Just as you cannot separate faith and politics, it is impossible to separate the world of international sport from politics. Recently for my birthday I got two brilliant examples of the role cricket can play within the political sphere. Firstly the DVD of the acclaimed documentary film Fire in Babylon, which is about the great West Indies cricket teams of the 1970s and 80s.
Secondly, the biography of Zimbabwe cricketer, Henry Olonga, entitled Blood, Sweat and Treason. Both of them, in very different ways, deal with cricket as a weapon of political action.
Fire in Bablyon focusses on the West Indies team which emerged under Clive Lloyd’s captaincy in the 70s. It places the rise of this team within the post-colonial narrative where the various carribean islands were struggling for identity and independence. It charts their determination to reject the ‘calypso cricket’ image of being ‘entertaining losers’ after being smashed 5-1 by the firepower of Australia’s fast bowling in 1975/76. In response, Lloyd harnessed a fearsome collection of their own fast bowlers and attacking batsman and started to batter the opposition into defeat after defeat, going an incredible 15 years without ever losing a test series. The film captures the importance of this success on the cricket field for the identity and self-esteem of the Carribean nations. Using Babylon in its biblical sense as a metaphor for imperial power and oppression, it tells of how cricket helped ignite a fire of justice, liberation and joy.
Henry Olonga‘s book, Blood, Sweat and Treason is a story is from another era. In 1996, Olonga became the first black cricketer to represent Zimbabwe. But Olonga was to gain most fame, not from his breakthrough amid white racism, or his performances on the field, but the political stance he took in opposing the tyranny of Robert Mugabe, the long serving Head of State in Zimbabwe.
During the World Cup of 2003, he and his team mate Andy Flower(now coach of the England team) wore black armbands during the first match to ‘mourn the death of democracy’ in their nation. This lead not only to Olonga’s exclusion from the team but also having to flee the country and seek refuge in the UK. Olonga is a committed Christian, and he writes how his actions were inspired by Isaiah 1:17: “Learn to do good, seek justice, rebuke the oppressor, defend the fatherless, plead for the widow”. He writes:
“I had reached the conclusion that someone had to speak out. I was now fully aware of the corruption at the heart of the Zimbabwean government, and the tortures and murders that had taken place in their name, but I also felt that my conscience or, dare I say it, God was guiding me in this direction”
I knew some of the story already and back in 2003 I wrote to Olonga to express my support. But one thing I knew less about was the background story of Mugabe himself. Along with most British people I have got used to him being simply described as a ‘monster’ and a ‘tyrant’. But Olonga does not deal simply in just headlines. He tells about how Mugabe himself was jailed by the Rhodesian all-white government for 11 years – and how he was denied seeing his critically-ill, only son just before he died. He shows the good that Mugabe following his election as Prime Miniser in uniting the country and points out the many similarities with Nelson Mandela. But, he pulls no punches in describing how, over time, Mugabe’s government became overrun with corruption and perputated terrible violence and oppression. In the name of righting the wrongs of colonialism, starting with the land reforms where white farmers had their land forcibly taken from them, Mugabe pursued policies which has bankrupted their nation and led to the starvation of thousands.
“What I see, is a man who had the potential to do so much good with his life but failed to do so…the evil has simply overtaken the good. I despise what he has done with his life and the cruelty he has introduced into the lives of people who were not fighting him.”
Olonga is clear – he hates white racism towards blacks but he also deplores the black racism towards whites which has appeared in reaction.
Like faith and religion, sport cannot avoid the vital role it has to play in the political sphere for the cause of justice. Just as racists and oppressors have often utilised religion and twisted theology to support their injustices, so too have they used sport. Fire in Babylon is about post-colonialism and the search for justice and identity. But thirty years later, Blood, Sweat and Treason is about these movements for liberation become corrupted and perpetuate new injustices. In every age and within every context, we need people like Henry Olonga who are willing to stand up and resist injustice, and who take seriously the costly challenge to ‘seek justice and rebuke the oppressor’.