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A Salute to Dissent

Legitimate safe harbours can balance sportspersons’ right to register conscientious dissent with the need to ensure respect for sporting ideals and the Olympic spirit.

Sport has a pre-eminent role in moulding public opinion, shaping the political terrain and even achieving foreign policy goals. Consider the “ping-pong diplomacy” that helped normalise Sino-American ties or the “cricket diplomacy” between India and Pakistan. The consecutive boycotts of the 1980 Moscow and the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics by the US and the USSR, respectively, are examples of how sports can be used as a coercive foreign policy instrument.

While these examples highlight the role of sport in foreign policy, there are also numerous instances of sportspersons using sports forums to crystallise their dissent. The 1968 Mexico City Olympics saw two African-American Olympians perform “The Black Power Salute”. Donning black gloves and raising their fists, they looked downwards while on the medal podium and the American national anthem was being played. That symbolic protest may have ensured large-scale global awareness of the prevalent racial discrimination against African-Americans in the US but it earned these athletes a stinging rebuke from the US Olympics Committee.

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