Ethnicity, Racism and the Real Social Value of Sport

Authored by: Grant Jarvie

Routledge Handbook of Leisure Studies

Print publication date:  April  2013
Online publication date:  July  2013

Print ISBN: 9780415697170
eBook ISBN: 9780203140505
Adobe ISBN: 9781136495595




Studies of the relationship between leisure and racism have not dominated the fields of Leisure Studies, Race Relations, Ethnic and Racial Studies, Sociology or other bodies of knowledge but they have made a contribution to what we know about racism, how it pervades many cultures, takes many different forms and must remain a focus of any social or progressive twenty-first-century political agenda. It is not necessary here to argue whether the challenge of racism has been one of the political successes or failures of Leisure Studies and other fields, but it is necessary for both studies of racism and forms of advocacy that challenge racism to be much more prominent in the international field of Leisure Studies.

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Ethnicity, Racism and the Real Social Value of Sport


Studies of the relationship between leisure and racism have not dominated the fields of Leisure Studies, Race Relations, Ethnic and Racial Studies, Sociology or other bodies of knowledge but they have made a contribution to what we know about racism, how it pervades many cultures, takes many different forms and must remain a focus of any social or progressive twenty-first-century political agenda. It is not necessary here to argue whether the challenge of racism has been one of the political successes or failures of Leisure Studies and other fields, but it is necessary for both studies of racism and forms of advocacy that challenge racism to be much more prominent in the international field of Leisure Studies.

The issue of racism and ethnicity in sport is complex. Sport has the potential to make an enormous difference but it is also a fertile ground for the expression of violence and racism. Various countries expressed concerns about potential incidents of violence and racism in football in the run-up to the 2012 European Football Championships in Ukraine and Poland. One popular way for developing nations to announce to the world that they have made it onto the global stage in the early twenty-first century is to host a major international sporting event: from China’s Beijing Olympics in 2008, to Russia’s Sochi Winter Games of 2012, South Africa’s World Cup stewardship in 2010 and Brazil’s double coup of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics, staging a spectacle of this magnitude is a clear signal to the world that you are now a country of note (Hancox, 2012). This was certainly the motivation for Poland and Ukraine’s joint bid to host the Euro 2012 soccer championships. But the event that was supposed to be a measure of Ukraine’s post-Soviet development ran the danger of highlighting a host of national shortcomings, from virulent racism to an oppressive, dysfunctional political system. A relatively successful football festival in some ways helped to mask deeper structural issues, while at the same time providing a platform for government messages.

Racism has long been a stain on European football. Racist taunts and gestures aimed at non-white players are all too common at football matches; there have even been instances of rowdy fans throwing bananas onto the field at players of African descent. But according to a recent piece in the New York Times, that racism is perceived to be more virulent in the football stadiums of Eastern Europe, where fans have also been known to aim Nazi-style salutes and chants of ‘Sieg Heil!’ at non-white players. The concern over racism at Euro 2012 was stoked when the BBC’s Panorama documentary series did a report on racist incidents at football matches across Eastern Europe, including video from a recent Premier League match in Ukraine that showed Ukrainian fans savagely beating a group of Indian spectators. The racism issue seemed to reach a crescendo when the families of two black players in England’s national team publicly announced that they would not be attending matches in Ukraine because of concerns for their safety (BBC News, 2012). Ashley Walcott, the brother of English player Theo Walcott, announced via Twitter that the Walcott family would be skipping matches in Ukraine ‘because of the fear of possible racist attacks/confrontation. Some things aren’t worth risking.’ Walcott’s statement was echoed by the former England defender Sol Campbell, another black player, who, after watching the Panorama footage, urged English fans to ‘stay at home, watch it on TV. Don’t even risk it … because you could end up coming back in a coffin’ ( Italy’s star striker Mario Balotelli, the son of immigrants from Ghana, added to the litany, saying that he would walk off the pitch during Euro 2012 if he heard any racist taunts from the crowd; Balotelli also said that he had once had bananas thrown at him in a bar in Rome (

European legislation is clear, in that Article 21 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union asserts that ‘any discrimination based on any ground such as sex, race, colour, ethnic or social origin, genetic features, language, religion or belief, political or any other opinion, membership of a national minority, property, birth, disability, age or sexual orientation shall be prohibited’ (Kjaerum, 2012: 11). The issue of racism in sport continues periodically to make newspaper headlines. In England the legal case involving the alleged racial remarks made by the Chelsea and England defender John Terry against the Queens Park Rangers defender Anton Ferdinand was still on-going at the time of this writing, while towards the end of 2011 Luis Suarez, the Liverpool footballer, was found guilty of racially abusing Manchester United player Patrick Evra (Barnes, 2012: 59; Barrett, 2012: 58; Taylor, 2012: 10). Such examples remind us that sport continues to contribute to both ethnic tensions and racism within contemporary society.

The year 2011 also marked the passing away at the age of 80 of the South African-born cricketer Basil D’Oliveira, who left an indelible mark upon the struggle to bring about change in apartheid South Africa (Wilde, 2011: 15). By helping to change the face of South African cricket, D’Oliveira also helped to change the face of sport internationally. In 1965 the Anti-Apartheid Movement organized low-key placard-carrying protests outside each ground of the South African cricket tour to Britain, but the issue of both apartheid South Africa and racism in sport was elevated in 1968 over the question whether the coloured South African Basil D’Oliveira, by then a top and regular First Test player, should be selected for England’s cricket tour to South Africa that year. The anti-apartheid campaigner Peter Hain (2012: 49) noted that D’Oliveira was offered £40,000 by a South African-based representative of the cigarette company Rothmans to declare himself unavailable. The English cricket selectors omitted him from the touring party, prompting the journalist John Arnott to observe ‘That no one of an open mind will believe that he was left out for valid cricket reasons’, and, as it transpired, the South African authorities had informed the Marylebone Cricket Club that D’Oliveira would not be welcome.

What the D’Oliveira episode did was educate the international public about the brutality and ugliness of racism. The strong links between the British and South African cricket establishments were fractured and it is perhaps ironic that in 1992 it was a further rebel cricket tour to South Africa, led by the former England captain Mike Gatting, that was implicated in the downfall of apartheid South Africa and the induction of the first African National Congress (ANC) government, led by Nelson Mandela. D’Oliveira’s impact in South Africa was recognized in his meeting with Mandela in 1989. D’Oliveira was the first captain of South Africa’s non-white side when it faced Kenya in 1956 (Wilde, 2011: 15) – a fact that probably gave D’Oliveira a stronger case than Owen Dunnell, who led the first all-white South African test team in 1889, to be recognized as the first to lead a representative South African national team. The above case has been used to illustrate the potential of sport to play a part in bringing about social change, provide a resource of hope, and be part of a broader social and political campaign that impacted upon racism and ethnicity in one society. The objective of any public intellectual or activist working in the area of sport, racism and ethnicity should be to provide not evidence and explanation but, ultimately, interventions aimed at making and bringing about change.

This chapter is divided into several sections: (i) the first part is necessarily lengthy in order to outline issues of definition, key arguments that have been used to explain racism and ethnicity and to illustrate these where possible by using examples from sport; (ii) the second part acknowledges a body of work arising out of the study of post-colonialism and ‘other’ communities, as it is important to emphasize that the relationship between sport, racism and ethnicity must be considered not solely in socio-economic terms but also in geo-political terms; (iii) the third and fourth parts of this consider questions of identity and the search for common ground – the former because it has dominated so much of the explanations behind sport, racism and ethnicity, and yet it is argued here that it is necessary to move beyond identity politics, not least because of its tendency to be divisive; the latter because it is the search for common ground that helps to bind humanity together during times of conflict. The work of Amartya Sen (2009) and Nancy Fraser (2003) has helped with this exercise. This leads us to the final part of the chapter, which considers the role of sport in supporting movements for social change and, in particular, the place of sport, racism and ethnicity in struggles not only to progress society but also to value sport’s social contribution.

Sport, racism and ethnicity

Enquiries into sport and racism have taken a number of starting-points, and contained within them their own politics of difference. Arguments about the relationship between sport, racism and ethnicity have tended to rely upon a particular set of arguments (Carrington, 2010; Eitzen, 2003; Jarvie, 2002; Jarvie and Thornton, 2012; Kjaerum, 2012; Markovits, 2003; Spaaij, 2011; Wigginton, 2006), These have included that sport (i) is inherently conservative and helps to consolidate patriotism, nationalism and racism; (ii) has some inherent property that makes it a potential instrument of integration and harmonious ethnic and race relations; (iii) as a form of cultural politics has been central to processes of colonialism, imperialism and post-colonialism in different parts of the world; (iv) has contributed to unique political struggles which have involved black and ethnic political mobilization and the struggle for equality of and for black peoples and ethnic minority groups; (v) is an important facet of ethnic and racial identities; (vi) has produced stereotypes, prejudices and myths about ethnic minority groups which have contributed both to discrimination against and an under-representation of ethnic minority peoples within certain sports; (vii) faces race and ethnicity as factors influencing choices that people make when they choose to join or not to join certain sports clubs; and (viii) needs to develop a more complex set of tools for understanding the limits and possibilities that influence sport, racism and ethnicity and, in particular, the way that such categories historically articulate with other categories and social divisions.

There is no simple answer to what constitutes racism. It is important not to confuse the terms racism and ethnicity. Even those who argue that ethnic minorities are united by a common experience of racism often fail to be sufficiently alert to the diverse ways in which racism has an impact on different social divisions in sport. An ethnic group is theoretically one in which association with both a particular origin and specific customs is adopted by people themselves to establish a shared identity (Platt, 2011). Ethnic groups are therefore self-conscious and claimed identities. There is often a perceived link between ethnic identity and national identity. Ethnicity and nationality are also often regarded as interchangeable concepts. The extent to which ethnicity, race and nation should be treated together rather than separately is also debated, but there are strong interconnections between them, including a common connotation of origin-based groupness (Aspinall, 2012). The terms racism and ethnicity are used throughout this chapter, but the question of identity will be returned to towards the end of this study.

Individuals, groups and communities often read events from a particular perspective. The case of Hassiba Boulmerka may be illustrative, in that the Arab-African sportswoman was forced at a particular point in her career to leave Algeria for France in order to escape a backlash from Muslim zealots (Jarvie and Reid 1997: 215). Winner of the women’s 1500 metres final at the 1991 World Athletic Championships, Boulmerka became the first Algerian, first Arab and first African woman to win a gold medal at any World Athletic Championships. On her return to Algeria, the then President Chadli Benjedid greeted her as a national heroine. But Muslim zealots denounced her from the pulpit for baring her most intimate parts (her legs) before millions of television viewers. President Benjedid was himself publicly denounced for embracing a woman in public. At the time, the row underscored the clash between modernity and Islamic fundamentalism. It was a clash that was all the more surprising, given Algeria’s position in the Arab world at the time as the torch-bearer of modernism and socialism and its successful struggle for independence from colonial rule. Hassiba Boulmerka moved to France, and the Islamicists lost an opportunity to promote national unity in Algeria during the early 1990s. However, how should such a case be approached by a researcher or public intellectual, or by an activist or sports enthusiast? Would it be from the standpoint of ethnicity, gender, colonialism or racism? Each of these perspectives would provide only a partial explanation. It is therefore important to be alert in identifying ethnic differences and inequalities and to ask to what extent the category of ethnicity helps to understand or compound any explanation that may be located elsewhere. In the end, while evidence and explanation are important so too are the questions of change and intervention and what tactics might be used to make the world a better place.

The term racism is used widely, and in many cases loosely, in accounts of world sport. It is often associated with many other terms, most notably, race, racial, ethnicity, multiculturalism, multiracial, and discrimination (Alleyne, 2002; Akilade, 2012; Aspinall, 2012; Braham, Rattansi and Skellington, 1995; Nussbaum, 2000). The literature and research on racism in sport is also dominated by the use of certain terms such as black, white, Afro-Caribbean, African, African-American, Asian, people of color, and many other terms that are used in campaigns to symbolize and assert differences between people in sport and in other areas of life (Bass, 2002; Carrington, 2010; Markovits, 2003; McRae, 2003; Wigginton, 2006). The terminology is in constant flux, and historically the generic term black has at times included and excluded different groups of people. There is also instability in the capitalized ‘Black’ and ‘White’ that have served as a reminder of the historical and social fluidity of the terms, while at the same time being used to distance discussions of racism in sport from the logical and historical fallacy of treating ‘racial’ terms as if they were natural categories. In the literature on racism and sport, the term racism often specifically refers to a belief system or systems that sustain racialism, often linking certain characteristics with negatively valued social, psychological or physical traits. Racism in sport is often closely linked to notions of prejudice and the unequal distribution of power resulting from racist behaviour. It is crucial not to generalize, and in this sense it is important to be aware of racisms.

The popularity and social significance of sport have meant that it often has been influenced by a multitude of racial contexts and tensions at different points of time in different parts of the world. Sport itself has had to address and think about challenging specific problems emanating from at least three forms of racism. Structural racism refers to racism embedded within the history of societies and the extent to which this structural racism has had an impact on sport. Factors commonly associated with structural racism include gaps between different racial and ethnic groups in terms of income, education, health and employment. Institutional racism refers to the practices and procedures within sport that discriminate against people. Areas commonly associated with institutional racism in sport include the gaps between different discriminated-against groups in terms of holding positions of influence and power in sport, or the extent to which tensions between different groups become visibly crystallized at sports events because of institutionally racist practices and procedures. Individual racism refers to the actions and attitudes of individuals toward members of ethnic or racial groups. Such actions and attitudes support and often reproduce discrimination and racism through sport.

Enquiries into sport and ethnicity have covered similar terrain, but with some notable differences. The language of ethnicity itself is not unproblematic, and dangers exist when it is used to substitute for the language of race, racism, nationality and/or nationalism. The lack of clarity over the concept of ethnicity and its closeness to nationality much of the debate about sport has focused upon the way in which sport has tended to contribute to ethnic or civic forms of nationalism or identity. Discussions of sport and ethnicity and sport and nationality often overlap, on the basis that once a person is away from their country of origin, their nationality may be taken to be their ethnicity, because of both the acknowledged commonality within a group and acknowledged differences from others. Thus the discussion of sport in Polish, Italian or Scottish communities outside of Poland, Italy and Scotland often clings to the ideas of belonging and identity with these countries, but also to that which differentiates such ethnic communities from other ethnic communities within any host country. Membership of any ethnic group need not be fixed in time, and a people’s sense of identity may wax or wane. Ethnicity, like other categories such as sect, tribe, clan, town or even region often helps to explain questions such as who am I, who else is like me, whom should I trust and who am I not. Sport contributes to answering many of these questions for many ethnic communities, particularly where there is a close relationship with traditional or indigenous sports and games.

When asking about the value of social and political theory in explaining sport, racism and ethnicity, it is tempting to suggest that (i) asking theoretical questions is crucial to allowing us to explain or generalize about sport, racism and ethnicity; (ii) theoretical or hypothesis testing is a necessary part of approaching or organizing research into sport, racism and ethnicity; (iii) theory is capable of illuminating circumstances or, equally, of destroying certain cherished myths that are often taken for granted; (iv) theory stimulates new ideas and is fruitful in terms of generating further areas of research or studies into sport, racism and ethnicity; and (v) theory helps to frame and illuminate the process of decision making and why some decisions take the form that they do and others are rejected. Studies that place the concepts of racism or ethnicity at the heart of the enquiry are not neutral, in the sense that they prioritize certain questions over others.

Drawing upon some of the thinking presented in Carrington (2010: 5), it is worth mentioning, in relation to some aspects of race, sport and politics, that he recognizes that shifts between what he refers to as human freedom and unfreedom, and the history of racial signification in sport, can be used to mark both change and stasis. Race, Sport and Politics is, at the time of writing, one of the most sustained and fresh arguments around this area, and in this sense the intervention is to be welcomed. The key arguments are straightforward in that it is asserted that: (i) sport has become an important if somewhat overlooked arena for the making and remaking of race beyond its own boundaries (p. 3); (ii) the influence of sport upon black politics and, more widely, African diasporic people, how they understand themselves and how such communities are viewed by others is significant (p. 4); and (iii) what the author refers to as the deeply priapean nature of modern sports, and in particular its white colonial framing, needs to be exposed (p. 4). It is a trans-disciplinary study and an attempt to reframe the question of race and sport despotically that makes this a timely intervention.

The notions of racism and ethnicity remain important to our understanding of contemporary life, and they do so in at least two senses. In a socio-economic sense, anti-racism and ethnic relations, policies and practices serve to remind us that racism and ethnicity remain central to a complete social and political understanding of social inequality, social division and social policy. Socio-economic relations between and within different cultures and groups of people provide but one dimension to any contemporary understanding of the politics of sport, racism and ethnicity. In a geo-political sense, the ideas of racism and ethnicity and the continuing conflict between different states, nations and communities also serve to remind us that racial and ethnic mobilizations both within and between different countries also have a geo-political dimension, as well as a socio-economic dimension. The body of research on sport and post-colonialism or sport and ‘others’ has helped to sensitize researchers to just such a geo-political dimension.

Sport and post-colonialism

In drawing attention to the fact that indigenous Australians grew up in historical contexts of racism both inside and outside of sport, Gardiner (2003: 43) concludes that indigenous players have to confront a sports culture in which traditionally white codes attempt to dictate order and define black bodies. The texts that have emerged from indigenous people’s lives in Australia have begun to produce an ‘other’ history of Australian football codes. In reality there is also a rich substantive terrain of women’s sport in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, but, as Hargreaves (2004: 197) points out, there is a dearth of feminist sport literature from outside the West. She draws our attention to the need to develop multiple complex accounts of women in sport, and also to the vital point that too many homogeneous accounts of sporting identity for women tend to conceal many hidden forms of injustice, discrimination and activism in other worlds. This holds true for work on the body and identity, as much as it does for sport. Anne Leseth (2003: 243), talking of dance, sport and the body in Dar-es-Salaam, contrasts the notion of a Western body image with ‘other’ points of view, and in doing so draws upon the words of Betty, a 25-year-old woman living in a squatter area of Dar-es-Salaam, who explains: ‘it is not important whether you have a body shape like a bodybuilder, a beauty queen or a traditional figure, the crux of the matter is how this person moves when it comes to speed and style’ (Leseth, 2003: 242). This powerful piece of ethnography illustrates how the use of sport and dance in Tanzania can produce fundamentally different ways of thinking about bodily practice that take us beyond the traditional way of thinking about colonial sport and the body. It vividly illustrates the power of sport and dance as a means of developing, changing and reshaping lives in a post-colonial Tanzania.

Sport, identity and recognition

It is often argued that it is not identity that colonized nations, developing countries or ethnic groups want, but recognition and a redistribution of resources (Jarvie, 2009). The usual contemporary approach to identity politics in sport tends to start from the idea that identity is constructed dialogically. The proposition is that identity is forged by virtue of the fact that one becomes an individual subject only by virtue of recognizing and being recognized by another subject or group or nation. Recognition is seen as being essential to developing a sense of self, and being mis-recognized involves suffering a sense of distortion of one’s relation to one’s self, and consequently feeling an injured sense of identity (Fraser, 2003). This logic is transferred onto the cultural and political terrain. As a result of repeated encounters with the stigmatizing gaze and the resultant internalizing of negative self- or group-images, the development of a healthy cultural identity is affected. Within this perspective the politics of recognition through sport is mobilized as a potential strategy in the repair of self- or group-dislocation by affirmative action that challenges derogatory or demeaning pictures of the group. The argument is that members of mis-recognized groups or national groups suffering from a lack of identity can jettison such images in favour of self-representations of their own making, and collectively produce a self-affirming culture of recognition. Add to this public assertion the gaining of respect and esteem from society at large and a culture of distorted mis-recognition changes to being one of positive recognition.

This model of how identity politics in sport may operate contains some genuine insights into the effects and practice of racism, colonization, nationalism, imperialism and other forms of identity politics that operate through sport, and yet the model is both theoretically and politically problematic, in that such an approach leads to both the reification of group identity and the displacement of resource distribution. The problems of displacement and the reification of social and political identities in sport are serious insofar as the politics of recognition displaces the politics of redistribution and may actually promote inequality. To promote identity politics in sport as opposed to the politics of recognition runs the danger of encouraging separatism, intolerance, chauvinism, authoritarianism and forms of fundamentalism. This, then, is the problem of reification and identity politics in sport. What is needed is to develop accounts of recognition in sport that can accommodate the full complexity of social identities, including racial and ethnic identities, instead of promoting reification and separatism. This means developing accounts of recognition in sport that allow for issues of redistribution rather than displacing or undermining such concerns in relation to sport, racism and ethnicity.

Moving beyond identity in the search for common ground and capability

There also exists the explicit argument that what binds people together in terms of a common humanity is just as important as the power or weaknesses of a singular identity, ethnic or otherwise. Forcing people into boxes of singular identity is a feature not only of many high theories of culture and civilization but also of a mass of studies that have sought to explain the relationship between sport and national identity. Lovelock et al.’s recent exploration of immigrant experiences of belonging in nature-based settings reflects not only upon studies that have linked nature to national identity, but also that embodied belonging is something, it is argued, that all humans have in common (Lovelock et al., 2011: 527). There is a useful suggestion here that the environment or nature can help assist with providing a sense of common belonging or common ground – but that some new immigrants to New Zealand may never realize embodiment in relation to national or regional parks (ibid.). There are very real dangers, as has been recently argued, with any identity politics that it may become reified or a badge of belonging or a claim to insurgency (Jarvie, 2009).

Seeing people in their environmental or social context can run the danger of classifying people as a member of one group, for example, a national group, whether it be New Zealand, Scotland, China, Canada or elsewhere. The solitarist illusion has implications for the way that global identities are seen and invoked. If a person can have only one ethnic identity, then the choice between the national and the global can become an all or nothing contest, which can be dangerous. It is crucial that reified or solitarist models of identity through sport are questioned, their authority and coherence examined and alternative more socially orientated models of intervention that search for common ground are provided. Thus, it is seen as important, within a capability approach to sport, racism and ethnicity, to confirm what Klein (2001) initially referred to as a reclaiming of the commons, but which Sen (2006) has addressed as the search for common ground. There is an important role not only for any effective global justice movement but also for any effective politics of sport. They may all belong to a series of different alliances and coalitions based upon different issues, while not giving up on the important search for common ground. There is a compelling need for the contemporary world to ask questions not just about identity politics, but also about the common ground that invokes the richness of the many identities and capabilities of human beings.

In 2009, when the then Labour Chief Secretary to the UK Treasury, Liam Byrne, gave a speech on public sector reform, he declared that social justice meant capability and power for everyone (Derbyshire, 2009). In support of the argument, Byrne drew heavily upon Sen, who argued that responsible adults must be in charge of their own well-being but that the capabilities upon which a person can draw to actually make a difference to their own life or situation invariably depend upon the very nature of the social arrangements in which the individual or community find themselves; in other words, their environment.

Sen’s contributions to political discourse serve to remind us that when political parties talk about equality and inequality the first question to ask is often ‘equality of what?’ Redistribution of income and resources certainly matters, but so does what people can do with these resources in order to improve individual and other capabilities. This may apply to individuals, communities and countries. Sen makes the following key distinctions:

  • Functioning: a functioning is an achievement of a person, what she or he manages to do or be. Achieving a functioning with a given bundle of commodities depends on a range of personal and social factors. A functioning refers to the use a person makes of the commodities at his or her command.
  • Capability: a capability reflects a person’s ability to achieve a given functioning
  • Capability set: the capability set describes the set of attainable functioning that can be achieved.

The issues of multiculturalism, ethnicity and racism and the link to people’s lives, freedoms and capabilities are clearly explained in The Ideas of Justice (Sen, 2009). First it is argued that the environment cannot be thought of just in terms surroundings. It must also consider the opportunities or possibilities for development that it offers people. Thus the impact of the environment on human lives and communities must be amongst the primary considerations in assessing its value. Second, the environment is a matter not only of passive preservation but also of active pursuit. It is within human power to enhance the environment in which we live. The power to intervene with effectiveness and reasoning may enhance the process of development itself. Seeing development in terms of increasing the effective freedoms won for and by human beings brings the constructive agency of people engaged in sport within the domain of developmental achievements.

A capability set helps to describe a set of attainable factors that a person can achieve (Sen, 2005). The emphasis on a set of capabilities acquired by an individual, but also by a community or place, reflects opportunities to win further positive freedoms or further choices over lifestyles. This moves us beyond simple dichotomous or singular identity approaches to sport. It adds a new dimension to thinking about sport, politics, ethnicity and racism. The interaction between sport, racisms and ethnicities may certainly be viewed in socio-economic terms or geo-political terms, but in either case what is required is a consideration of how the environment also helps the development of human functions, life chances, choices and further freedoms. One of the strengths of Sen’s framework is that it is flexible and exhibits a considerable degree of freedom for researchers to apply and develop it in different ways.

Clearly, Sen is not alone in thinking that matters of freedom won and social justice need to move beyond elements of material existence. Others would include Nussbaum (2000) and Stiglitz (2006). What matters here is that for both the individual and communities, opportunities must exist to consider development as freedom, and that these necessitate an understanding that to be genuinely free you need a capability set that goes beyond material capability. There is here cogency in thinking about sport, racisms and ethnicity that are about sustaining, extending or winning further freedoms for people or communities. In many cases these further freedoms need to be fought for and won, and therefore in the last section of this chapter issues of sport, racism and ethnicity in the age of activism are considered.

Sport, racism, and ethnicity in an age of activism?

During 2011 a local activist by the name of Parhat Ablat organized a joint Han-Uighur baseball team at Xinjiang University, China. The first part of this section opens with his story. Parhat notes:

Little did I know that the Xinjiang University baseball team, which I led, would have such an unexpected impact. When I took charge, my only intention was to share my love of baseball with the community. But it went beyond that, giving people a chance to interact with someone from a different ethnic background for the first time and create lasting bonds of camaraderie.

Describing the social make-up of the team, Parhat explains:

The players all come from different towns and various ethnic groups in Xinjiang, China. They come from rural and urban locales – some are Uighur, some are Han – while others are Kazakh and other smaller ethnic minorities. For many, it is the first time they have ever talked to someone whose life experience was radically different from their own. The team became a platform where bonds of friendship were built not just on the field, but off the field as well.

He goes on:

If there is one way sports made this possible, it’s by serving as a unifier and giving a group of people a common goal, which in our case was the China National College Baseball Tournament championship.

He explains the significance:

When given the chance to work together, people learn to understand one another. In its own small way, sports can build a more harmonious society. As baseball did in our case, sports in other countries and regions can help build bridges between different groups of people within one country.

Such examples are many, but the role of sport in developing, at least impacting upon, human capabilities and social relationships is often unrecognized, described as unsustainable and lacking a substantive evidence base to inform any real impact upon social policy. Yet such stories are not unusual and should not be dismissed simply because they do not constitute any particular milestone or event in the struggle either for sport or through sport in terms of racism and ethnicity. Sport’s capacity to be a resource of hope for many groups of people is wrongly dismissed, and yet it is not as if sport has not figured in attempts to make different societies and places increasingly free from racism and ethnic struggle.

Table 45.1 identifies some milestones (far from exhaustive) in the emergence of changing sets of race relations in sport. It is crucial to acknowledge that the experience of racism in 1881 would be entirely different from the experience of racism in sport in today. Precisely because the context, time period and comparative physical cultures are different, it is important to remember that any explanation of sport, racism and ethnicity is complex. Nonetheless, sporting milestones such as those in Table 45.1 allow researchers to comment upon both continuity and change in relation to racism in sport and to enter not just a debate about explanation but an opportunity for activism in relation to social change and intervention.

Table 45.1   Milestones in changing race relations in sport




Guyanese-born Andrew Watson captains Scotland, becoming the first black international footballer.


Jesse Owens wins four gold medals for the USA at the Olympics in Berlin.


Jackie Robinson becomes the first black Major League Baseball player of the modern era, debuting for the Brooklyn Dodgers.


Evonne Goolagong wins the French Open and Wimbledon, becoming the first Aborigine to win a tennis grand slam.


Commonwealth leaders agree to discourage sporting links with apartheid South Africa.


Laurie Cunningham becomes the first black footballer to play for England.


During World Cup finals, the National Front actively recruits at England matches.


Foundation of Football Against Racism in Europe.


England bowler Monty Panesar becomes the first Sikh to represent any nation except India in test match cricket.


Emmanuel Adebayor resigned to racism. Real Madrid striker says racism is still ‘part of life’ in and out of football.


Luis Suárez of Liverpool found guilty of racially abusing Patrice Evra of Manchester United.

Sport has been involved with campaigns, activism, policies and protests aimed at discrediting explicit racism and the power of colonialism (Bass, 2002; Bloch, 2012; Eitzen, 2003; James, 1963; Plowden, 1996; Remnick, 2000; Wigginton, 2006). The struggle for sport has involved drawing attention to the fact that, until the 1960s, many black and other peoples of colour in the United States were still denied human and civil rights. The de-colonization of Africa, the attempt to defeat institutional racism in the United States, the overthrow of apartheid in South Africa and the defeat of US imperialism in Cuba and Vietnam have all implicated sport as an area of activism, if not of policy intervention. The publication of Outside In by Labour Party activist, Member of Parliament and anti-apartheid campaigner Peter Hain serves as a reminder of the part played by sport in bringing about change in South Africa (Hain, 2012).

Some of the most prominent areas of legislation and injustice in sport have grown out of struggles over racism: (i) the period of apartheid sport in South Africa from 1948 to 1992, when specific racial legislation which separated the practice of sport by racial groupings gave rise to the international slogan ‘You cannot have normal sport in an abnormal society’; (ii) the practice of colonialism in many parts of the world, which formed the backcloth to sporting relations between many countries. During the 1960s and 1970s the cricket rivalry between England and the West Indies reflected racial tensions and racism rooted in years of colonial struggle. Terms such as White Wash and Black Wash were used to refer to English or West Indian victories while at the same time sport took on the mantle of symbolic colonial/anti-colonial struggle both between the two teams and also in the selection of the West Indian team, as is explained in C. L. R. James’s (1963) classic period account of West Indian cricket; (iii) the popularity and worldwide coverage of sport has meant that sport as vehicle for protest has been a successful medium for drawing attention to the treatment of Black Americans as second-class citizens in the United States of America and in American sport, as evidenced by the Black Power protests at the 1968 Mexico Olympic Games. The extent to which Aborigine or Inuit peoples have also been marginalized in mainstream Australian or Canadian sport has also been a target for sporting activists. For example, much of the coverage of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games revolved around the performances of the 400 metres Olympic Gold Medallist Cathy Freeman and the plight of Aborigine people living in contemporary Australia; and (iv) legislation such as the UK Race Relations Acts of 1976 and 2004 and various amendments provide the machinery of the law to investigate and act against racism in all walks of life in Britain, including sport. The UK Equalities Act of 2010 lays out employment rights to which workers, including sports workers, are entitled under the racial discrimination provisions within the Act.

There have been important historical moments that can often symbolize a prejudice, a protest, an ideology or the breaking down of barriers. Sport has been racist, but has also provided some of the most poignant anti-racist moments. In 1881 Andrew Watson became the first black player to play for Scotland at football/soccer. In August 1936 Jesse Owens won an unprecedented four gold medals at the Olympic Games in Berlin, in Nazi Germany. In 1938 Joe Louis crushed Max Schmeling, signalling the end of a period of white supremacy in boxing. In 1967 Muhammad Ali, the World Heavyweight boxing champion, condemned the war in Vietnam, arguing that he did not have any quarrel with the Vietcong. In October 1968 American black athletes protested, on the Olympic medal rostrum, against the treatment of black people in America and elsewhere, notably South Africa. Evonne Cawley (Goolagong) became the first aboriginal Australian to play in a Wimbledon tennis final in 1971, while Arthur Ashe became the first black American to win the Wimbledon Men’s Tennis Championship in 1973. In 1995 Nelson Mandela, following South Africa’s victory in the Rugby World Cup, talked of sport as a force that could mobilize the sentiments of a people in a way that nothing else could. In 1998, when Zinedine Zidan lifted the Football World Cup for France, the French President talked of the French football team as being symbolic of the new, multi-racial, integrated France. In 2001 Pele, arguably the world’s greatest footballer, endorsed a worldwide anti-racist campaign in football with the words that racism is cowardice that comes from fear, a fear of difference. In February 2002 Vonetta Flowers became the first African American to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympic Games. In 2011 England bowler Monty Panesar became the first Sikh to represent any nation except India in Test Match cricket.

In 1997, when Tiger Woods won the golf Masters and donned the green jacket that accompanied the winning of the coveted title, golf became thrilling to watch for an entirely new audience. On the hallowed putting greens of Augusta, where Woods would not have been allowed membership a few years earlier, history had been made. Social change through sport occurred, and at the time America did not have the language to deal with the change. Not since Lee Elder squared off against Jack Nicklaus in a sudden-death play-off at the American Golf Classic in 1968 had a black golfer gained so much televised attention (Bass, 2002). The sports press cast the feat of Woods as breaking a modern colour line, yet no one, including Woods himself, could fully describe exactly what colour line had been broken. The press conveyed his parental heritage as variously African American, Asian and Native American; overwhelming numbers of others portrayed Woods as a black athlete, a golfer who had brought about change in the same way that had been attributed to the likes of Jesse Owens, Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Muhammad Ali, Tydie Pickett, Louise Stokes, Vonetta Flowers and Alice Cochrane. Woods did not consider himself in such terms, but embraced a more nuanced racial heritage that was more representative of the melting pot imagery associated with American history and a determining demographic factor of the so-called Generation X (Bass, 2002: xvi).

In times of hardship and scarce resources the potential for conflict between groups of people is often highlighted. The economic and financial crisis from 2008 to the present has left deep scars that will take a long time to heal and that will shape policy making for years to come. Lower potential output, higher total and long-term unemployment, vast public and private debt, and volatile capital markets are just some features of the new reality that policy makers face. Income inequality has widened further, too, which is not helpful for long-term growth. Invariably, certain groups of people are often disproportionately affected. These challenges are daunting and sport is not the answer, but it has a part to play and can often be part of a process or a platform to build upon and develop those human capabilities and further freedoms mentioned by Sen and others.


While it is important to explain and understand sport, racism and ethnicity, the more important questions emanate from questions relating to social change. It is certainly important to ask: What empirical evidence can we draw upon to substantiate aspects of sport, racism and ethnicity? (What is happening?) What theories, ideas and concepts can we draw upon to explain and analyse this substantive evidence? (How can we make sense of what is happening?) What capacity does sport have to produce social change? (What can be done to produce change?) What is the contemporary role of the student, intellectual or researcher in the public arena? (What are you going to do about it?). Yet it is the interplay between these questions that is perhaps more important. It is the constant interplay between theory, explanation, evidence and intervention that is one of the hallmarks of the best research into sport, racism and ethnicity. We need evidence in order to combat racism in sport, but we also need advocacy.

This chapter has attempted to do several things: (i) it has demonstrated that racism in aspects of leisure remains a contemporary problem in many parts of the world; (ii) it has outlined some key concepts, definitions and legislation that have been used to explain the relationship between sport, racism and ethnicity; (iii) it has recognized the impact of post-colonialism and other bodies of work that have highlighted that racism should be considered in both a socio-economic and a geo-political sense; and (iv) it has rejected the argument that identity in sport is enough and suggested that future studies of sport, racism and ethnicity might consider the way in which sport potentially helps to develop human and economic capabilities, and also a sense of common ground.

At the beginning of the chapter it was suggested that studies of the relationship between leisure and racism have not dominated the fields of Leisure Studies, Race Relations, Ethnic and Racial Studies, Sociology or other bodies of knowledge, but they have made a contribution to what we know about racism, how it pervades many cultures, takes many different forms and must remain a focus of any social or progressive twenty-first-century political agenda. The question was also asked as to whether the challenge of racism has been a political success or failure for Leisure Studies. The answer to such a question must remain open, and yet the opportunity to do more is also open to any genuinely progressive political party, university, journal or society, to name but a few potential drivers of change.


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