Historical Social change Motivated by Sports

This article highlights eight moments in sports history when inclusion, gender equality, equal rights, peacebuilding, and unity arose in sports and manifested in different aspects of society around the world. The idea is to bring to your attention the role sports has played in addressing human rights issues and motivated social change. This can be referred to as Sport for Social Change.

Herewith are eight cases in history when sports and recreation encouraged Sport for Social Change and initiated a wide-reaching social change in addressing human rights issues including Gender equality, Equal right, Inclusion, Peacebuilding, and Unity.

Can you think of any sportsperson who played a similar role that is not on this list? You may add them in the comment section at the end of this article. Remember, we learn from you just as much as you learn from us.

Below is a summary about how Billie Jean King and Mildred Ella Didrikson actively advocated for gender equality. The role of Jackie Robinson and Jesse Owens in promoting equal rights for humanity, how Natalie du Toit and Oscar Pistorius played vital roles in promoting inclusion in sports and finally the story of Ekecheiria, (the Olympic Truce) and the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa. Emphasizing how these events respectively gave rise to peacebuilding and unity. As always, ladies come first.

Gender Equality

Billie Jean King

In sports and in society in general. There is a well-known trend that suggests that men are superior to women. This is still evident in entertainment sport, especially were men get higher price money and more exposure while women get less and are discouraged from participating in sports and recreation.

Billie Jean King was one of the most influential athletes to intentionally and actively campaign for equal prize money for both genders. In 1971 she became the 1st female athlete to top the $100 000 in prize money in a single year [1]. Two years later King spearheaded the formation of women’s Tennis Association and threatened a boycott of the US open the same year if the ‘pay inequality’ was not addressed [1]. This act resulted in the US Open becoming the 1st major tournament to offer equal prize money to women and men. Billie Jean King was also one of the 1st women to coach professional male athletes when she, together with her husband founded world team tennis co-ed circuit. In addition to that, King started a women’s sports magazine. At the time this was not as prominent.

What most people know about her though is that she humbled Bobby Rigs [2]. In her own right, King was an excellent athlete. She won six Wimbledon singles championships and four US open titles [2]. She was ranked number one in the world for five years [2]. One of the highlights of her achievements was the Battle of the Sexes tennis match, which is to follow.

On September 20 in 1073 Billie Jean King accepted a tennis match against a 55-year-old man in a match famously known as the “Battle of the Sexes”. Before an estimated television audience of 50 million viewers in addition to those present during the game. Billie Jean King won that match in straight sets, beating Riggs 6-4, 6-3, and 6-3 [2]. After the game when interviewed she said “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match.  … It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all the women’s self-esteem” [2].

Mildred Ella Didrikson

This brings us to another woman of golden status who contributed significantly to Sport for Social Change, Mildred Ella Didrikson. Popularly known as Babe Didrikson then, she was a member of the women’s all – American basketball team from 1930 to 1932 [3]. During the same period, she won eight events and tied a ninth in a national championship competition in track and field [3]. Babe was accomplished in just about every sport she played including golf, basketball, tennis, swimming, diving, boxing, volleyball, handball, bowling, billiards, skating and cycling [4], talk about being multitalented!

If you think that’s impressive then let me add that in the 1932 women’s Amateur athletic association (AAU). Competing as a team by herself, Didrikson won in six individuals events together with the team title [3]. During which she achieved world records in the javelin, the 80-meter hurdles, high jump and in the baseball throw but there’s more.

Babe qualified for the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles and was the 1st women javelin Olympian. She set a world record in winning the 1st Olympic 80-meter hurdles [4]. Didrikson actually qualified for five Olympic events in 1932 but unfortunately, women were only allowed to compete in three. This has changed of course, partly because of her.

Equal Rights

Jackie Robinson

There was a time in the in history, as you may be aware when racism and segregation were prominent. There were toilets for white people and toilets for ‘nonwhite people’. Therefore there were sports leagues for white people and sports leagues for nonwhite people.

Jackie Robinson was a nonwhite baseball player, African American to be precise. He started professional baseball in 1944 after he was discharged from the army. Soon after starting his career, he played shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro league [5], and soon after he stopped playing in Negro league. But did not necessarily stop playing baseball.

He was chosen by the then president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey to help integrate major league baseball. In other words, he acted as a Sport for Social Change agent [1]. In 1946 Robinson joined the all-white Montreal Royals and later moved to Florida to begin spring training with his new team. From the beginning of his career with the Dodgers, Robinson’s will was tested. This ‘test of will’, mostly racism was best described by Bill Nack of Sports Illustrated, quoted from Larry Schwartz article [2], saying “Robinson was the target of racial epithets and flying cheats, of hate letters and death threats, of pitchers throwing at his head and legs, and catchers spitting on his shoes”. Even some of his teammates objected to having an African American on their team. Despite all of this the number 42 Robinson had a successful year and was promoted to join the Dodgers.

Robinson played his first game at Ebbets field for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, making him the first black athlete to play major league Basketball in the 20th century [6]. He was Rookie of the year and two years later he was MVP. His lifetime average .311 and he was voted into the hall of fame in his first year of eligibility [5]. Jackie Robinsons’ story is a very good example of how athletes can be effective Sport for Change agents.

Jesse Owens

Another African American to protest racism was Jesse Owens, this time in a global event in Berlin. Yep, you guessed it, on Adolf Hitler’s very own home ground.

 In 1936 the Olympic Games were hosted by Berlin the now capital of Germany. Being the host country Adolf Hitler had big plans for the games. I trust that you are aware of Hitler and his stance on the “Master Race” but in a nutshell. “For Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, the 1936 Berlin Olympic games were expected to be a German showcase and a statement for Aryan supremacy” right! Among the countries competing at those Olympics were Americans and Hitler lambasted them for including back athletes in their roster [7].

Of those black athletes lambasted by Hitler was Jesse Owens. Born in Oakville Alabama, Jesse Cleveland Owens was a track and field star. In 1935 at the Big ten championships he established three world records in long jump, the 220-yard dash and 220 yard low hurdles and tied the 100-yard dash [8]. Pulitzer-prize described him as “The guy who tweaked Hitler’s Mustache. He said This was the guy who showed the master race they were the minor race” [7]. How exactly did he do that?

Well like I said, he competed at the 1936 Olympic Games against Hitler’s Master Race and won gold medals in the 100 and 200-meter dashes, the long jump and the 4×100 relay for his team country. That is a total of four medals. According to various sources Hitler stormed out of the stadium. I doubt if he was awarded any medals for that.

Thando W. Dlamini

Sport Development and Exercise Science Practitioner

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *