Heroes and Villains

With so much going on at the crossroads of politics and sports, I’ve decided to name my sporting heroes and villains for the year to date:

Heroes

Caster Semenya

Persevering through some of the most discriminatory treatment meted out to a modern athlete, Semenya will carry her country’s flag in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics and likely be the 800m gold medalist by the time this column goes to press. As the lefty mag the New Statesman put it, Semenya “unintentionally instigated an international and often ill-tempered debate on gender politics, feminism and race, becoming an inspiration to gender campaigners around the world.”

John Carlos

Bronze-medal winner in the 200 meters at the 1968 Olympics, Carlos, along with Tommie Smith, is best-remembered for his black power salute while standing head bowed, shoeless—in a gesture of solidarity with the world’s poor—on the medal podium. Smith and Carlos were suspended from the US Olympic team and subject to years of hate mail, death threats, and public denunciations. Carlos has spent the last year on a book tour for his new memoir The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World; a tour which included stops at Occupy sites across the US.  Forty-four years after the event, he remains an inspiration to all who struggle for social justice.

Herb Carnegie

Hockey legend Herb Carnegie passed away this spring. Born in Toronto, the son of Jamaican immigrants, NHL scouts recognized Carnegie as a magnificent talent. Conn Smythe said he would pick Carnegie for the Toronto Maple Leafs “if someone could turn him white.” Carnegie spent the next fifty years campaigning against racism in hockey, mentoring players of colour, and helping the young to become stars in a league that would not have him.

Mahmoud Sarsak

Palestinian national footballer Mahmoud Sarsak spent three months on hunger strike, losing half his body weight, in protest against his imprisonment by Israel’s apartheid state. Sarsak was arrested while on his way from Gaza to the West Bank to play in a soccer match. Held for three years in Israeli custody without charges or a trial, Sarsak was released in early July pledging continued resistance to occupation and oppression.

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Villains

Joe Paterno and Penn State Football

The definitive report into the Penn State scandal concluded that Joe Paterno was “an integral part of the act to conceal” former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky sexual abuses. Sandusky was convicted last month of 45 counts of child sexual abuse involving ten young boys over the course of 15 years.  There is a culture of cowardliness and hypermasculine group-think that is imbedded in most men’s varsity sports programs—a culture that normalizes hazing, homophobia, and rape. Joe Paterno and his staff did nothing to challenge this culture and I fear few programs will learn from the tragic example of Penn State football.

London Olympics and security firm G4S

Never have cupidity and stupidity found a more welcome host than Olympic organizing committees. In a nation stricken by high unemployment, Conservative pols could not understand why so few job seekers turned up to fill the thousands of security positions created by the Games. How about sub-poverty wages? The London Olympics drove down wages and working conditions through a cut throat competitive bidding process rather than making this the first Olympics to implement a living wage policy.

The Union of European Football Associations

UEFA’s milquetoast response to racism at the Euro Cup provided another example of football officialdom’s failure to live up its anti-racist rhetoric with meaningful action.

Don Cherry

For yet another season of being himself.

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Shout outs to the new online journal Left Hook (lefthookjournal.wordpress.com), a project that seeks to bridge the sphere of progressive social/political analysis to the world of amateur and professional sport. The journal is edited and published by my York U comrade Tyler Shipley.  If you enjoy this column, you’ll love Left Hook.

Published in the Sept/Oct 2012 edition of Canadian Dimension

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