The Mexico ‘68 podium protest remains one of the most iconic protests against racism sport has ever produced. MARK PERRYMAN author of a forthcoming book on the Olympics reviews the dynamic of race at London 2012.
On 6 July 2007, our TV screens, along with every other available media outlet, were splattered with the joyful incredulity that London would host the biggest global sporting event of all. Twenty-fours later the celebrations were brought to an abrupt halt by the dawning realisation that 9/11 and the consequences of the ensuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had come home with our own 7/7. Bombs exploded across the capital’s transport network with the kind of death and bloody carnage not seen since the IRA bombing campaign of a generation ago.
In the wake of 9/11 there had been plenty of loud voices which barely concealed their distrust of a Muslim community they had decided was at best in denial of their collective responsibility for the horrific assault on the Twin Towers or at worst found guilty by association of faith, race, or both. Now those voices became raised in an all-out assault on multicultural Britain which just a day before the London bombings had been at the very core of the city’s case for hosting the Olympics.
In the Daily Telegraph veteran commentator W.F.Deedes accused post-war Britain of a “belief in the blessing of a multiracial society, left free to hold whatever allegiances it pleased.” Meanwhile Gordon Brown gave a speech that set out what was to become one of the core themes of his short-lived Premiership, the case for Britishness, “ We are waking from a once-fashionable view of multiculturalism, which, by emphasising the separate and the exclusive, simply pushed communities apart. Multiculturalism became an excuse for justifying separateness, and then separateness became a tolerance of – and all too often a defence of – even greater exclusivity.”
From left and right a caricature of multiculturalism was used as cover to break with the kind of celebratory diversity that the Olympics bid had seemed, at least for at least a moment, to represent. In Singapore, as the London bid presentation approached its climactic ending Seb Coe had 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. Many observers declared that it was this piece of theatre that gave London the final edge over Paris. Seb had even added a perhaps risky dig at the delegates when he introduced the children with, “ Why are so many here, taking the place of businessmen and politicians? ” But this was a flimsy populism, a kind of corporate multiculturalism, a presentation of a cosy team picture of unity through diversity which obscures the realities of representation. Of course sport can act as a popular starting point for a conversation on race and national identity, but if that is the beginning, middle and end of our understanding of racism then the as the political and cultural fallout from the events of 7/7 was to proved soon after that it doesn’t take us very far. does it?
As he paraded the youngsters ‘representing’ London across the Singapore stage it might have been too much 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 they could they look forward to? How confident were any of them were that they and their families would be able to afford the tickets to watch the Games they were on the stage to promote? Such inquiries would certainly have have told us more about the realities of life in contemporary GB than the shallow youthful photo-opportunity on offer provided.
Without this kind of careful unpicking of patterns of exclusion and inclusion, sport’s symbolism remains precisely that, a symbol of little or no effective substance. And thus Prime Minister Cameron can very publicly embrace the important role of London’s global mix in the Olympic bid while declaring “We have allowed the weakening of our collective identity. Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream.”
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 how the black athlete who represent Britain on the pitch, in the ring, or on the race round a track, are not replicated in anything resembling equal numbers to represent Britain 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 poignantly 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, 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 GB’s most multicultural boroughs which is experienced in this way will expose much of the inclusions and exclusion which persist in our society, or at least it should if anyone cares to notice.
So long as sport is presented as a conveniently accessible symbol of multiculturalism, with the added advantage of increasing our chances of getting on the medal-winning podium, a constructive dialogue on race and national identity has at least the chance of beginning. But it will stop pretty soon after unless these awkward and painful structures of power which underpin racism are also addressed. This is what Tommie Smith, Peter Norman and John Carlos as they stood on the medal-winners podium after the Mexico ‘68 Olympic 200m spotlighted with their unforgettable moment of protest. The examination of racism and all its consequences cannot be allowed to be sidelined they demanded, then, now and for ever.
Mark Perryman is the author of the forthcoming book Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us And How They Can Be available at a 15% pre-publication discount from www.orbooks.com/catalog/olympics