Recent events have thrown into sharp relief the symbiotic relationship between sport and society and that relationship’s outcomes, from the glorious to the odious.
The England football team’s first international final in over half a century, and the first appearance in the second week of Wimbledon of an English woman for nearly a quarter-century, stimulated a mood of unity and optimism for a population emerging from an extended period of hardship and division to uncertain prospects. The diversity and youth of the country’s new sporting champions gave them a wide appeal and hope for the future. The opening of the Olympics this week is, in a different way, intended to symbolise and demonstrate hope for a post-pandemic future.
Alongside and following this morale-boosting surge, however, came the evidence of resistance to football players taking the knee to oppose racism, and the racist abuse towards black members of the team. The menace of football hooliganism some hoped consigned to the past the past was also evident in the crowds in and around Wembley. And as the Olympics reflects global determination to defy COVID, the continuing challenges of positive tests amongst the teams and staff, and the absence of spectators, are reminders of how incomplete our victory over it is.
But sport is not just a mirror of society’s ills and virtues. Its athletes, leaders and followers make choices about the meaning of their success. Southgate’s England team were inspired by Owen Eastwood’s book Belonging: The Ancient Code of Togetherness. Eastwood uses the Maori code of Whakapapa (pronounced fakapapa’) of finding unity and trust in the celebration of diversity can be the key to making everyone feel valued and to help them share their goals and outcomes.
Seventy-five History students at Birmingham are now working with Eastwood on the ‘Pathfinders’ project to motivate Team England’s athletes for the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham next year. Building on similar work Eastwood undertook with Team GB for the Olympics, they have researched over sixty biographies showing the diversity and esprit de corps of Team England’s competitors at every Games since 1930. These stories of struggle against the hardships of poverty, prejudice and war to achieve sporting greatness are truly inspiring.
In the 1930s Team England’s gold-medallists included Harry Mizler, a Jewish boxer from the East End, where Oswald Mosely marched his Fascists, and the Cooper sisters Joyce and Doreen, who had threatened to leave their swimming club in protest at anti-Semitism. Athletes wounded in the war won medals in the 1950s, alongside wrestler Kenneth Richmond, who had been jailed as a conscientious objector (who also found fame as Rank cinemas’ ‘gong man’).
In the 1960s Birmingham MP and Sports Minister Denis Howell got a British passport for Precious McKenzie, the greatest weightlifter in South Africa, but who was rejected by their racist policy of apartheid. McKenzie won three gold medals for Team England, as did many athletes of, or born to, the ‘Windrush’ generation – many like Denise Lewis and Tessa Sanderson from the West Midlands. They, and later Team England stars like Tom Daley and Nicola Adams, used the Commonwealth Games as a platform to challenge prejudice and exclusion.
The University of Birmingham’s partnership with the Commonwealth Games is about more than place – it about pride in sport and pride in identity. Fifteen of our alumni have won medals at the last five Games, and we are proud that our students volunteered so readily to help inspire and encourage Team England for next year’s events. The ‘Pathfinders’ project reflects the belief that sport reflects, but can also shape, society; and that the society it creates should open, ambitious, inclusive and united.