been so much better… which is the theme of my book.

Mark P

Comments are now closed on this article.

Red Pepper · 44-48 Shepherdess Walk, London N1 7JP · +44 (0)20 7324 5068 · office[at]redpepper.org.uk
Advertise · Press · Donate
For subscriptions enquiries please email subs@redpepper.org.uk