Ethics is an esoteric science, making us forget the importance of ordinariness. Discussion of ethics suffers from half- truths, if not outright falsehoods. A trope like Good versus Evil is the easy debate, but reality is in between. Translate this into inter-state conduct, and we find that the Idealism versus Realism discussion has exhausted itself. As V.S. Naipaul said in his novel A Bend in the River, the world is as it is. For new meanings, we might be better off looking right before our eyes.
Sport is that something, right before us. It is not philosophy. Indeed, it is a form of international relations, just as political exchanges, trade and cultural interaction are. Discussion of international relations usually skips sport because it is viewed as recreational rather than an activity with a mathematical win-loss outcome, and even with a bearing on inter-state relations. If national players engage in an international sporting event, aren’t they doing what diplomats do, promoting the nation’s international standing?
But how is sport connected with ethics in international relations? Consider gender or racial discrimination in sport. There is a morality in play here. Sportsmen face formidable odds in overcoming discrimination based upon the accident of birth. Would not their victory, regardless of their origin, constitute the triumph of a superior morality? In other words, is it not possible to introduce the notion of ethics in the discussion of sport, as something more than a power dance between highly motivated contestants?
Gender discrimination in sport is so widespread as to create serial frustration and heart-break. In the Hindi film Chak De India, a selection team mocks the Indian women’s hockey team as pedestrian, and only concedes its World Cup participation after the team draws a game against a men’s team. The men redeem themselves by raising their hockey sticks in salute to the female bravehearts. Such films consolidate India’s soft power influence, and in so doing, promote ethics in the broader international system.
Hockey is the sociologist’s delight, a stellar example of liberal internationalism. It rises above gender and race. There is no known racial slur in hockey, and players from different nationalities have formed a code of behaviour that is a beacon light to other sports. The Hockey India League has been a unifier in this trend, where established and inexperienced players from different nationalities rub shoulders, cutting across gender and race. German player Moritz Furste said: “It is not only because of the money, but also skill-wise as it (the Hockey India League) has widened our personal horizon.”
But sport can also carry the taint of not being ethical. Gender and racial discrimination are the usual culprits. Even after winning the World Cup, the Japanese women’s soccer team travelled economy class for the 2012 London Olympics while the men’s team travelled business class. The Australian men’s basketball team, that had never won an Olympic medal, travelled business class to London while the women’s team, even after having won silver medals in the previous three Olympics, travelled by premier economy class. Do such attitudes promote Japan and Australia as sporting role models?
As women get the measure of men, we are witnessing political correctness, fence-mending, and even genuine change. Cam Vale, Chief Executive Officer of Hockey Australia, said: “Whether you’re a Kookaburra or a Hockeyroo, when it comes to basic terms and principles in how we remunerate our athletes it’s exactly the same.” This is a fine advertisement of affirmative action for gender equality.
Sport is a good platform to protest racial discrimination. We do not have to fulminate from a UN podium to draw attention to racial slurs or human rights violations. If the protesting sportsperson has won a medal through ethical means, as stalwart Olympians do, the impact of the protest is global, and transformative.
Recall that, in 1967, boxing champion Muhammed Ali had refused to join the Vietnam War, saying “War is against the teachings of the Koran.” Ali was convicted, lost his boxing titles and went to jail. He went on to become an American hero and an example of the nation’s soft power.
At the 1968 Mexico Olympics, American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in black power salutes at the medal ceremony, and were sent home. In 2016, in a game against Green Bay Packers, San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the U.S. national anthem: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Their sacrifices did not go in vain, and they won admiration. This is a pure and altruistic form of ethics in international relations, giving a second wind to the struggle for racial equality.
Such protests have softened racial prejudice and made ordinary people bandwagon with inclusion. But it is a work in progress. At times, when prejudice bubbles over, we might wish to wear filters, or become momentarily colour-blind.
Racial abuse has infuriated and frustrated black soccer players. In cricket, the West Indies team of the 1980s was so good that it became difficult to throw racial taunts at it. Other cricketing contests have taken racial turns. Remember the confrontation between Dennis Lillee and Javed Miandad, or John Snow poking his elbow at Sunil Gavaskar, or Harbhajan Singh’s alleged “monkeygate” abuse of Australian mixed-race player Andrew Symonds?
In our obsession with power and skill in television-led Kabuki, we forget that sport is never just about sport. It is about identity, ethics, empowerment, patriotism and honour, and something as prosaic as survival. If we add to this machismo and xenophobia, we get the picture of sport as full-spectrum. This makes gender and race important areas of enquiry in their own right, beyond the sporting aspects. Link this to international relations, and we open up new meanings to what we are.