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Home / Columns / Why don’t more Indian sportstars make a play for justice?

Why don’t more Indian sportstars make a play for justice?

Without a word, Naomi Osaka made herself heard during the US Open. She wore a different black mask at each of her seven games; each one bore the name of a Black person killed in police action.

columns Updated: Sep 20, 2020, 10:37 IST
Rudraneil Sengupta
Rudraneil Sengupta
Hindustan Times
Naomi Osaka at the US Open.
Naomi Osaka at the US Open. (AFP)

In Naomi Osaka, we have the makings of a bona fide tennis great. With three Grand Slam wins at 22, she is already a star. So, when I say great, I mean someone who can build a legacy that will last for a long, long time, like Osaka’s idol Serena Williams has done; someone who has that once-in-a-generation spark.

It’s not just her game — built, like Williams’s, on explosive groundstrokes and a rocket serve. It’s not just that at 21 she was already a two-time Grand Slam champion and World No 1 and then saw the ground slipping from under her, learnt to adapt, worked on her weaknesses, got stronger and made a comeback. It’s also her voice, her confidence in taking a stand all through a tournament (the US Open) where she was also mounting her comeback. Incidentally, she also won.

That takes conviction. It takes belief. It takes courage. Osaka wore seven black masks, a different one for each match she played in New York. Each mask bore the name of a Black person killed by police action in the US. Some, like Tamir Rice (Mask 7, for the final), were children; others, like Breonna Taylor (Mask 1), were shot at night in their own homes.

Osaka, whose father is from Haiti and mother from Japan, has been a powerful voice in the Black Lives Matter movement even before this tournament, attending rallies and speaking out on social networks.

Over in Europe, Lewis Hamilton has been doing the same, while crushing the Formula1 season (he is currently one win away from Michael Schumacher’s all-time record of 91 race wins). In Italy, where he won his 90th last weekend, Hamilton wore a T- shirt that read “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor”.

Do you remember the last time an Indian athlete protested like this — for a larger cause, I mean; not their own complaint about not getting a Khel Ratna? The only time I can think of is 2008, when Bhaichung Bhutia, then India’s football captain, refused to carry the Olympic torch for the Beijing Games because he stood for the cause of Tibetan independence.

Why is it that Indian sportspeople don’t speak out against injustices or in support of social causes in India? There are two big reasons; one is universal, the other local. The universal reason is that sportspeople are expected, by the people who run sports, to not raise their voices. There is a deeply hypocritical reason behind this: ‘Politics should be kept out of sports,’ it is said. If that were true, why is there such pride in athletes representing their country? Why are the Olympics such a site of flag-waving nationalism?

Nations use sport as a powerful political tool; just look at India-Pak cricket and how play fluctuates in line with India-Pak relations. If athletes take an individual stand, though, they are routinely crushed. From Muhammad Ali refusing to be drafted for Vietnam to Colin Kaepernick taking a knee in 2016, sports authorities effectively ensure that a conscientious athlete’s career ends almost immediately. (It is what makes this moment in sport, these protests against racial violence, so unique — although they have the backing, however grudging, of those who run certain sports).

The second, local reason, is hard state control. Indian athletes, barring cricketers and footballers, are at the mercy of the government. Just about everything they do is controlled and funded by the State, and very early in life, they are made to understand how they must bow to authority. It’s a lesson they are never allowed to forget; all our athletes have a fair idea of the hell that will descend on them were they to dissent even on minor points like the quality of their coaching, or the facilities provided, forget major political or social causes.

As a colleague pointed out, in sports, what we have in India is the hard control model of the Chinese state, minus the efficiency.

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