Chris Montgomery Yleinen

Can politics and sport mix?

Some time ago I wrote a blog about whether politics and religion can mix. This time I would like to focus on politics and sport – should they be kept apart or not, and how should we as Christians approach the question?

     When a sports tournament is held, the organisers need to consider several controversial issues well in advance: can the tournament be held in a country with a bad human rights record? Can the tournament be environmentally friendly? Is a sports tournament the right place to take a stand against racism or in favour of LGBT+ rights? This is especially topical this summer, what with the recently held 2020/2021 European Championships and the upcoming Olympics.

     I was pleased to see footballers ”taking the knee” before some matches. This has become a widely recognised and very visual way of showing opposition to racism. Some opposed it, since they connect taking the knee with all the beliefs of all who support the Black Lives Matter movement, including the suggestion of abolishing the police in some American cities. On the other hand, these opponents of taking the knee do not suggest any other way of visually opposing racism, so their apttitude strikes me as destructive rather than constructive.

     UEFA was in a difficult situation when it tried to decide whether to allow open displays of support for LGBT+ rights. In its public statements it opposes discrimination, but it found itself unable to allow pro-LGBT+ banners at a match, because it feared causing a row with host countries such as Azerbaijan and Russia. These countries are members of UEFA, so have signed up to UEFA’s opposition to anti-LGBT+ discrimination, so it is difficult to see where the problem lay. No doubt the same issues will come up at the Olympics, and more.  

     Some want to keep politics out of sport entirely. This is impossible, because politics is reflected in everything. For example, the fact that tournaments and stadiums have sponsors is pure capitalism – they didn’t use to have, before big money became involved in sport. Merely playing a tournament in, for example South Africa during the apartheid years, or Belarus nowadays equates with in some way approving of that regime. Some might say that issues such as opposing racism are activism rather than politics. However, it is also almost impossible to distinguish between politics and activism. Typical activist topics such as opposing racism, supporting the LGBT+ movement and protecting the environment are all very political topics!

     I have been rereading the Acts of the Apostles recently. Paul travelled extensively and spoke fearlessly about Christianity wherever he went, often at the risk of his life. At the same time, he knew how to be diplomatic. Note his speech to the Athenians (chapter 17) in which he seeks common ground with his audience, rather than to create confrontation. Christians must always stand up for what is right – and surely treating all people as equals, as brothers or sisters, regardless of their skin colour, religion or sexual orientation – is an example of doing right. At the same time doing right is best done through dialogue and cooperation rather than confrontation.

Chris Montgomery 

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