Racism and discrimination plagues the sports world and yet it all goes by unnoticed
Football is the most watched sport in the world with a fan base of just under 4 billion people. The game is believed to have originated in England in 1880 but is today a global sport officially played in 211 nations through the international association FIFA.
With roughly half the world’s people united behind the beautiful game regardless of race, religion or culture, it is baffling to me that discrimination in many guises manages to find a way to disrupt this unity.
Belgium national football player Romelu Lukaku was born in Antwerp, Belgium to Congolese parents.
Lukaku’s experience is reflective of the ugly racism used to undermine and prejudice players of colour. “When things were going well, I was reading newspapers articles and they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker. When things weren’t going well, they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker of Congolese descent,” Lukaku wrote in an article before the World Cup earlier this year.
Racism takes the position of the west, anything that is non-western is instantly bad or poor. If Lukaku does not play well it is not because of bad service from the midfield, a good goalkeeper or maybe just a bad day but rather because he is of Congolese descent.
German footballer, Mesut Özil is no stranger to the same kinds of experience Lukaku has had. He has played for Germany for nine years and yet he is discriminated against for a heritage that he cannot change.
He was born in Germany but is of Turkish heritage. Ozil retired from international football after the 2018 World Cup citing racism as his reason.
“In the eyes of Grindel, [German president Reinhard Grindel] and his supporters, I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose. I am treated as being ‘different’,” he wrote in a statement announcing his retirement.
Even when racial discrimination is absent, prejudice in the form of gender disparities creep into our sporting arenas. South African women’s football team Banyana Banyana recently successfully defended their Cosafa Cup Women’s Championship title outperforming their male counterparts Bafana Bafana who have failed to win any title of significance for a number of years now.
Banyana Banyana is even looking forward to qualifying for the World Cup but given that they are a women’s team, they continue to be under-resourced and underpaid in relation to the male side.
Banyana Banyana’s Portia Modise has scored more international goals than Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo; her recognition will never come in a world such as this plagued by discrimination based on race and gender.
Moving away from football, South Africa’s golden girl, Caster Semenya has become the poster woman for discrimination in athletics. With every successful race she runs, she has to endure endless scrutiny about her body.
Semenya’s abilities on the track are consistently undermined and attacked on the basis of her physical appearance.
The racist caricature of Serena Williams by Australian cartoonist, Mark Knight after the US Open final this year is another case in point.
Clearly devoid of humour and understanding of Williams as an athlete and person, Knight depicts her as a large, angry gorilla-like figure that is stomping on a racket.
The image completely distorts the situation in which Williams attempted to overturn a decision made by the chair umpire and instead was depicted as an emotional woman in the midst of a meltdown.
One would expect these acts of discrimination to happen in everyday life, in the office, on the road and in our homes even.
It is difficult to accept when this happens on the sports field, a place that is meant to be a haven from stress and injustice, a place that is meant to unite individuals and not divide.
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