Levelers of the Playing Field

On August 3, 1936, six men lined up in the starting blocks in the final heat of the 100 metre sprint event at the Berlin Olympics. It was only three years before the outbreak of World War II when Europe has been swirling with ideological and political tensions. But on that day, all eyes were on this race. Among the runners was Jesse Owens, a 23 year old African American and the son of Alabama sharecroppers. Grown up in Alabama and Ohio, he had already experienced a lifetime of injustice from racial discrimination. As he warmed up, Owens would have realized that due to the colour of his skin, his success would not be embraced or accepted either by his hosts in the rising Nazi Germany or by his own country, which was still segregated along the lines of race. Despite the feeling of alienation, Owens exploded out of the blocks in that race, and in every event he ran in those Olympic Games. He left Germany as the champion of  the 100m, 200m, 4x100m and long jump. By training hard and staying focused on his performance, Owens single-handedly shattered Hitler’s myth of racial supremacy on the world’s stage. Although he was never congratulated by his own President after those games, decades later, another US President would state “no athlete better symbolized the human struggle against tyranny, poverty, or racial bigotry”. Owens’ individual performances made him an Olympic champion, but his quiet courage and resilience made him a powerful symbol of hope and a source of inspiration for generations of people fighting against social struggles.

The world is inspired by its greatest athletes. In their accomplishments, they show us the miracle of human potential. In the ways they overcome hardships, they give us hope. Whether one does track or not, it is exhilarating to see Usain Bolt win 3 gold medals in a single Olympics, or to observe Steph Curry gracefully release a 3 point shot from almost anywhere on the basketball court and set annual records: 261 three pointers in 2014, then 286 in 2015, then 402 in 2016. In sports we often get to witness the transformation of talent, focus, determination, and love into sheer magic, and in that transformation we might reimagine our own possibilities.

But there is something even more inspiring than the magic of human performance. Ever so often, we see the purpose that inspires some of the world’s best athletes and capture the imagination of the entire world. Muhammad Ali, born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1943, started boxing at the age of 12 and won the Rome Olympics at the age of 18, taking his career to a professional level. He left spectators both dazzled and outraged by the way he reimagined and reinvented his sport: he moved with fluid grace, focusing on his footwork and speed, backing away smoothly from punches with his arms down, rather than digging in, and entertaining the crowd with wit and charm, as he beat every opponent.

But as carefree as he seemed, even at the height of his abilities, he was deeply troubled by the discrimination and injustice he saw all around him, and he used his fame as a platform for protest. Speaking truth to power got him suspended from boxing, his livelihood and his greatest love, at the peak of his career. Sacrificing his life’s work in the defense of a principle was maybe even more courageous than stepping into the ring with another heavy weight champion, but he did it. Decades later, the world still remembers not only for his dancing footwork and ability to roll with the punches, but for his empowerment of people with a strong voice and his willingness to stand up for what he believed in. It was this courage, as much as anything, that made him the greatest boxer of all time.

Even with champions like Owens and Ali, the problems of injustice still exist, and they are still highlighted by some of our greatest athletes. In 2011, the San Francisco 49ers, one of the National Football League’s greatest teams, drafted Colin Kaepernick, a fast, mobile, athletic quarterback. Two years later, he led his team to the Super Bowl. But amidst his dazzling accomplishments he was deeply affected by the problem of police brutality in African American neighborhoods. When he decided not to stand up for the US National Anthem, he inspired millions of people to reexamine what it means to be a concerned citizen in a democracy. Naturally by questioning the status quo and challenging people to think more deeply, he retained his sense of purpose and ability to shed light on social issues and support the oppressed.

The newest means in which sports impact social justice or sometimes level the playing field, are being written by women. In 2019, on the eve of the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France, the US Women’s National Team filed a class action lawsuit against the US Soccer Federation under the Equal Pay Act and under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Despite their phenomenal success as a team of 3 World Cup titles, the female players have not been paid on an equal basis with their male counterparts. One of their forwards, Christen Press said, “We believe it is our duty to be the role models that we’ve set out to be and fight to what we know we legally deserve, and hopefully in that way it inspires women everywhere.” It was the boldest of moves, drawing attention to a universal example of injustice at a time when all of their thoughts and energy were absorbed by their preparations for one of the greatest events in their lives. Despite the added pressure from their own government, the team won with dazzling skill and teamwork and inclusiveness, while reminding the world the importance of women’s sports and the injustice that persists at the highest levels. Even some of the fans of the French National Team cheered for the courage and the audacity of the USNWT. 

Sometimes we might dismiss sports as a frivolous luxury in a serious world, or when we cannot personally relate to difficulties or social injustice. But when we see the magic and beauty of an athletic performance, the power of such ideals help shape our world into a better place. When athletes and teams strive to get better, they demonstrate our own potential, and when they fight to address social issues, they help us all realize the significance of building more just societies.  

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