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[OPINION] Racism in sport a reflection of the world we live in

Racism in sport? How original, and how totally unexpected. If you know anything about sport, you know that racism is as pervasive as sexism and dirty laundry. Prejudice is the prism through which many view sport itself – it is, in any cases, black and white. It isn’t unique to sport either, as we know too well. It’s around us like the air we breathe and the glass ceiling we pretend is no longer there.

Racism in sport has always been with us. What has changed is the world we live in today. Right-wing rhetoric spewing from the corridors of power, against a heightened awareness of crimes against immigrants, women and people of colour, has created fissures in our world – flashpoints that shake us from our collective slumber.

We live in a polarised world today where growing intolerance and ignorance have metastasized all over the globe, and particularly in Europe. What we see in the world of sport is a symptom of our strife.

The brand of racism German footballer Mesut Ozil experienced was not imagined. It was real and visceral, and it came in the form of shame like a dark cloud, and poured scorn on the essence of his being - his ancestry and his heritage.

Ozil had a poor World Cup, that much is true – but so did most of the German team, and that’s where it should have ended. Instead, the most powerful men in German football hung him out to dry, they picked on him and insinuated that he was to blame for Germany’s exit. They could have picked on any member of the 22-man German squad, but they chose Ozil. Why do you think that is? Because of a picture?

What Ozil and former Springbok and rugby analyst Ashwin Willemse experienced, on the face of it, are very different and yet the conditions which gave rise to those feelings of betrayal and discrimination are eerily similar. There is the establishment who put forth to the rest of the world a sanitised idea of excellence and identity that is by and large accepted as truth. Willemse was picked on for his perceived shortcomings, the way he pronounces certain words and his work ethic. Eventually, he cracked, and said “enough”.

Ozil was never the poster boy for German football. He’s third-generation Turkish-German, born in Gelsenkirchen, west of Germany. His languid style of play can be infuriating (ask me, I’m an Arsenal fan) but his genius is undeniable. His sin, apparently, was to acknowledge his Turkish roots by posing for a picture with Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in London in May. Granted, Erdogan is no saint, but to Ozil he is the president of the country his ancestors were born in.

The re-emergence of the photo in the context of Germany’s humiliating exit from the 2018 World Cup in Russia concocted a convenient excuse for German football authorities to explain their team’s woeful showing, effectively laying the blame at Ozil’s genius feet. He was the scapegoat, the reason Germany was not at its best. He was undermined, even though statistically he has a better record of assists than Thomas Muller and Toni Kroos.

Ozil hit back in dramatic fashion by quitting the German international team, saying: “I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose.”

His words echoed the sentiments of Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku a while back, who said: “When things are going well, they call me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker. When things aren't going well, they call me the Belgian striker of Congolese descent."

They’re not imagining this, and neither are they denying the country they now call home. This is about identity and respect, not patriotism.

Willemse stormed off a live TV set in equally dramatic fashion, under different circumstances, albeit within the confines of the same system of suppression, where players of colour are held to a different (double) standard, where their apparent failures or incompetencies are seen in the context of their skin colour and ethnicity. Yet as we have seen in the case of the France national football team, those ethnicities and hues are forgotten in the throes of victory, because then they belong. It is this fact that talk show host Trevor Noah sought to remind the world - in a rather inelegant way.

Willemse felt undermined, ostracised, patronised at best, victimised at worst. His story can be told a million times in all spheres of South African society. Put another way, by Prof Ashwin Desai writing in the Daily Maverick, it’s a “poke” – a superior attitude. “It may come across as simple arrogance but it’s more than just that. A merely arrogant man praises himself; a poker must pull others down too,” Desai says.

Black professionals serve at the mercy of an establishment which believes they should fit a certain mold, and winning papers over the complexities of identity politics and genealogy. It doesn’t matter – until they lose.

Players of African descent and players of colour are guest workers, migrant labourers whose time is confined to the glory of their last performance. Legacy is not theirs to own or earn. It is bestowed on them when the need arises. Somehow immigrants and people of colour are not worthy until they prove themselves - over and over again.

The rise of nationalism and right-wing rhetoric around the world has been pitted against the spirit of multiculturalism and unity. Organic links between communities across borders are being broken by the language of division used by the protagonists of the far-right movements. Theirs is a language of assimilation rather than integration – something leaders like Erdogan oppose.

Enough is enough, because like Ozil and the majority of the France team say, it is possible to have two hearts – one that honours your ancestry and one that embraces a new heritage. It is possible to speak English with your own accent and still be a brilliant rugby analyst. It is possible to be anything you want to be regardless of what the bigots say.

Adrian Ephraim is deputy news and sports editor at Eyewitness News. He’s a writer and digital media expert with nearly 20 years in journalism. Follow him on Twitter: @AdrianEphraim

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