There are many who believe that sport and politics should not mix and yet history is littered with examples.
Take the Olympic Games alone.
We have seen the legendary Jesse Owens winning four gold medals in Berlin striking a blow to Adolf Hitler’s vision of Aryan supremacy; Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists to highlight inequality in the United States in Mexico City in 1968; and boycotts denying athletes the opportunity to compete at the Olympic Games most recently in Moscow in 1980 and Los Angeles four years later.
Politicians have long basked in the glory of national sporting success. Bob Hawke, the former Australian Prime Minister, essentially gave the nation a day off after Australia II remarkably won the America’s Cup in 1983 and Ireland celebrated for days amid the fervour that surrounded Katie Taylor’s London 2012 gold medal win in the Women’s Boxing, to mention just two examples.
The International Olympic Committee states in its Charter that “The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.
“The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Olympic Charter shall be secured without discrimination of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”
Sport gives individuals, communities and nations the opportunity to break down barriers, to forge new relationships and promote the principles of respect, teamwork and fair play that sit at the heart of sport’s raison d'être.
So is it any wonder that sporting icons have been at the forefront of criticism of United States President Donald Trump, who signed an executive order which bans nationals from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entering the U.S?
Among those who have spoken out, it is the criticism by Sir Mo Farah, winner of four Olympic gold medals, who was born in Somalia before coming to Great Britain when he was eight, which has caused much embarrassment to the White House.
Sir Mo originally thought that he may be banned from returning to his training base in Portland, Oregon, which turned out not to be the case after the Foreign Office clarified the situation.
In his statement, Sir Mo said: “On January 1 this year, Her Majesty The Queen made me a Knight of the Realm. On January 27, President Donald Trump seems to have made me an alien.
“I am a British citizen who has lived in America for the past six years – working hard, contributing to society, paying my taxes and bringing up our four children in the place they now call home. Now, me and many others like me are being told that we may not be welcome.
“It’s deeply troubling that I will have to tell my children that Daddy might not be able to come home - to explain why the President has introduced a policy that comes from a place of ignorance and prejudice.
“I was welcomed into Britain from Somalia at eight years old and given the chance to succeed and realise my dreams. I have been proud to represent my country, win medals for the British people and receive the greatest honour of a knighthood. My story is an example of what can happen when you follow policies of compassion and understanding, not hate and isolation.”
Farah’s main sponsor, Nike, also condemned the order with CEO Mark Parker stating: “Nike believes in a world where everyone celebrates the power of diversity. Regardless of whether or how you worship, where you come from or who you love, everyone's individual experience is what makes us stronger as a whole.”
Nike, remember, is one of the biggest brands in the world. It has the power to communicate to audiences that politicians just cannot reach, including young people passionate about sport and fashion.
Los Angeles, bidding for the 2024 Olympic Games, may also be compromised by President Trump’s executive order, so it was understandable that LA mayor Eric Garcetti, who has become a face of the bid, stated: “Los Angeles will always be a place of refuge, where the most vulnerable people fleeing war, or religious or political oppression, can find a safe and welcoming home.”
But it isn’t just from within the Olympic world that criticism has come.
U.S. Soccer captain Michael Bradley expressed his shock, saying that he was “sad and embarrassed… the Muslim ban is just the latest example of someone who couldn’t be more out of touch with our country and the right way to move forward.”
NBA stars including Luol Deng and Thon Maker were born in Sudan while there are many other Muslims who are concerned about the precedent this order sets.
Brooklyn Nets’ Rondae Hollis-Jefferson told the New York Post: “You can’t judge a whole group by one’s actions at the end of the day. You can’t speak for all Muslims, because all Muslims’ hearts aren’t like that. Most of them are pure, really believe in a different way and a different livelihood.”
Why do the views of sporting icons matter?
Perhaps they should be no more relevant than those of anyone else.
But the fact that they have become dominant voices as the situation unfolds once again undermines the power of sport to transcend national and international barriers in a way little else does.
The general population often takes more notice of athletes, sports sponsors and brands, and sports organisations than they do of politicians whose agenda they distrust.
Whether such vocal criticism prompts President Trump to review his position remains to be seen, but the worldwide outcry has certainly been well-served by the ire from the world of sport.