x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Racism in sport must not be tolerated

Bigotry at sporting events is not a new problem, but now is the time for the issue to be dealt with head on.

Mario Balotelli had to endure racist chanting and banners when playing for Italy last month.
Mario Balotelli had to endure racist chanting and banners when playing for Italy last month.

It was eight years ago, at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai, when I got my first experience of racism in sports and I wish I had not. It broke the very edifices that I thought sports fans held dear and it shattered the myths that I had held since childhood.

At the moment, and for many months to follow, I wished I had an even darker skin, a feeling borne from a sense of solidarity with the victim. There was self-loathing and even shame that I shared my home city with such villainous bigots.

To recount, it was a Test match between India and the West Indies, and Merv Dillon from the visiting team was the main target of the insolent chauvinists. It was the second day when he was targeted by a few monkey chants and howls. On the third day, it got worse. For almost a session, Dillon suffered the howls, which grew louder every time he returned to third man after bowling an over.

It happened for so long and was so loud that there could be no room for doubt. Yet, the next day, our officials seemed surprised at the allegations, just as they were by Andrew Symonds' claims five years later in Vadodara.

Nobody should, of course, be surprised by the denials. We Indians may not have the fairest skins, but racism and ethnocentrism are an integral part of the society. You are a Mallu, Gujju, Ghaati, Bhayya, Thambi or Miya.

Kaalu, meaning dark-skinned, becomes a default nickname if you are a shade darker than the rest. Fairness creams, for both men and women, do brisk business.

Why do I talk of this now? The recent treatment of Italy striker Mario Balotelli by his own fans,against Romania last month, has brought back those painful memories. Fans held up a banner reading, "No to a multi-ethnic national team", and others sang "there are no Italian blacks", a reference to the Manchester City player of Ghanaian ancestry.

It is fair to wonder what George Orwell would have thought if he was present at that game and saw what Balotelli had to suffer. He would have surely deemed sports as not just an "unfailing cause of ill-will", but also a domain of racial bigots and a means of "dehumanising" and "demonising" a race. Balotelli's suffering hardly lends any credence to sport's claims of being a unifying factor.

It is not the first instance of racism in Italian or international football. Marc Zoro (in the Italian league), and Samuel Eto'o (in the Spanish league) famously threatened to walk off the pitch after suffering incessant racial taunts. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Adrian Mutu have faced chants of "foul Gypsy".

It is not just the fans who indulge in such behaviour. Luis Aragones, the former Spain coach, refused to apologise for invoking race while criticising Thierry Henry. Ron Atkinson, formerly the manager at Manchester United and Aston Villa, used even more violent language in describing Marcel Desailly on TV.

This scourge exists in other sports. In 1997, the golfer Fuzzy Zoeller's comments about Tiger Woods preferring "fried chicken" and "collard greens" made headlines at the US Masters. In 2001, Richard Williams, father of tennis players Venus and Serena, said that racial slurs were directed at him and Venus at a tournament in Indians Wells, California.

About 91 years before that, Jack Johnson, the first African-American boxing heavyweight championship, had to defend his title against James Jeffries in a bout where ringside bands played racist songs and promoters encouraged racist taunts from the fans.

Race riots flared across the US after Johnson's victory.

Jesse Owens was ignored by Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Games, but even his own president, Franklin Roosevelt, refused to invite the athlete to the White House for fear of offending some white voters in a re-election year.

In South America, the Vasco da Gama club refused to accept the invitation of Rio de Janeiro, Flamengo and Fluminense to form a professional league in Brazil because one of the conditions was that the clubs should have no black players. The rules were eventually changed, but Fluminense, for years after, would asked their black players to use make-up so that the supporters would not find know their true skin colour.

Much has changed since those days. Efforts are being made to root out this evil, but there still seems to be a general apathy towards racism, which prompted Eto'o to say, "We can't wait until some crazy fan jumps from his seat and kills a black player before measures are taken."

The tendency is to push every unsavoury incident under the carpet. Officials have frequently mouthed the "mountain out of molehill" line, but frankly the problem is getting a bit under the skin of most fair-minded sports fans. It is time to scatter even the molehills.