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If last year was dominated by Marcus Rashford’s rise to become one of the UK’s most prominent campaigners, this year proved his decision to embrace speaking out wasn’t just a one-off.
Historically, athletes have shied away from commenting on politics or other potentially controversial subjects. Whether it’s fearing backlash from fans or sponsors, or feeling like what they have to say won’t make a difference, ‘stick to sports‘ has been a mantra keeping athletes quiet for decades.
But the past year has seen all of that change, as the floodgates opened to see stars from all sports and backgrounds use their voice and platforms to speak up about the things that matter to them.
The murder of George Floyd in 2020 proved to be a catalyst for people everywhere protesting racial injustice, and similarly sparked action among athletes in the United States and across the world. That momentum has carried through to 2021, as some of the world’s most prominent athletes stepped up their own campaigns.
Whether it’s England defender Tyrone Mings directly criticising Home Secretary Priti Patel for ‘stoking the fire’ of racism on Twitter, or cricketer Azeem Rafiq exposing the discrimination and abuse he was subjected to by teammates and officials at Yorkshire Cricket Club, it’s clearer than ever that athletes are no longer willing to remain silent.
Following the horrific racist abuse aimed at England’s Black players after their devastating penalty loss against Italy this summer, almost every player in the England squad was unequivocal in their condemnation of so-called fans behind the abuse. The sentiment was summed up best by captain Harry Kane, who tweeted, ‘If you abuse anyone on social media you’re not an England fan, and we don’t want you.’
This kind of message, directly calling out fans for their racism, would have been an unthinkable thing for an England captain to say only a few years ago, and is just one example of the power social media has given players to speak out on their own terms.
If the Euros shined a light on the lengths we still have to go to kick racism out of sport, the Olympics sent an even clearer message about the weight our most famous athletes carry on their shoulders.
When Simone Biles withdrew from a number of gymnastics events in Tokyo, the predictable voices took to the pages of their tabloid columns to accuse her of ‘quitting’ and letting down her team. But the reality of the situation was completely the opposite.
By walking away from competition, Biles – perhaps the most famous Olympian in the world at the time – showed athletes around the globe that it is okay to put yourself first, sending a message that ultimately proved more inspiring, and more beneficial to her team and her country than any gold medal ever could.
In comments made following her decision, Biles summarised what athletes like her are achieving by speaking out, explaining that ‘at the end of the day, we are athletes and it is our craft, but we are human too’.
While some sports have encouraged their athletes to use their voices, others are conspicuous in their silence. Over the last month, Formula One has held races in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – countries notable for their poor record when it comes to LGBTQ+ and women’s rights. A small handful of drivers – including Lewis Hamilton – spoke out on the issue, but it was painfully clear that the sport was all too happy to overlook questions about human rights, despite continuing to promote the slogan of ‘We Race As One’.
And motorsport isn’t the only place where words have failed to translate into action. Earlier this year, when Naomi Osaka announced she wouldn’t be participating in press conferences to protect her mental health, rather than following through on their pledges to support athlete’s mental wellbeing, the French Open threatened to fine her, ultimately leading her to withdraw from the tournament.
When Osaka eventually did attempt to participate in a press conference in August at the US Open, aggressive questions from some journalists reduced her to tears, and left one of tennis’s biggest global stars questioning her future in the sport.
Thankfully, even if those at the top of sports governing bodies don’t get it, millions of people around the world do. Osaka’s no-holds-barred approach to discussing her mental health was widely praised by fellow athletes and fans, and her impact on her fellow tennis professionals is already being seen in the likes of Emma Raducanu, who has been vocal about her own choice to prioritise her wellbeing over the media hype and attention that has followed her since her breakthrough this year.
At its best, sport’s power to unite and inspire is almost unique in today’s world. But the idea that athletes are shielded from the problems in wider society because of their wealth and status has damaged both them and ourselves. 2021 was the year that athletes rejected those assumptions, let’s hope 2022 brings more of the same.
If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article and wish to speak to someone in confidence, contact Stop Hate UK by visiting their website www.stophateuk.org/talk
If you’re experiencing distressing thoughts and feelings, the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) is there to support you. They’re open from 5pm–midnight, 365 days a year. Their national number is 0800 58 58 58 and they also have a webchat service if you’re not comfortable talking on the phone
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