Jesse Owens’ four 1936 medals in Berlin put the idea of a master race in perspective. At the darkest moments of the Second World War, his achievements pointed to the inevitable.
Another gold medalist, Muhammad Ali, attacked racism and war in Vietnam. Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky fought a Cold War proxy battle over a chess board and drew the sting from tense Soviet and American relations.
What a pity that America and North Korea don’t have a comparable opportunity today. Nelson Mandela, a moral force of our time, never spoke more reassuringly than when he wore a Springbok jersey during the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Even Fifa, that powerful if suspect organisation, had to allow commemorative poppies be worn at significant anniversaries.
Ireland’s most powerful sports organisation was founded 132 years ago to ostensibly promote Irish games but it was, and is, a more effective political organisation than nearly all political parties trading in this Republic.
The independence events we remember today would not have happened without the nursery for nationalism dressed as a sports organisation — the GAA.
The determination of the rugby community to play their game under a 32-county umbrella was a lifeline during the Troubles. That unity kept back channels open when many old relationships soured. The difficulty of doing that is epitomised by those who rankle at the compromise around anthems preceding some games.
The arrangement is seen as an affront by some rather than what it really is — a powerful expression of real, confident republicanism. Just yesterday Taoiseach Leo Varadkar joined the team in London trying to win the 2023 World Cup for Ireland. His presence was significant just as the absence of France’s Emmanuel Macron was.
The times when politics were not central to sport are more unusual than when they are not — as President Trump has discovered. His son-of-a-bitch attack on athletes who kneel while America’s anthem is played because of festering race issues can hardly be described as a new low but it may prove a turning point.
Former San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick began the protest and he has been supported by peers in many sports. Their dignity stands in contrast to their President’s inflammatory and offensive guff that, after Charlottesville, reiterate an age-old and a sinister message.
We have reached a sorry pass when a 24-year-old footballer, Chris Conley of the Kansas City Chiefs, makes more sense than the leader of the free world: “When will people learn that fear won’t make someone sit down, it quite possibly will make more stand up for what they believe in.”
All around the world athletes are preparing for the Tokyo Olympics, others for world cups or All Irelands. Hopefully, the Democrats’ efforts to find a candidate to succeed President Trump are at least as vigorous because this is a real world game the liberal, sane West cannot lose again.