Posts Tagged ‘sports’

paying tribute to Socrates

Sunday, December 11th, 2011

The following piece was published back in 2008 in the November/December issue of Canadian Dimension magazine. Socrates died last Saturday. He was one of the greatest footballers of his generation, but more importantly, he matched sporting talent with a commitment to justice and egalitarian politics; a rare thing in the hyper-corporate sports culture of today. Farewell to a giant of football and a giant of the Brazilian left.  Check his obituary in the Guardian here.

Searching for Socrates

I’m not disappointed by Canada’s performance at the Summer Olympics.  Socialists ought to be internationalists by definition and as unconcerned with the patriotic displays of sporting prowess of their own countries as they are with that of any other.  Besides, the Olympics was originally conceived to demonstrate individual achievement, athletes as representations of their own commitment and excellence, not that of their nations. But I am seriously dismayed at the lack of political protest that marred – at least from a radical’s standpoint – the Beijing Games.

Despite all the hype that preceded the Games – and resulting Chinese concern with the potential to be politically embarrassed by dissenting athletes – these Olympics were unusually quiet and the athletes disappointingly quiescent. As I wrote in my last CD column, the Olympics and protest go hand in hand; so why so few voices of dissent when the Games are held in one of the most oppressive states in the world? This absence cannot be solely attributed to the authoritarian management of the Games (and the athletes themselves) by the Chinese government.  Sure, the iron fist Beijing employs to rule its unruly migrant workers was put to use for the Games, but visiting athletes had ample opportunity and diplomatic protection to carry out acts of dissent.

Whether the oppression of the Chinese working class, the denial of basic civic and political rights, the suppression of religious groups, or the imprisonment of dissidents, there were no shortage of issues to protest at the Games. And of course, Tibet, which I leave last only because its popularity as a political cause celebre has as much to do with the fad of Buddhism amongst the North American middle class as with concerns for the national liberation of a people (Americans in particular seem attracted to Tibet while peculiarly the U.S. anti-war/anti-occupation movement is waning, but I digress). Maybe the lack of protest at the Games merely signifies the decline of the political athlete.

This brings me to one of my own sporting heroes, the Brazilian soccer player, Socrates.  If ever there was a model of the politically engaged athlete, Socrates was it (with Muhammad Ali a close second). He was a man of contradictions. Considered a late-bloomer he made his debut for the Brazilian national team at the age of 25 and continued to play well into his forties. Despite being 6 foot 4 he was one of the most elegant midfielders to ever grace the game. And although he studied to be a medical doctor he smoked a pack-a-day throughout his career.

Like in many countries, in Brazil politics and soccer overlap: the personalities, the players, and the fans. Socrates captained the club Corinthians during some of the darkest days of the Brazilian dictatorship. Historically, Corinthians are the working class club of Sao Paulo and count the nominally socialist president Lula da Silva amongst their fans. But during the days of authoritarian rule, ownership of the club was controlled by right-wing elites close to the military. From 1978 to 1984, Socrates organized the Corinthians Democracy movement, an informal players association that demanded players’ rights but was understood by fans and players alike to be a symbolic challenge to the dictatorship.

The movement wrestled effective control of the club from the team’s management and installed a workers democracy with players voting on club matters. In one of the bravest acts of politico-sporting history, in 1982 the players voted to print “Vote on the 15th” on the back of their team uniform in the hopes it would motivate Brazilians – and particularly Corinthians’ working class and socialist support who had felt the brunt of authoritarian right-wing rule – to vote in the November 15th election. The election turned out to be a pivotal moment in the democratization of Brazil and Corinthians Democracy is widely regarded as an important factor in the country’s transition to democratic rule.

While Canada has never produced its very own Socrates, Canadian basketball player and two-time NBA MVP, Steve Nash, risked ridicule and scorn to vocally oppose America’s war on Iraq. It’s too bad our national basketball team didn’t qualify for the Beijing Olympics. And it’s too bad the Games have past with the Chinese people still searching for their very own Socrates.

Published in Canadian Dimension Nov/Dec 2008 42 (6)

Sexism, soccer, and struggle

Saturday, May 14th, 2011

In my latest column for Canadian Dimension, I explore the struggle for equality being waged by the Canadian women’s national soccer team.

Strikes. Protests. Boycotts. Tunisia? Egypt? Bahrain? How about the Canadian women’s national soccer team?

The team’s spat with the Canadian Soccer Association has sparked a players’ revolt. Two issues lay at the heart of the dispute: The first is coach Carolina Morace’s desire to have more control over the team’s budget; a good idea given a history of nepotism and financial mismanagement in the CSA that would make an Arab dictator blush. And the second is the CSA’s differential treatment of the women’s and men’s teams which should be named for what it is: sexism.

Looking to improve their compensation package, the women demanded to know how often and how much the men’s team gets paid. The women are paid on an ad-hoc basis, tournament by tournament, and sometimes are still negotiating pay days before a big game. The men of course are on more secure financial footing.  How secure, the CSA won’t say, which leads me to believe that the disparity between the two teams is as great as the women suspect.

Talk about gender inequality in the workforce: the women are akin to casual day labourers, negotiating wages with every new job. Remarkably, this precariousness hasn’t impacted their work on game day: they are ranked among the top women’s teams in the world. The same cannot be said of the men, currently 84th, just better than Mali but not quite as strong as Macedonia.

With the CSA refusing to cede to either demand, the women announced that they would boycott the upcoming women’s World Cup, a tournament the players will have likely dreamed of playing in since childhood.  Furthermore, they announced a player strike, refusing to participate in any international game leading up to the World Cup until the CSA gave them the respect they deserved (The U.S. women’s team went on strike a few years back and won pay equity).

While the CSA has opened contract negotiations with Morace and looks likely to secure her services beyond the World Cup, at the time this column went to print there’s been no resolution on the issue of player compensation. With Morace and the CSA in talks, the team called off their boycott and got themselves a lawyer. They will file for arbitration with the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada, whose mandate is to sort these types of things out in a ‘responsible’ manner (i.e. not boycotts and strikes).

We’ll have to wait and see if the legal strategy proves fruitful. As any well-schooled trade unionist knows, there’s nothing like the withdrawal of your labour to get the bosses attention. But should they go back on strike, it’s not like the players will be away from the daily drudgery of the factory; they would risk missing the biggest event of their sporting lives. The CSA knows this and it puts the women in a weak bargaining position.  If I were them, I’d explore some other channels: a letter writing campaign by soccer players across the country could apply pressure on the CSA and continuing to generate media attention, publicly shaming the association, won’t hurt either (A little solidarity from the men’s team would be nice!).

This affair is just the latest to expose the Canadian Soccer Association for what it is: an old-boys club whose administrative inertia and political infighting has produced an underachieving men’s program and an abysmal youth development scheme.  The success of the women’s team has come in spite, not because of, the Canadian Soccer Association. Too bad they can’t break from the old patriarchs altogether and establish a Canadian Women’s Soccer Association based on feminist and egalitarian principles. But in a game with only eleven players, we can’t all play left-wing.

Published in Canadian Dimension May/June 2011

The good ol’boys hockey game

Friday, January 28th, 2011

In honour of Black History Month, my latest sports column for Canadian Dimension Magazine takes on the topic of racism in pro-hockey and the hidden history of African-Canadian participation in the sport.

Oh, the good old hockey game, Is the best game you can name

And the best game you can name, Is the good ol’ hockey game

-Stompin’ Tom Connors The Hockey Song

This past summer George Laraque, ex-Montreal Canadians forward, became deputy leader of Canada’s Green Party. While the press noted his animal rights activism, they were silent on Laraque’s most enduring political fight: his personal struggle against racism in hockey. Their silence was not surprising; Canadians have always been uneasy about the realities of race and racism in our beloved sport. Hockey has been elevated to such a status that criticizing the ‘national religion’, especially from within, can evoke calls of patriotic heresy.  

One of the few black players to have become a household name in the lily white NHL, Laraque, the Montreal-born son of Haitian immigrants, has spoken publicly about the racism he experienced. Looking to African-American baseball legend Jackie Robinson for inspiration, as a youth Laraque persevered through racist taunts made by opponents and parents. He spent 13 years in the NHL, a good many of those as the team ‘enforcer’, a role not many want to play but are often obliged to by coaches who continue to see the threat of violence as necessary protection for star players and ironically, as a deterrent to dirty play. But Laraque’s aggressive on-ice persona was moulded well before he entered the NHL. It was in response to racial slurs that the quiet boy off-ice became the scrappy tough guy known as ‘Big Georges’ on-ice.

Other players of colour have shared their experiences of racism in the game and the odd news story on racist incidents in the minors occasionally bubbles up to national media attention. But no amateur hockey league (at least not to my knowledge) or the NHL has adopted an official anti-racism strategy; something that has become common in many soccer associations across Europe where racism is openly discussed as a problem. The NHL – which should be taking the lead as hockey’s premier professional league – has had a markedly liberal approach, establishing a ‘diversity taskforce’ and founding the NHL Diversity Program, all the while failing to publicly acknowledge racism in hockey.

Created in 1995, NHL Diversity operates under the banner of “Hockey is for Everyone” and has established programs to assist “economically disadvantaged boys and girls of all ages opportunities to play hockey.” Upon seeing the first graduate of the program lace up his skates for an NHL team, league commissioner Gary Bettman said “I think it’s great for the game…I think diversity is a strength,” and then parroting the program’s slogan, “Hockey is indeed for everyone.” Such liberal platitudes wrongly equate diversity with anti-racism. Bettman believes the that  the NHL has “the greatest diversity and background of any of the major sports,” which even if it were true (and that would mean Bettman sees shades of white as constituting ethno-racial diversity), the league’s goal of bringing more people of colour into the sport is not anti-racist in and of itself, especially if ‘diversity’ is the narrow and only benchmark for success.

Heading up NHL Diversity is Willie O’Ree, the league’s first black player who broke the sport’s ‘colour line’ in 1958; nine years after Jackie Robinson did the same in baseball. But unlike baseball, it took another thirteen years before a second black NHLer took the ice and there have been few and far between since (Grant Fuhr, Tony McKegney, Jarome Iginla, and Ray Emery being the most notable). Answers to ‘why aren’t there more black players in hockey?’ typically cite cultural explanations (black athletes are interested in other sports; their families don’t have histories in hockey etc.). But that lets hockey’s white gatekeepers off the hook, allowing them to preserve their privilege by attributing the game’s whiteness to ‘cultural differences’. As documented by George and Daryl Fosty in their wonderful book Black Ice: The Lost History of the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes, 1895-1925, African-Canadian participation in the game dates back as early as 1815. By 1900 a fully-fledged ‘coloured’ hockey league had been formed with teams from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, such as the Africville Sea-Sides and the New Glasgow Speed Boys. Marginalized and segregated from the emerging pro-leagues, these players were never given the shot to play in the NHL.

Don’t go looking for an exhibit showcasing this hidden history of the game at the Hockey Hall of Fame because you won’t find it. The hockey powers that be have never formally recognized the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes. But the league’s existence proves two things: cultural explanations for hockey’s whiteness don’t hold water, and that people of colour have been systematically marginalized in the sport for generations (I could devote a whole other column to the long struggle of Aboriginal peoples in hockey). As the Fostys write, “Today there are no monuments to the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes. There is no reference to the league in any but a few books on hockey. There is no reference to…the scores of players who wore the Colored League uniforms. There is no reference in the Hockey Hall of Fame of the impact that Blacks had in the development of the modern game of hockey…It is as if the league had never existed. For hockey is today a sport Whiter in history than a Canadian winter.” So while the progress made by contemporary black players like Georges Laraque is surely significant, hockey could be begin to build a racially just future by acknowledging its unjust present and its racist past.

A version of this article was published in Canadian Dimension 45 (1) Jan/Feb 2011 Issue

Of Bails, Boundaries, and Revolution: A Tribute to CLR James

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

“What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” So begins Beyond a Boundary, the classic account of cricket and the colonial West Indies by the great 20th century socialist CLR James. The boundary is the outer line which encircles a cricket field; it demarcates the space in which the game is played like the fence and foul lines of a baseball diamond. James insisted that what happened inside the boundary influenced the world beyond it; sport could not be reduced to mere play divorced from the social world.

My column for Canadian Dimension has been, above all else, a cry for the left to take sports seriously; to move beyond a bread and circuses dismissal and see sport as a terrain of social, economic, and political struggle on which class conflict plays out in both odd and familiar ways, gender identities are shaped, formed and subverted, and issues of race and racism are ever-present.

In doing so, I owe debts to modern sports journalists like Dave Zirin, a frequent contributor to some of CD’s American equivalents such as The Progressive and whom I’ve previously featured in this space. But after recently taking the time to revisit Beyond a Boundary, I came to the conclusion that it is on the shoulders of James that many a critical sportswriter stands.

Cricket, the sport of the British colonizer, James argued, cannot simply be understood as a tool of oppression, a sporting companion to the dominant colonial ideology which permeated the institutions and public discourse of the pre-independence Caribbean. The game was a social and historical phenomenon which shaped and was shaped by the social relations of colonialism, class, and race in which it was embedded, and most importantly for James, a site in which these relations could be challenged and transformed in emancipatory ways.

This may seem a heavy burden for a sport which most North Americans view with a combination of curiosity and confusion. But the beauty of Beyond a Boundary is that a reader with little or no knowledge of cricket can appreciate the social weight to which James ascribes the sport. This is both a tribute to the author’s fine analytical skills and brilliant political mind, but also to the simple elegance and rhythm of his prose.

Reading Beyond A Boundary, one sees how the campaign for a black man Frank Worrell (which incidentally James led) to become the first black to captain the West Indies cricket team turned the hierarchy of the colonizer’s game on its head and inspired the struggle for Trinidadian independence. Through James’s critical lens, riots which could greet a bad call by the umpire became expressions of social tension between oppressors and oppressed. And for James, the choice to play for one cricket club or the other reflected desires for social mobility and the state of race relations in Trinidad’s pigmentocracy. James was writing a sociology of sport before sociologists had invented the field.

Brilliantly, James shows a capacity for deep analysis of what can appear to an outsider as the trivial intricacies of cricket. Accounting for the batting prowess of a boyhood hero, James moves through references to Edmund Burke, Michelangelo and Hegel. This is no mere intellectual pose; James weaves the literary with the carnal, the physical with the philosophical throughout Beyond a Boundary. The analysis extends to his own morality, an ethics derived not from Marx but the code of ‘fair play’ to which all good cricketers adhere: “This code,” writes James, “became the moral framework of my existence. It has never left me.”(Reading James on cricket one is reminded of Albert Camus’ reflection, “All I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football.”)

Beyond a Boundary was first published in 1963, some twenty years after James’ classic history of the Haitian revolution The Black Jacobins appeared. Born in 1901 into a lower-middle class Afro-Trinidadian household, by the early sixties, James had rubbed shoulders with Leon Trotsky, written and acted in a play with Paul Robeson, served as cricket correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, made significant contributions to Marxist theory and Pan-African thought, organized and agitated for revolution in the United States and national independence in the Caribbean and west Africa. A teacher, novelist, philosopher, historian, and activist, upon his death the Trinidadian polymath was described by the Times of London as the “black Plato of our generation.” (A paragraph-length biography is surely to do violence to one of the great lives of the 20th century; I recommend Paul Buhle’s CLR James: The Artist as Revolutionary as an apology.)

Before James, with few exceptions, sports writing was blind to the ‘social’ in sport, and much of it remains so today. But when sports journalists ask critical questions of the Vancouver Olympics or graduate students develop theses on the cultural meaning of Tiger Woods, knowingly or not they are paying homage to Beyond A Boundary and its author CLR James.

A version of this article was published in Canadian Dimension Vol 44 #5 September/October 2010

Sports, spectacle, and … socialism? A conversation with Roger Keil

Saturday, May 8th, 2010

Roger Keil is director of the City Institute at York University and member of the International Network for Urban Research and Action. He is the author of Los Angeles: Globalization, Urbanization, and Social Struggles (John Wiley & Sons Ltd) and co-author with Julie-Anne Boudreau and Douglas Young of Changing Toronto: Governing Urban Neoliberalism (University of Toronto Press). I spoke with him at the City Institute in Toronto.

Simon Black: Cities worldwide, often with the support of higher levels of governments, are competing intensely to host sporting spectacles like the Olympics or Pan-Am Games. Such events can leave cities with significant amounts of debt in addition to other social and ecological costs. What’s the logic driving this competition? What does this tell us about the nature of global capitalism today and the role of cities within it?

Roger Keil: This is not really a new development but I think the composition of the capital outlays and the purpose of the investment has changed. The great nationalist or Fordist Olympics that came to an end in Munich 1972 and couldn’t be resuscitated in Montreal (after the global crisis of 1973) actually did have a return on public investment. In Munich, the infrastructure advanced for 1972 is still a visible part of everyday life in that city today. We know what happened in Montreal and that disaster set off the new neoliberal Olympics of Los Angeles where the public paid and private corporations have the benefits.

As is typical for the differentiations of post-Fordist, neoliberal capitalism, every Olympics has a specific genius loci. What might be beneficial in Barcelona or Lillehammer where social democratic redistribution worked to a degree, may be catastrophic in places like Seoul, Athens or Atlanta. Where does Vancouver sit in this mosaic of global possibilities? Where would Toronto sit vis-à-vis the Pan-Am Games? This will still depend on what the regional compromise will allow the public to claw back in terms of housing, infrastructure and other amenities brought in for the Games. What we do know is that the Los Angeles model (where private entrepreneurship under Peter Ueberroth organized the Games but general corporate sponsorship was still rather underdeveloped) was in total overdrive in Vancouver where RBC, Coke and a few others didn’t just manage the Games themselves but started to reorganize and rebrand the entire urban fabric, public space and even the narratives which were constructed about the games.

SB: How successful have activists been in resisting this logic? What type of urban coalitions have activists formed and with what strength?

RK: Again, this is quite different in different places. Toronto has had a very successful history of resistance but this also has to be measured against the incompetence of the regional elites to sell their brand. But after former Mayor Mel Lastman made his comments about cannibals in Africa in a Barcelona hotel room, there was not too much left activists had to do to derail the project. Berlin is another good example for successful resistance. In London, things are slightly different as resistance has turned into other forms of engagement with the process of urban restructuring that the Olympics have set into train.

SB: What can activists do to turn these events to progressive ends?

RK: There are probably two things that can be done. First, one can use the Olympics as a platform for internationally recognized street action. This was done very successfully at the Olympics in Vancouver. The foreign press was full of stories about anti-poverty activism in the Downtown Eastside. Second, you can use the sports event to produce leverage for social and environmental gains. At a time when governments are sensitive to international scrutiny over their behaviour, it may be possible to collect some progressive rent from the mega-event as the organizers don’t want to look as if they were just out to make a profit. Whether such a strategy can offset the displacement and gentrification created by the event in the first place, is debatable, of course.

SB: Thanks for sharing these insights with Canadian Dimension Roger.

Published in Canadian Dimension Vol 44 (3), May/June 2010

White Snow, White People, White Lies

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

NOTE:  Last week the Vancouver Sun reported on the B.C. government’s Assistance To Shelter Act,  which housing and anti-poverty activists called “a ‘Kidnap the Homeless Act’ and nothing more than a ploy to beautify the Downtown Eastside for the Winter 2010 Olympics”. In light of this news and the downgrading of Vancouver’s credit rating (due to huge Olympic cost overruns), I thought I’d republish this 2007 piece I wrote for Canadian Dimenson magazine. Prescient? 

Renaissance thinker Michel de Montaigne once remarked, ‘Mistrust a man who takes games too seriously; it means he doesn’t take life seriously enough.’ Thankfully those brave protestors who disrupted a ceremony marking the three-year countdown to the Vancouver Winter Olympics haven’t read Montaigne. They realize that the Games in question should be taken very seriously as they stand to impact life in Vancouver for a long time to come.

I’ve never been a fan of the Winter Olympics. For a radical like me, the Winter Games is quite obviously the preserve of the rich: rich countries and rich people. And given the global apartheid that is the world economy, it’s not only the snow that is white every four years, it’s the athletes and spectators as well. Most countries have neither the weather nor the resources to train athletes for competition in what more appropriately should be called the Games of the Global North. And whereas the poor can run, play soccer, or box with the best of them, they’re not likely to have access to the ski hills of Whistler or the bobsled runs of Western Europe.

But Vancouver’s Games look to be particularly exclusive, not only for the nature of the events themselves, but for the impact this spectacle will have on the city. As critics of Vancouver 2010 have said, the Winter Olympics stands to put a massive burden on the public purse; a burden that will be paid with cutbacks to social services and further dismantling of an already fragile provincial welfare state. This will happen despite the ‘social’ rhetoric which accompanied the organizing committee’s sales pitch to the B.C. public. They promised benefits for the broader community, poor and rich alike; business for some, housing and jobs for others. But Vancouver 2010 is shaping up to be the Games of white snow, white people, and white lies.

For the business elite and their friends in provincial government, the Games is about selling Vancouver as a competitive city, a good home for capital and investors in the Asian Pacific Rim. As they see it, in 2010 Vancouver will prove to be a city of arts and culture, good infrastructure, a decent quality of life, and a business-friendly city hall. This is the mantra of cities in a globalized economy with urban regions battling for investment, jobs and a stable tax base.

But a new highway and a bit of commodified arts and culture is not enough. The blight of homelessness and the Downtown East Side must also be erased to improve the competitive image of Vancouver and maintain the legitimacy of the Olympic project. A city can go about this type of image makeover in a number of ways. The revanchivist regime of Rudy Giuliani’s New York dealt with the ‘dangerous classes’ through a combination of intense gentrification, fuelled by a deregulated real estate market, and a law-and-order policing agenda intent on sweeping the streets clean of human debris.

Despite the best efforts of Gordon Campbell’s Liberals, many British Columbians and Vancouverites have resisted this type of social cleansing. The ‘social road’ was to be the one taken in Vancouver as the province and the city promised to address homelessness and protect the right of inner-city residents to affordable housing. However, as the Vancouver Sun reports, the Vancouver Olympics’ housing round table has found the province and city to be well off their funding targets. Vancouver requires up to $1 billion worth of support and housing in time for 2010 if the two levels of government are to meet the demands of their so-called ‘social agenda’.

Who will cough up the cash? The Financial Times reports that due to the construction boom in western Canada, the cost of preparations for the Games has steadily risen. As a result, organizers have requested a 23 per cent boost in financial support from the provincial and federal governments. For its part, the Campbell government established a $139m contingency fund for cost overruns. Yet the government claims it will only dip into this fund if it’s spending is matched by the feds. According to progressive economist Marc Lee, Campbell is sitting on a $3 billion budget surplus for 2007 and the next few fiscal years. But nothing in the B.C. Liberals record shows them to be willing to partner social justice and economic prosperity. Maybe the city will pick up the fiscal slack. This scenario makes sense for a provincial elite intent on disciplining Vancouverite’s penchant for electing left-wing councils. The public cost of the games will impose fiscal austerity on Vancouver City Hall for years to come, burying the future prospects of municipal socialism under the avalanche of a winter debt.

Published in Canadian Dimension Vol 41 (3) May/June 2007

The Not So Curious Case of Caster Semenya

Saturday, October 24th, 2009

Caster Semenya, the South African runner and 800m women’s world champion, has been subjected to a very public interrogation of her identity. Following her victory in Berlin last August, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) ordered a group of doctors to conduct a “gender test” to determine her future in international athletics. Pre-empting the IAAF, an Australian newspaper reported in early September that an inside source “revealed the test found Semenya to be a hermaphrodite.”

The South African government expressed outrage at the treatment of their prize athlete. The Minister of Sports said, “Caster’s human rights have been violated and her privacy invaded.” President Jacob Zuma decried the IAAF and the media’s exploitation of the Semenya affair. Rallying behind their “golden girl,” thousands of supporters gathered at Johannesburg airport to welcome their beleaguered athlete home to South Africa.

The IAAF’s handling and the media’s coverage of the case have been abhorrent on many levels. Apart from the violation of Semenya’s privacy, the first point at issue has been the confusion of sex and gender. After the case became public, a number of notable South African feminists and queer activists issued a public statement which included the following corrective aimed at the IAAF and world media:

“Gender is the dominant society’s views on how women and men should look, behave, what roles they should play in society, how they should perform and frequently what rewards they receive – hence gender inequity… Gender is not a politically correct term for sex. Sex testing would be just that – establishing whether a person is biologically female or male. So gender testing is not the term that should be used this case, but sex testing.”

Secondly, the media has continued to describe this “case” as “curious” and to deny and question Semenya’s identity after she has stated clearly and repeatedly that she is a woman. If Semenya is found to be intersex then she has the right to define herself and make that definition known to others when, and if, she so chooses to. Dismayed at the public discourse surrounding the affair, Intersex South Africa, an intersex advocacy and activist organization, was quick to issue a statement clarifying intersexuality as a “general term that can relate to various conditions. Many intersexed people are born with ambiguous genitalia, or sex organs that are not clearly female or male.” Furthermore, the organization noted, the term ‘hermaphrodite’ was “commonly used in the past to describe and consequently oppress intersexed people” and should therefore not be in the lexicon of the modern media.

Nor has the media given much attention to the fact that Semenya is a black South African. South Africa’s Young Communist League, in old-left fashion, called Caster’s treatment “racist and imperialist,” without mentioning gender discrimination. But the fact that Semenya is a black woman from the so-called Third World is not insignificant. Writing in South Africa’s Mail and Guardian, Antje Schumann commented, “The point is not merely that athletes from the First World are not also subjected to sex tests. It is rather that, given the history of slavery and colonialism, the exposure of a black woman’s body has a very specific context.”

And that’s why the case of Caster Semenya is really not that curious at all: there exists a long history of subjecting colonized bodies to prodding, study, and sterilization in processes of dehumanization and subjugation, whether it is in the name of science, ‘civilization’, or even sport.

Published in Canadian Dimension Volume 43, Number 6, Nov/Dec 2009

Interview on Alert! Radio

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

I was interviewed by Alert! Radio this week on the case of Caster Semenya, the South African athlete who made the news after winning the 800m gold medal at the World Track and Field Championships in August. Semenya was forced to take a “gender test” following her victory in order to determine whether she should be competing as a man or a woman.

Follow the link for the interview. Episode 126 starting at 20 minutes.

The Latest Refuge of a Scoundrel

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

Growing up in a Toronto suburb, as far as sporting matters were concerned some things were nonnegotiable. Unless you were willing to subject yourself to the mockery of fellow hockey-obsessed friends, being a Leafs fan was just such a matter, thereby subjecting yourself to the mockery of the rest of the country (bar those loyal to the blue and white in the Maritimes, of course). Before the short-lived playoff successes of the 1990s and the flashy new arena – and much like the current season – fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs had little to cheer about.

Yet our gloominess morphed into hatred of the man we held responsible for our misery, Harold Ballard. The majority owner of the Leafs from 1972 to his death in 1990 was one of nastiest characters in Canadian sports. A racist xenophobe, while other teams picked up the cheap talent entering the NHL from Europe, Ballard refused to buy anyone with a “foreign” last name, the great Borje Salming being a notable exception.

Having been found guilty of fraud and theft in the 1970s, Ballard went about defrauding Maple Leaf fans by keeping ticket prices high and the team payroll low, a clear abuse of fan loyalty as Leaf fans filled the Gardens no matter how the team performed. Away from the Gardens, he was known as a boorish man whose prejudices marked his interactions with business people and the media alike. Talking sports with Barbara Frum on CBC radio, Ballard commented that “women’s best position is on their backs”.

Under Ballard the Leafs had a dismal record, with only six winning seasons and no Stanley Cup. While Ballard blazed trails for crass capitalists in North America, sports ownership in Europe seems to have become the latest refuge of scoundrels and the English Premier League of soccer the home of choice for unsavoury businessmen. Had Ballard been alive today, I imagine he’d be launching a bid for the likes of Tottenham Hotspur or Manchester United.

Russian oil baron Roman Abramovich made his fortune buying up blocks of vouchers from oil workers and converting them into shares in Siberian energy companies, a dodgy manoeuvre in the cowboy capitalism of Russia’s transition years. With a net worth of, according to Forbes, $23.5 billion, Abramovich bought Chelsea Football Club and has since spent $600 million on the team. Thaksin Shinawatra, the hopelessly corrupt former Prime Minister of Thailand, purchased Manchester City F.C. in 2007 for 81.6 million British pounds. Tom Hicks, private investor and real estate mogul, supported former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani’s bid to become the Republican presidential candidate in the 2008 election. Giuliani dropped out and Hicks purchased Liverpool instead. And most recently, Shinawatra sold Manchester City to a shady Abu Dhabi sheikh. His first purchase was arguably the world’s best player, the Brazilian Robinho for which he paid a cool 42.5 million Euros.

With these lavish outlays, I sometimes fantasize about my beloved Maple Leafs getting scooped up by some Dubai billionaire or Russian oligarch who will buy the team that brings the Cup back to Toronto (a compromise of my socialist principles I know; but really, a Stanley Cup?). Instead, Leaf fans have to watch our team struggle under the mediocre ownership of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. whose majority shareholder is the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan. At least if the Leafs floundered under the ownership of a greedy oil baron, despising the owner would be easy; faceless pension funds are a more abstruse target of fan aggression. Like many a Leafs fan I used to routinely say that I hated Harold Ballard, but “I hate the Ontario Teachers Plan” doesn’t exactly have the same ring to it, does it?

Published in Canadian Dimension 43 (3) May/June 2009