“Bread and circuses,” as Juvenal said, are the best way to distract and occupy the attention of the masses. What better way to get people’s attention than to interrupt the thing they used to neglect? Here is a list of some of the most powerful protests in the world of sport.
- Feyisa Lilesa
As silver medallist Feyisa Lilesa crossed the finish line of the 2016 Rio Olympics Men’s Marathon he raised his hands above his head and made the sign of an “X”. Lilesa was protesting against the Ethiopian government’s killing of hundreds of the Oromo people. According to Human Rights Watch, more than 400 people have been killed since November. The “X” symbol has been used by the Oromo for some months now.
During the post-race news conference Lilesa said: “The Ethiopian government is killing my people, so I stand with all protests anywhere, as Oromo is my tribe.” “My relatives are in prison”, Lilesa pleaded, “if they talk about democratic rights they are killed.” The state broadcaster in Ethiopia did not reply to the finish. Lilesa knew how dangerous his protest could be. “If I go back to Ethiopia maybe they will kill me. If not kill me, they will put me in prison.”
Social media in Ethiopia and around the world jumped to support Lilesa and he has put the plight of his Oromo people into headlines everywhere. Hopefully his protest will not be in vain, or cause him harm, but only serve to shine a light on the ongoing protests in Ethiopia.
- Black Power Salute – 1968 Olympics
At the medal ceremony for the 200m at the 1968 Olympics, American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos mounted the podium to collect their medals (gold and bronze respectively). As the American national anthem began to play, each athlete raised a black-gloved fist to make the “Black Power” salute. Unlike most people watching Feyisa Lilesa’s political gesture, everybody knew what Smith and Carlos were saying.
The protest, and the famous photo by photographer John Dominis is one of the defining moments of sport in the 20th century. However, what is not commonly known is that it was not a protest, but protests. Smith and Carlos were also shoeless wearing black socks to represent black poverty. Smith wore a black scarf to represent black pride. Carlos had his tracksuit top unzipped to represent the plight of blue collar workers, and wore a beaded necklace which he described as being for “those individuals that were lynched, or killed and that no one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred.”
Moreover, the third athlete on the podium is also often overlooked, Australian silver medallist Peter Norman. It was Norman, who when Carlos forgot his pair of black gloves, suggested they (Smith, Carlos) wear one each of Smith’s pair. Norman was a critic of Australia’s White Australia Policy and showed solidarity with their protest. All three athletes wore Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) badges. In Smith’s autobiography Silent Gesture he stated that the protest was not a “Black Power” salute, but a “human rights salute.”
- Muhammad Ali refuses US Army draft.
In 1967 the late, great(est) Muhammad Ali refused to be inducted into the U.S. Army. His stance saw him immediately stripped of his heavyweight title. Ali cited religious reasons for his decision to abstain from military service. However, it was much more than that. Ali’s brave actions were a stance against the treatment of African-Americans, and it was a stance against U.S. imperial foreign policy. As Ali said: “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong.” “They never called me nigger.” “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother… Shoot them for what? How can I shot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”
Ali was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison, fined $10,000 and banned from boxing for three years. In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction. The U.S. lost in Vietnam. Ali won the admiration of millions the world over.
- Emily Davison
At the Epsom Derby in 1913, militant political activist Emily Davison fatally threw herself into the path of King George V’s horse, Anmer. Davison was a suffragette who had fought for years to try and earn women the right to vote.
There is much historical controversy over Davison’s actions that day. It is unlikely she intended to martyr herself as she had a return ticket from Epsom and had made plans with her sister to travel together. In the documentary Secrets of a Suffragette, digitally remastered footage of the event suggests that not only may she have targeting the King’s horse specifically, but that her intention was actually to attach a flag to the horse’s bridle. Police reports suggested two flags were found on her body.