Society too dumb to heed sport’s inclusive message

Ultimately the exploits of Les Bleus won’t solve political tensions in France, says Tommy Martin

Society too dumb to heed sport’s inclusive message

To paraphrase that famous quote about team spirit attributed to the Scottish footballer Steve Archibald, racial harmony might be an illusion best glimpsed in the aftermath of victory.

You won’t find too many people in France falling for it.

Any suggestion that the success of their multi-cultural Les Bleus represents a blueprint for a happily integrated nation was quickly rubbished in the afterglow of France’s World Cup final win.

Once bitten, twice shy, and all that. Most were quick to point to the myths and mistakes of 1998, when official France anointed the World Cup-winning side composed of ‘black, blanc, beur’ (black, white, and Arab) as poster-children for a progressive and united nation.

That country didn’t exist. Instead, the subsequent decades saw the rise of the far-right Front National, escalating tensions in the poorer immigrant communities and the Islamist terror threat so tragically realised on the night of November 13, 2015.

Now France salutes the class of 2018 but doesn’t expect them to heal. They know that’s the job of politicians like President Emmanuel Macron, who positioned himself front and centre throughout the Moscow celebrations lest some of the team’s reflected glory boost his falling approval ratings.

And yet sport continues to throw up simple parables about racial integration even as the world around it grows more complicated, fearful and splintered. If Les Bleus don’t mean that talented people of any skin colour can work together towards a common goal, what do they mean?

What does it mean when Irish athletics teams featuring first generation African immigrants achieve international success? Does having athletes with names like Gina Akpe-Moses and Patience Jumbo-Gula running alongside athletes with names like Ciara Neville and Molly Scott represent a bright, shiny, new, and multi-cultural Ireland?

Beware the lessons of Les Bleus.

Ireland’s young black athletes are clearly proud to represent their country, but they are probably well aware that they are not living in a great big melting pot either. They might know about successive rises in racist hate crimes as reported by European Network Against Racism Ireland (ENAR Ireland) or claims by the National Youth Council that racism was a ‘normal’ feature of life for many young people from minority ethnic communities.

Or the ESRI’s report from earlier this year that said 45% of Irish people agreed with the statement that “some races are born harder working,” while almost 50% of Irish people believe “some cultures are better than others”. Or the fact that according to the ESRI the non-EU national group of immigrants are far more likely to be unemployed and suffer income poverty.

If you are an Irish sports fan, it’s only natural to relish the emergence of new ethnic groups in our hitherto shallow genetic pool. You think of the fast-twitch fibre speed found more commonly in those of west African descent and imagine Irish sporting teams getting the benefit in years to come.

But doesn’t it feel a bit reductive to view members of immigrant communities as some sort of magic ingredient in a sporting livestock breeding programme? Are we as enthusiastic about what immigrants can contribute to other walks of life? We embrace the idea of immigrants as athletes, but what about teachers, scientists, politicians…TV presenters?

In the aftermath of France’s success, some have pointed to their ability, and those of their predecessors as World Cup winners, Germany and Spain, to ‘mass-industrialise’ the production of football talent. As large, rich western European states, they are able to turn the development of young footballers into a sort of high-yield battery farming operation.

Much of this process focuses on communities that are marginalised in other areas of the national economy. Taking the time-honoured notion that those from poor backgrounds use sport as a means to escape their circumstances, the system targets them and gives them the support needed to fulfil their dreams.

Unfortunately, the same system doesn’t need or want to help them become doctors, lawyers, or part of the political power structure, so it doesn’t ‘mass-industrialise’ that.

No greater evidence of this hypocrisy exists than in England, where the exploits of a multi-ethnic team — the products of an elite soccer industry — have been celebrated, while a parallel fear of immigrant cultural infestation is stoked up by powerful sections of media and politics.

It is no coincidence that sport has often found itself the forum in which powerful arguments for racial progress are made. Jesse Owens making a mockery of Hitler’s doctrines of Aryan supremacy; athletes like Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali breaking down America’s segregationist mindset; footballers like Cyrille Regis and Viv Anderson confronting the terracing racism of 1970s England; Colin Kaeparnick’s courage in taking the knee during the national anthem in the NFL at the cost of his own career and the opprobrium of conservative America.

Sport finds itself making a fool of society’s prejudices and inequalities precisely because it is the sort of meritocracy that the wider world cannot tolerate. That’s not to say that sportspeople do not experience racism within their chosen fields; the names I’ve just mentioned are evidence of that. It’s just that sport quickly exposes prejudice and marginalisation for the empty concepts that they are.

Ultimately sport cares only for fastest, strongest, best — not who you are and where you’re from.

The French soccer team and the medal-winning Irish athletes make us confront issues about race in society because they are visible.

Sport allows them to be visible because it is not interested in preserving power-structures, fear of the other, religious intolerance or half-baked notions of one culture being superior to another — the things that keep minorities hidden and oppressed in other walks of life.

Rhasidat Adeleke is fast; Kylian Mbappé is brilliant — nothing else matters.

It might be simplistic to see a manifesto for a better society in a mere sports team, but that’s only because the rest of the world is so dumb.

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