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Global sports and politics under the spotlight

Fifty-five short years ago, in May 1964, Sir Roger Bannister of Great Britain defied history by breaking the four-minute barrier for running a mile. He died last year after a successful career as a neurologist. Bannister wasn’t alive to witness racing history last month when Eliud Kipchroge of Kenya ran a sub 4.34-mile pace to become the first human to break the two-hour barrier for the marathon.

The record was not part of a world championship or qualifying event for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. It was a contrived bio-engineered experiment in precise race conditions where scores of pacesetters followed a choreographed routine by rotating in and out of unison to create a V-shaped human wind tunnel reminiscent of a flight of birds escaping the winter solace. In front of the accompanying runners was the pace-vehicle casting an indelible light on the road designating the precise speed Eliud needed to follow to maintain his record-breaking pace.

Despite the achievement set in perfect conditions in Vienna, Austria, the International Federation for track and field (IAAF) chose not to verify Eliud’s feat as an official world record because of the lack of compliance with standard competition rules. On the other hand, within days of Eliud Kipchroge’s race, another Kenyan, Brigid Kosgei, did “officially” break a world record (for women) with a time of 2:15:04 at the Chicago Marathon, a sanctioned IAAF event.

The IAAF President, Lord Sebastian Coe, was a formable mid-distance runner who won four Olympic medals (one gold) in 1980 and 1984, however, he represents a global federation that uses science, biomedical engineering, and advanced analytics as a foundation for decisions that are counterintuitive to social discourse. A controversial decision by the IAAF upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s (CAS) Swiss Tribunal prohibits female mid-distance runners from competing in international competition if their natural hormone levels exceed a set-standard level of testosterone. The ruling has resulted in the exclusion of South Africa’s Caster Semenya, a world-record holding two-time Olympian, from competing in certain races at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics because she refuses to inject herself with artificial substances to lower her natural testosterone to a level satisfying IAAF standards. Semenya may or may not compete in shorter distance races in Tokyo. In the meantime, the firestorm ensuing from the IAAF decision has far-reaching implications that may extend to other sports.

The global significance of decisions by international sport federations may not always be so disconcerting. For example, the international federation for soccer (AKA FIFA) recently persuaded government officials in Iran to allow women to watch the country’s national soccer team. It was the first time in four decades stadiums were filled with female spectators. Since 1979, in a country noted for extreme totalitarian political regime, women, with rare exception, have been banned from entering stadiums to watch men compete. October 2019, however, marked the first-time women were permitted as spectators for a World Cup qualifying match against Cambodia. FIFA claims a role in the ground-breaking relief of gender discrimination, but ultimately, the Iranian government is the puppet master. It is no different than the decision in 2012 that permitted females to become a member of the private golf and country club in Augusta, Georgia, the home of the Masters.

On the topic of gender equality, a high school soccer team in Vermont was recently penalized when four players ripped off their jerseys following a goal to reveal T-shirts with slogans #EqualPay. No doubt, the action was in support of the legal battle the U.S. women’s soccer team is staging to equalize pay and conditions for national team members, however, it was also a clever fundraising stunt. Over 500 #EqualPay t-shirts have been sold for a profit.

While sport is an instrument to break down gender, socio-economic, and cultural barriers, it is unfortunate that in some countries, political forces can lead to the cancellation of hundreds, if not thousands of scheduled events. In Santiago where the World Association of Sport Management convened at the Chile Olympic Training Center a few weeks ago, all athletic competitions were cancelled due to a national state of emergency and a military curfew that also shut down public transportation, schools, government offices, and businesses in nine other nearby cities. What began as peaceful protests over a minor increase in metro fares escalated into civil unrest and over two weeks of full-blown riots which also led to canceling the much anticipated Apec Economic Summit with President Trump. Wide-spread arson and vandalism has resulted in at least twenty dead (five died in a torched WalMart store), 1300 plus injured, over 5,000 arrested. The deployment of thousands of military troops using tear gas, water cannon spray, and rubber bullets has done little to control the widespread protests.

The devastation in Chile is not an isolated case of civil unrest tied to political decisions. Hong Kong, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Iraq are currently experiencing similar uprisings and Venezuela has been plagued by months of destructive rioting. There are so many reminders that while sport can break down barriers, there are undeniable differences among cultures that shape individuals perceptions of the world and their social behaviors. In Iran, for example, despite the progress of finally permitting females in sport stadiums, the national judo team has been officially banned from all international competition (including the Tokyo 2020 Olympics) until they can guarantee they will not boycott matches against an Israeli competitor. Iran is a culture vastly different from the USA — different from Chile — different from Kenya — vastly different due to many reasons that sport can not fix.

Sometimes it is more pleasant to simply relax and reflect on all the great sport experiences happening in small midwestern communities around the United States. Stay tuned next month for more interesting sport stories from around the world, around the nation, around the state, and right here in Tiffin, Ohio.

Bonnie Tiell is a professor of sports management at Tiffin University,

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