The Stadium as Stage: Events of Sydney tells us a lot about the rising tide of racist rage worldwide

Hoping to sunder racism from sports, as administrators and organisations across the world as doing, is noble — and doomed

Praveen Swami January 15, 2021 09:42:44 IST
The Stadium as Stage: Events of Sydney tells us a lot about the rising tide of racist rage worldwide

Six people were removed from SCG stands on Sunday after Mohammed Siraj complained of abuse. AP

From his perch in the stands that summer afternoon in 1983, Farooq Ahmad watched the match unfold — not the India-West Indies contest starring Vivian Richards and Kapil Dev that he’d paid to watch, but another one altogether, pitting young Kashmiri secessionists against the nation-state they despised. In a corner of the Sher-i-Kashmir stadium, Pakistani flags and posters of now-Prime Minister Imran Khan, began to fly; half-eaten apples and broken bottles began to be thrown at players in the outfield; the pitch was, inevitably, invaded.

Many of the men alleged to have tried to dig up pitch that day went on to have central roles in the long jihad that emerged at the end of the decade. People’s League leader Shabbir Shah became the guiding light for a generation of young jihadists; Shaukat Bakshi, the brother of the Jamaat-e-Islami student-wing leader Shakeel Bakshi, joined the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front; Mushtaq Ahmed Bhat set up Hizbullah, a small but feared jihadist group that was fought, long before the Islamic State was even imagined, to build a caliphate.

Farooq Ahmad himself joined the Hizbul Mujahideen, and, operating under the alias Adil Jehangir, commanded a jihadist unit in the central Kashmir district of Badgam. He was arrested, released and went on to set up a small pharmaceutical store — before being executed with a shot through the back of the head, fired by one-time comrades who believed he’d become a police informer.

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Every sports stadium is, among other things, a stage: A stage where the audience, like the players, are actors, and where the match is not the only performance underway. For the most part, the ugliness of the stands, witness this week’s racist abuse directed at Indian players in Sydney, is attributed to poor education, hooliganism or alcohol. Fortunes have been spent attempting to stamp out racism in sport, yet it has, mutated and survived, often re-emerging where it had been believed to have been eradicated.

Kick It Out, which monitors English football, has reported a sharp rise in both racist and homophobic abuse; the UEFA Champions League game between Paris Saint-Germain and Istanbul Basaksehir had to be suspended; baseball players in the United States have faced offensive slogans; the batsman Darren Sammy revealed his Indian Premier League team-members routinely used racist slurs to describe dark-skinned players.

George Best, icon to generations of soccer fans, said of a club’s decision to purchase his compatriot, Andy Cole, in a record-breaking deal: “£7 million is a lot to pay for a nigger”. His language might have been excised from our vocabularies; his beliefs, clearly, have not.

Like that summer pitch invasion in 1983, the resurgence of reactionary identity politics in stadiums across the world portends more than is apparent: The story here is not about some badly-behaved fans, but a growing, global tide of racism, a desperate, misguided search for primal solidarity in the face of the often-violent reordering of society by the forces of globalisation.

For the most part, left-wing movements have not embedded themselves in organised sport. “Leftist intellectuals”, Eduardo Galeano observed in what was arguably the greatest cultural history of sport ever written, “denigrate [football] because it castrates the masses and derails their revolutionary ardour. Bread and circus, circus without the bread: Hypnotised by the ball, which exercises a perverse fascination, workers’ consciousness becomes atrophied and they let themselves be led about like sheep by their class enemies”.

There is, however, more to this story: Unlike movements of the Left, which seek the restructuring of the State or social norms, the populist Right has long entrenched itself in organised sport. Like religion or nationalism, organised sport is governed by elaborate sets of rituals and norms, which govern not just the game, but the community which constitutes itself around it.

Tribal, ethnic, religious or national: The existence of the stadium is premised on our division from them.

In some fundamental senses, thus, the purpose of organised sport isn’t the game itself: Instead, Indian cricket, French cycling, Canadian Hockey or Nordic winter sports are markers that help constitute the nation, reminding us of our belonging to a particular group. It is no surprise soccer’s playing styles are imagined to possess distinct national attributes: Brazilian jogo bonito, German ‘machine soccer’, English ‘kick-and-run’, Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s Soviet Marxist-Leninist football.

Even in Iran, where football was long denigrated as a frivolous Western distraction from the business of building a new, Islamic society, it has become a marker of ethnic-religious identity. In 2016, the German journalist Christoph Becker has recorded, a match against South Korea scheduled for Ashura, a day of religious mourning, became the site of protest against western hegemony, with clerics instructing fans to wear black, refrain from clapping, and chant religious slogans.

All nations, though, don’t respond to sport in the same ways. In among the few scholarly surveys exploring sports nationalism seriously, the scholar Ørnulf Seippel found evidence that “prosperous countries, culturally globalised countries, and countries with strong democracies are all (relatively) low in sport nationalism”. There were, Seippel observed, significant variations — for example, West European social democracies were less sports-nationalist than Australia, New Zealand or the United States. High levels of religious belief proved a reliable predictor of sports nationalism, as did low levels of education.

The underlying lesson is a simple one: The stadium serves to remind audiences of their primordial affiliations, sharpening and reinforcing group boundaries. For communities mired in fraught times, the stadium, with its solidarities and unity of purpose, represents the world as it ought be. In this, the stadium is not unique; communities on social media, as well as real-world institutions like religious sects or caste bodies, operate in much the same way.

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For a full understanding of the role of the stadium in the modern world, we must turn to the role sport played in the rise of nationalism and nation-states through the nineteenth century. In the nationalist imagination, the human body became an instrument of a higher ideological pursuit. Through the 19th Century, the scholar Dieter Reicher reminds us, the pursuit of German gymnastics was entwined with the unification of the fatherland and its defence. Sumo wrestling occupied a similar position in Meiji-era Japan.

European totalitarian ideologies understood this best: Fascist Germany and Italy, in particular, were obsessed with icons of muscular male bodies, representing a new kind of racially-superior human being forged in their ideological crucibles.

Yet, the pathbreaking work of the scholar CLR James showed us that cricket fields were also the battlegrounds in which the anti-racist struggles the West Indies were forged. Led by the legendary Garfield Sobers, and then Vivian Richards, West Indies cricket enjoyed arguably the most extended period of supremacy by any national team in any sport.

Effete in the eyes of their Imperial masters and their own, early Indian nationalists used similar strategies. In the 1860s, the scholar John Rosselli’s work teaches us, Rajnarayan Basu’s Nationality Promotion Society  saw “gymnastic exercises”, the reform of the rice-based diet, and publications extolling “the military prowess of the ancient Bengalis” as key to a political renaissance. A new Hindu Mela replaced an earlier peasant festivals, the practices of which were seen as crude.

There was an enthusiastic response: The Amrita Bazar Patrika proclaimed the festivals would not succeed “until a few young men had been crippled or possibly until one of them had died”. The National Paper, the Hindu Mela’s organ, began a campaign calling on young Bengalis to take military training, as a step towards nationhood.

Finding martial role models wasn’t easy: Bengal’s most recent warrior of fame had been on the wrong side in the rebellion of 1857; Colonel Suresh Biswas, a sometime circus performer-turned mercenary, played only a cameo role in the wars he fought in Brazil. Perhaps inevitably, the search turned to antiquity, with medieval rulers joining an unbroken line of Hindu martial valour stretching back to the Mahabharata.

“Now”, National Paper approvingly observed in 1869, “the young take no pleasure in going and sitting at the tea table in Chung Wah’s, wearing Goldneck, holding a Gold Flake and puffing out smoke. It does not occur to them that if they wrestle in a loincloth they will be taken for door-keepers”.

The idea of of Indian greatness — the defining idea of our times, uniting Hindu nationalists with economic modernisers — has given cricket the extraordinary influence it enjoys across the country. Cricket is, after all, the one sport in which India regularly competes with the world — and wins.

In some important senses, the defining moment for modern India was not the demolition of the Babri Masjid, but the 1983 Cricket World Cup victory: A tryst with destiny was indeed possible.

Elsewhere in the world, fans have learned that sporting success means only so much. The less-than-luminous performance of West Indies cricket, scholar Hilary Beckles has noted, is for its fans a metaphor for “a post-nationalist reality of a string of impoverished microstates that cannot after thirty years of independence legitimise their existence in serious, sound, and rational ways, and are insecure or pessimistic about the future”.

For millions, though, the stadium is the one place where life exists as we would like it to be: We are surrounded, united, by ourselves. “People who are not actually middle-class but have less education and, perhaps, less life-chances”, Reicher observes us, “have picked up the idea of a culturally distinct nation. For them, this idea has become a symbol of solidarity. In contrast, a new cosmopolitan class who are highly educated city-dwellers (often referred to by their critics as ‘elite’), tend to disdain the ideas of national solidarity and distinctive ‘cultures’”.

Hoping to sunder racism from sports, as administrators and organisations across the world as doing, is noble — and doomed. Through the two centuries in which the nation-state has emerged as grown, organised sport has been a critical element in the perpetuation of the identities on which it rests. The game is a spectacle on to which our fears, dreams and anxieties can be projected. In the failed states of the Third World, or the flailing states of the West; in rising powers like China and India and or diminishing ones like Turkey: the essence of sports is politics.

There might come a time when humans come to value the achievements for what they are—but it is not now. The ugliness seen in Sydney is part of a larger landscape in which ultra-nationalism and racism are growing, amidst the failure of state-systems to address the multiple crisis engendered by the fastest economic and cultural transformations in human history. Like on Twitter and Facebook, censorship can draw a veil over the ugliness; it cannot make the demons disappear.

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