By Rolene Marks
This week I have been thinking a lot especially about sports. It could be because I am still feeling the high many of us, including ex-pat South Africans are feeling after watching the Springboks (South Africa’s national rugby team) serve England’s team a thumping to win the Rugby World Cup.
It wasn’t just rugby that won that day, it was a nation. The Springboks proved that it is possible to rise above your circumstances, your race, religion and past prejudices and that, coupled with tenacity and a will to win, delivered one of the greatest moments in sports. It was more than the speeches from coach, Erasmus and team captain, Siya Kolisi – the guys in green and gold played for unity. They played for hope. And they delivered.
We know that South Africa is fraught with problems and that winning a global sports championship will not provide an instant fix, but they proved what could be accomplished when you pull together and focus on the greater good. Growing up during the Apartheid years in South Africa, where rugby was emblematic of the regime, it was inconceivable that the Springboks would be a team of players from all races, with a black captain. I don’t think there was a dry eye across South Africa (well, save for a few spoil sports – pun intended – who see unity as anathema) or for many who knew we were witnessing history. The late human rights icon, Nelson Mandela, recognized the role that sports could play in healing and reconciliation. The Springbok win took many back to the day in 1995 when Madiba weaved his magic and mistrust and old hatreds seemed forgotten.
The Springbok win got me thinking a lot about the power of sports in healing conflict in other parts of the world.
Sport plays an important role in trying to heal rifts in the Middle East as well. While sometimes respect and sportsman – like behavior is a casualty and some pay a heavy price for their efforts to be conciliatory, there is no doubt that whether it is facing off on the soccer pitch or wrestling on the mat, people are brought together for the common goal – winning.
The power of sports to bring people together has also been recognized by entities like BDS (Boycott Divestment and Sanction) who will try every trick in the book to try and scupper any attempts for normalization between Israelis – and anyone else. Their belief that boycotts, be they culture or sports, will force Israel to change policies they see as racist.
Their latest pet project of hate is trying to encourage a boycott of the sports apparel company, Puma, who sponsor the Israeli soccer/football team.
This has backfired spectacularly. The Team is a microcosm of Israeli society, including Bedouin, Circassian, Muslim and Jewish players and nobody is interested in BDS’s divisive tactics. Needless to say, the boycott failed miserably.
At the same time BDS were whining about boycotts, Brazil and Israel were planning a match to be played in Haifa. The Shalom game, a friendly match between Brazil and Israel was played on the 29th of October, 2019. This was billed as a celebration of “Football, Peace and Fraternity” and featured legends Ronaldinho, Kaka, Rivaldo, Batu, and other major Brazilian team players who have won the World Cup and visited the Jewish State to promote the message of peace and brotherhood. Ronaldinho took to his social media to speak about how happy he was to be in Israel and faced a barrage of hatred. It didn’t bother him at all – the message of brotherhood and peace is greater than hate.
Some have not fared as well.
This lesson was learnt the hard way by Iranian Judoka, Saeid Mollaei who was instructed not only to lose his match with Israeli counterpart, Sagi Muki, but said that even his family were threatened should he face off against his rival. Mollaei was afraid to return home after exposing and criticizing his government’s pressure on him to deliberately lose and avoid a potential bout against an Israeli opponent.
Moallei fled to Berlin after the championships, where he had been hoping to secure a place at the 2020 Olympic Games. He was recently granted asylum.
International Judo Federation has suspended Iran indefinitely for the regimes’ discriminatory treatment of Israel.
Sport has the unique ability to unite and inspire and improve the prospects of tolerance and brotherhood.
It doesn’t matter what kind of sport it is or what level, when unity and tolerance trumps conflict, this is the ultimate championship. Just ask Siya Kolisi.