Politics and sport are inextricable

Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali took a political stance by refusing to be conscripted for the Vietnam War. Picture credit: Getty Images
Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali took a political stance by refusing to be conscripted for the Vietnam War. Picture credit: Getty Images

Some boxing promoters have complained bitterly that using the names of Struggle icons and politicians, especially black names like those of stalwarts Nelson Mandela or Oliver Tambo, by their colleagues, must stop at once because it has become a money-making scheme.

They say that once a promoter announces that they are doing a tournament in honour of the likes of Mandela or Tambo, the SABC quickly buys into the idea and awards TV rights to the promoter.

They declare they would eat their words of discontent if a black promoter staged a tournament in honour of a white politician because not all white people supported apartheid.

They argue that sport must be separated from politics. But history has taught us that sport and politics are intertwined and can never be separated.

For example, former world heavyweight champion Max Schmeling was lauded by the Nazis as a heroic symbol of Nazi Germany. A politically charged boxing match against Joe Louis in 1936 was preceded by Swastika symbols and images. Schmeling defeated Louis, who suffered his first professional defeat.

Schmeling was welcomed back home in Germany by jubilant crowds waving Nazi flags denoting the Nazis' political supremacy while fascist ruler Adolf Hitler sent Schmeling's wife flowers with the message: "For the wonderful victory of your husband, our greatest German boxer, I must congratulate you with all my heart."

Schmeling responded to the accolades, saying he did it for the Führer (Hitler) and his countrymen. A rematch was scheduled later in New York City. In the build-up to the bout, US president Franklin Roosevelt offered his support: "Joe, we need muscles like yours to beat Germany."

Schmeling's hotel was picketed by American protestors after an accompanying Nazi publicist declared that a black man could not defeat Schmeling and that when Schmeling won, his prize money would be used to build German army tanks.

But Louis won the rematch in a first-round knockout and became the focal point of anti-Nazi sentiment leading up to World War 2. Louis later recalled the pressure on him before the fight: "I knew I had to get Schmeling good. I had my own personal reasons and the whole damned country was depending on me."

Decades later, Muhammad Ali took a political stance by refusing to be conscripted for the Vietnam War, declaring it goes against his religion and the teachings of the Qur'an during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson and at the height of the civil rights movement.

After earning the championship, Cassius Clay converted to Islam and changed from his "slave name", adopting Muhammad Ali in the process.

He then became an icon of not only the civil rights struggle but also the anti-Vietnam War movement. However, he was convicted of draft evasion and stripped of his championship honours. It was not until a lawsuit in 1970 that Ali redeemed his title, then followed by his historic boxing match now known as the "Rumble in the Jungle" against George Foreman in Kinshasa, Congo (then Zaire), which took place this month tomorrow, in 1974.

So, who says politics and sport do not mix? In fact, they are inseparable; no matter how one wants to divorce them, they are inextricable.

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