The Other Contest: Race and Gender in Sport
Being female, or a person of colour, is even more challenging in sports.
In discussion of discrimination in sport, gender and race usually shadow one another. Athletes at the receiving end face breakdowns and trauma, but seldom respond to the situation, as their energies must be focussed on the actual play. But once it is over, the brave ones reveal their real champion personalities, courageously upholding the urge to strive for the dignity that every human craves.
Being female, or a person of colour, can be even more challenging. Like her compatriots Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Wyomia Tyus, two- time Olympics gold medallist in the 100 metres dash, made her own protest at racial discrimination at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. Smith and Carlos’ black power salutes at the medal ceremony drew world- wide attention. Tyus’protest- she wore black shorts after her gold medal victory- went unnoticed. When asked why, Tyus said, “Because I was a woman. Who cared?"
Such protests bring into focus the true nature of sport- that it is not just sport. In our obsession with power and skill in television-led Kabuki, we tend to lose sight of this. Sport is about identity, ethics, empowerment, patriotism and honour, and something as prosaic as survival. If we add to this machismo and xenophobia, we get the picture of sport as full-spectrum. This makes gender, class, race and ethnicity important areas of enquiry in their own right, going beyond the sporting aspects.
Purists argue that recognition in sport comes from performance, and not gender, class, race or ethnicity. A player’s origins do not count. Sport is so visible and mathematical that we can see excellence, or the lack of it, for what it is. It is easy to assess a sportsman by observing him in play. Even if the naked eye misses the plot, television replays dissect the minutest of actions. Being rule- based and relatively transparent, sport is pure and unadulterated. Thus, sportsmen escape debates over their origins.
Is this necesarily true? For example, can hockey players from suppressed communities transcend their origins by playing good hockey? There does not seem a clear answer. As a performance- based activity that is keenly- judged, hockey can be a platform for social emancipation. But just like other sports, hockey is also blighted by discrimination based on gender, class, race and ethnicity.
Besides, hockey is played for power and prestige, and not just for sporting ends. Hockey players and managers have goals beyond sport, implying that hockey, as well as offering emancipation, can also be used to uphold the existing order of things. The ends are calculated not to cause disruption.
So, how can we prevent power, which has been historically expressed throgh divisions of gender, class, race and ethnicity, from intruding into hockey play or management? The tussle could be between male and female, rich and poor, black and white, Australian and Malaysian. The list goes on.
India and Pakistan, simply by doing well, took racism out of the equation. It was difficult to dislodge them from the pantheon because they had the figures to show. This thought was articulated to me by the prescient Neandro Negre, former president of the International Hockey Federation. Negre is a Spaniard, and he should know what Europe thinks of hockey elsewhere. Using a performance- driven platform, hockey escaped the racism of football. This remains the case.
But not so cricket. This is because the traditional cricket powers- all of them white (England, Australia and South Africa)- have dominated the sport. Their combined record puts them ahead of the rest, and this might explain their sense of entitlement. Countries like the West Indies and, to a lesser degree, India, have used cricket to respond to perceived colonial slights. George Dobell writes on West Indies cricket in Cricinfo.com: “Denied opportunities in other fields, cricket presented a rare opportunity to compete on something approaching a level playing field. And an opportunity to inflict just a little pain back upon the old colonial master.”
The hockey World Cup at Bhubaneswar showed up players and officials as an extended family. Being only a second- tier sport for the fans means hockey must develop a sociology of equity, just to celebrate good human behaviour. So, when an opportunity arises, players and officials from all over the world mingle and share cultural experiences. The Hockey India League, the most international of all the hockey leagues, did a lot of good to keep the lid on potential racial situations on the field. This makes hockey the white knight sport of our times.
But recall what Tyus said about gender in athletics. Hockey and cricket players too face gender discrimination. Ask any player, across continents (though they don’t usually initiate the conversation), and this becomes clear.
British hockey player Maddie Hinch said: “Some of the girls in the British team still pay a £5 match fee to play on a Saturday, which seems a bit crazy.” Hockey player Savita Punia told DNA: “When it comes to TV coverage, hockey fans get to see the men’s team more often,” adding, “with cricket being the dominant sport in India, hockey matches don’t stand much chance of being televised, but channels should screen our matches once we enter the quarter-finals. We work as hard as other sportspersons.” Hockey India announced the launch of a league for women in 2013, but made no headway, while the men’s league continued.
Cricket follows hockey in the different rules it sets for men and women. BBC reported that, in March, 2018, the day before International Women’s Day, the Board of Control for Cricket in India announced discriminatory contracts for the men’s and women’s teams. Top male players would earn 70 million rupees ($1.07m; £774,900) a year, while the top women players would earn 5 million rupees ($76,950; £55,344).
Often, officials cite marketing considerations as the culprit. But this conceals deeper cultural prejudices against women everywhere. Affirmative action helps, but education has to be over the long haul. Most of all, women becoming their own voices helps. Monika Malik, a member of the victorious women’s hockey team at the 2017 Asia Cup told ANI, "We are feeling very proud after becoming the champion of Asia. The men’s hockey team just got the gold medal and now we did it as well. However, I am a little disappointed because our matches were not telecast live on television like those of men." From such voices we can appreciate the transformative power of sport.
Jitendra Nath Misra is a former ambassador. He advises the Government of Odisha on Sports and is a visiting professor at Jamia Millia Islamia.