Monday, 30 September 2013

The Politics Of Sport - Good Immigrants

By Shane Thomas

Immigration may seem a peculiar topic when talking about sport, but it's something that has sprung to mind since Mo Farah has become one of Britain's most beloved sporting stars over the past couple of years.
Few in this country will forget the sight of Mo Farah winning gold in the 5,000 and 10,000 metres at the London Olympics, and yet after the 10,000 metre win, the Somali-born Farah had to deal with a journalist asking if he would have preferred to have run for Somalia, rather than Britain.

Farah gave the question short shrift, and has since metastasized into a sporting superstar, building on last year's gold medals, with two more at this year's World Athletics Championships. Many will see Farah's place in the hearts of the British public as proof of the wider acceptance of immigrants (and Muslims) in our society. However, I feel this is in a large degree to Farah's public persona.

While he is arguably Britain's greatest ever long distance athlete, and would be a British sporting legend if he was to retire tomorrow, he's become what's regarded as an "acceptable" face of Islam in Britain; performing his now-patented "Mobot" pose, accompanied by an ebullient grin.

This isn't to denigrate Farah. He's under no obligation to be an activist[1], and focusing on winning races is difficult enough. But would he be such an adored figure if he used his platform to speak truth to power on the issues facing Muslims in Britain?

Another tale of sport mingling with immigration concerns the Australian cricketer, Fawad Ahmad. His journey into the Australian team is arguably one of the most heartwarming sporting stories of the year. However, the ugly spectre of racism reared its head, as Ahmad's request to not have the logo of a beer company on his shirt - for religious reasons - led to a small, but vocal alcove of scathing criticism, with former Australian rugby-union star, David Campese tweeting that Ahmad should, "go home".

While it's good to see that Ahmad has found a level of professional and personal satisfaction, it would be somewhat jejune to not question the motivations of the country's cricketing governing body, Cricket Australia[2]. The team has been lacking a quality spin bowler since Shane Warne's retirement[3] and because of a freakish set of circumstances, not only did they swiftly re-naturalise Ahmad as an Australian citizen, but they bypassed the country's adamantine immigration laws in order to do so.

If one takes a look at at football, you'll see a common thread linking two of the world's leading strikers, Mario Balotelli and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Balotelli is fast becoming Italy's star player, but had to wait until he was 18 before he could be officially recognised as Italian. And while Ibrahimovic is possibly Sweden's most famous citizen, he still talks of feeling "like an outsider" in his own nation.

While the immigration conversation - which often comes loaded with racial identity - is extremely febrile at present (not just in Britain, but across the globe), the "keep our borders closed" brigade seem happy to do a volte-face where sport is concerned. So Farah gets lionised in a country that contains newspaper front pages such as this, and political policies like this.

Ibrahimovic may be a national icon, but recent events in Sweden are incongruous with the path he took to sporting stardom, while perennial stories about Balotelli suffering racist abuse from people in his own country have been so legion, these days one could be forgiven for reacting with little more than a heavy sigh.

Lest we forget Ahmad, who has been largely welcomed in his adopted nation of Australia. A nation in which this man is now the Prime Minister.

This cognitive dissonance raises two key questions; How would these aforementioned people be treated if they had no sporting talent? And should aptitude in that specific area of life make a person more deserving of praise and respect?

The comedian, Chris Morris once authored a scabrous and incendiary sketch on the hypocrisy between "Good AIDs and Bad AIDs". Tasteless maybe, but it's illustrative in this instance. In the desire for global sporting glory, it appears we've drawn up dividing lines between good immigration and bad immigration.

[1] - It would be remiss to ignore that Farah has spoken publicly on the topic of banks removing their services to transfer money to African nations.

[2] - By the way, England cricket fans would do well to avoid feeling smug about this.

[3] - Notwithstanding the shabby way Nathan Lyon has been treated by the Australian selectors.

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