This year has shown why athletes shouldn’t just ‘stick to the sport’


While the past year has been dominated by Marcus Rashford’s rise to become one of the UK’s foremost activists, this year has proven that his decision to speak out was not just one-off.

Historically, athletes have avoided commenting on politics or other potentially controversial topics. Whether it’s fearing a reaction from fans or sponsors, or thinking that what they have to say won’t make a difference, ‘stick to the sport’ has been a mantra that has kept athletes silent ever since. decades.

But the past year has seen all of this change, as the floodgates have opened to see stars from all sports and walks of life use their voices and platforms to speak out about the things that matter to them.

Naomi Osaka (Alamy)Alamy

The murder of George Floyd in 2020 proved to be a catalyst for people around the world protesting racial injustice and also sparked action among athletes in the United States and around the world. This momentum continued until 2021, when some of the world’s most prominent athletes stepped up their own campaigns.

Whether it is England defender Tyrone Mings directly criticizing Home Secretary Priti Patel for “stoking the fire” of racism on Twitter, or cricketer Azeem Rafiq denouncing the discrimination and abuse he has been subjected to. victimized by his teammates and Yorkshire Cricket Club officials, it is clearer than ever that athletes are no longer willing to remain silent.

Following the horrific racist abuse targeting black England players after their devastating penalty loss to Italy this summer, almost all England squad players unequivocally condemned the so-called fans behind the abuse . The sentiment was best summed up by Captain Harry Kane, who tweeted: “If you abuse someone on social media, you are not a fan of England and we don’t want you.”

This kind of post, directly appealing to fans for their racism, would have been something unthinkable for an England captain just a few years ago, and is just one example of the power social media has given to players in the world. express alone. terms.

Mural by Marcus Rashford (Alamy)Alamy

While the euros have highlighted how much effort remains to be made to eradicate racism from 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, predictable voices went through the pages of their tabloid columns to accuse her of “quitting” and dropping her. team. But the reality of the situation was completely the opposite.

Stepping away from competition, Biles – perhaps the world’s most famous Olympian at the time – showed athletes around the world that it’s okay to come first, sending a message that s ultimately proved to be more inspiring and beneficial to his team and his country than any gold medal.

In comments following her decision, Biles summed up what athletes like her accomplish by speaking out, explaining that “at the end of the day we are athletes and that’s our job, but we are too. humans ”.

Simone Biles (Alamy)Alamy

While some sports have encouraged their athletes to make their voices heard, others shine with their silence. Over the past month, Formula 1 has hosted races in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, countries known for their poor LGBTQ + and women’s rights records. A small handful of pilots – including Lewis Hamilton – spoke out on the matter, but it was painfully clear that the sport was only too happy to ignore human rights issues, despite the slogan continued to be promoted. 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 that she would not attend press conferences to protect her mental health, rather than keep her commitments to support the mental well-being of athletes, the French Open threatened to fine her, ultimately leading her to withdraw from The Tournament.

When Osaka finally tried to attend a press conference in August at the US Open, aggressive questions from some reporters reduced her to tears and left one of the world’s biggest tennis stars wondering. his future in sport.

Fortunately, even if those at the top of sport’s governing bodies don’t understand it, millions of people around the world do. Osaka’s unrestrained approach to discussing her mental health has been widely praised by her fellow athletes and fans, and its impact on her fellow tennis professionals is already visible in Emma Raducanu, who has expressed her own choice to prioritize her. well-being in the face of the hype and attention that has followed it since its breakthrough this year.

At its best, the power of sport to unite and inspire is almost unique in today’s world. But the idea that athletes are immune to the problems of society at large because of their wealth and status has damaged them and us. 2021 was the year that athletes rejected these assumptions, hopefully 2022 will bring more.

If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article and want to speak to someone with confidence, contact Stop Hate UK by visiting their website.

If you are having painful thoughts and feelings, the Campaign Against Miserable Living (CALM) is here to support you. They are open from 5 p.m. to midnight, 365 days a year. Their national number is 0800 58 58 58 and they also have a online chat service if you are not comfortable talking on the phone

Naomi C. Amerson