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 contributed to addressing human rights issues and motivated social change. This is 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. Specifically, those mentioned above. Read on to learn 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 sport. And finally the story of Ekecheiria (the Olympic Truce) and the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa. Emphasizing how those two events respectively gave rise to peacebuilding and unity. As always, its ladies 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 hands down. 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 allow me to add. 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 didn’t 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, Robinsons’ 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 challenge 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. This was the guy who showed the master race they were the minor race” [7], why is 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.


Natalie du Toit

Natalie du Toit is a classic example of bouncing back from setbacks. She started swimming from a very young age and by the time she was fourteen she was already competing internationally. Unfortunately, her journey to success was delayed by a horrific accident when she was seventeen. Only delayed though.

Readmikenow describes the accident that led to Du Toit losing her leg in his article “Natalie Du Toit: First Disabled Athlete to Swim in the Olympics”. According to Readmikenows’ article, Natalie du Toit was leaving the Newlands municipal swimming pool after she had spent the morning training there [9]. She was on her scooter heading to school when a vehicle came out of a car park and quickly came down the road and collided against her, her leg crumbled after the impact.  Five days later the physicians told Natalie du Toit and her parents that her leg would have to be amputated.

This did not despair Du Toit from competing. The following year she competed in the 2001 Manchester Commonwealth games. Broke 2 records at that event (the 100 meters freestyle and the multi-disability 50-meter freestyle). Natalie went on to qualify for the 800 meters able-bodied freestyle final, making her the first disabled athlete to qualify for the final of an able-bodied event [9]. She competed in the 2003 All Africa Games and won gold in the 800 meters freestyle. She also competed in the Afro-Asian Games that same year against able-bodied swimmers and won a silver medal in the 800 freestyle and a bronze medal in the 400 meters freestyle.

Natalie du Toit was nicknamed Noodle and she became a specialist of open water swimming events. She won 5 Paralympic championship titles at the Paralympic Games in 2004. In 2006 Du Toit participated in the Commonwealth Games and won two gold medals. She also participated in the 2012 London Paralympic Games were she won three gold medals and a silver medal. She went on to retire after the 2012 London Paralympic Games [9]. Natalie du Toit is motivation to other south South African athletes, disabled or not. She also does motivational speaking. 

Oscar Pistorius

Another athlete who promoted inclusion of disabled sportsman was Oscar Pistorius. If you Googled Oscar Pistorius now you will probably get mixed emotions if not anger or disgust. He was arrested for murdering his girlfriend on Valentine’s Day in 2013 and for that I was hesitant about including him on this list. Before that, however, Oscar Pistorius was a sprint runner who had both his legs amputated as an infant.  Adding him to this list does not exonerate him in any way from his crimes but it serves to inform the reader about his achievements as a disabled athlete.

Popularly known internationally as the “Blade Runner” then, Oscar Leonard Carl Pistorius was born without a fibula in either of his legs and his parents made the difficult decision to have his legs amputated below the knees just before his first birthday [10] and he started using prostatic legs.

His handicap hardly slowed his involvement in sports, he spanned from cricket to wrestling to boxing and at 16 he started running track. In January 2004, he competed in his 1st 100-meter race; nearly eight months later Pistorius, wearing a pair of flex-foot cheetahs (a lightweight carbon fiber foot) captured the gold medal in the 200-meter race at the 2004 Athens Paralympics.

His artificial legs had him banned by the International Association of Athletic Foundation Association (IAAF) in 2007. The IAAF stated that his legs gave him an unfair advantage over able-bodied athletes [10].  Pistorius appealed the ruling and in May 2008 the court of arbitration for sports overturned the IAAF decision [10]. He continued competing and won 3 gold medals at the 2011 IPC athletics world championships. Two more titles followed, in the 400-meter and 100-meter events at the BT Paralympics world cup [10].

In 2012 Pistorius qualified for the 400-meter race at the London Olympics becoming the first amputee athlete to compete in track events at the Olympics. To mark the occasion, Pistorius flew out his 89-year-old grandmother to watch him race [10].  He was eliminated at the semifinal round.

Peace Building and Unity

Ekecheiria: the Olympic Truce

I was seating for a sports history lecture when I was first introduced to the Olympic Truce. Admittedly I did not comprehend it much at the time because I had an Exercise physiology test that week and my focus was not centered on that lecture. It was only later while studying for the sports history exam that I took time to fully familiarize myself with the Olympic Truce.

Three kings (Iphitos, Cleomenes, and Lycurgus) signed The Olympic truce treaty in ancient Greece in the 9th century BC. During the truce period, the athletes, artists, and their families, as well as ordinary pilgrims, could travel in total safety to participate in or attend the Olympic games and returning afterward to their respective countries [11]. As the opening of the games approached, the sacred truce was proclaimed and announced by citizens of Elis who traveled throughout Greece to pass on the message. There is only one case of the truce being invoked [12]. A very practical example of Sport for Peace.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided to revive the ancient concept of the Olympic truce in 1992 and the following year the United Nations general assembly urged member states to observe the Olympic truce at all future games. The IOC undertaking of the Olympic truce extended beyond the period of the Olympic Games and has led to the implementation as a series of “sports for Peace” activities through its national Olympic committees.

1995 Rugby World Cup

Lastly, more events close to home. The history of Apartheid in South Africa is well documented and the racism and discrimination against black South Africans well known. When all these injustices were finally brought to an end in 1994 and Nelson Mandela became the president the nation was left divided and civil war seemed to be inevitable but before that became a reality. South Africa was to host the rugby world cup the following year.

The decision to award the world cup to South Africa was vehemently opposed by many black people in the country at the time, and not just on political grounds [13]. One should Understand that to black South Africans rugby was the sport of the oppressor. It was a symbol of apartheid and everything that was apartheid was to be done with. The Springboks (the national rugby team) therefore were despised as much as apartheid itself.

As history tells, South Africa did host the rugby world cup and the newly democratically elected president, who, if I should add was the first South African black president realized this as an opportunity. He realized an opportunity for Sport for Social Change. While other politicians will pay lip service to sport and understand theoretically its value to them – they lack the intelligence to exploit it the way Mandela did says Carlin, quoted from James Peacocks article “Nelson Mandela: How sport helped to transform a nation”. Mandela had the political genius to transform a symbol of division – the Springbok jersey – into an instrument of unity Carlin expounds [13]. He resisted the pressure to scrap the springbok, the team’s despised emblem, and rallied the nation around the players.

You can imagine the reaction of black South Africans when Mandela asked them to support the “all-white, mostly Afrikaner” rugby team. In one of his speech, while addressing a crowd of supporters with the Springboks cap in hand, he said “You see this cap, this cap shows honor to our boys who are playing France tomorrow. I ask you all to stand behind them tomorrow because they are our pride. They are your pride” [14]. Sources report that he was booed. But Mandela knew that sport was a pivotal factor in him uniting the country and continued to support the springbok.

He visited the Springboks during training and shook their hands, referring to each of them by name to show his support. Through the course of those six weeks, because Mandela asked the nation to support the Springboks and the Springboks played good rugby and built a good momentum toward the final, things happened in South Africa that was just magical, said Francois Pienaar who was captain of the Springbok at the time. The springbok pushed through the tournament, qualified for the finals and played against New Zealand. At this point, they had gained the support of some black South Africans who were present for the finals at Ellis Park stadium on the those who weren’t there cheered from the townships.

Before the game started, as depicted in the Hollywood movie “Invictus”, a South African Airwaves airplane flew over the stadium with a message written on its underside saying “Good luck bokkie” and shortly afterward Mandela walked into the stadium wearing the captains’ springbok jersey and again, shook hands with the team. The supporters in the stadium, dominantly Afrikaners cheered him and shouted his name while waving the new South African flag. 15 – 12 was the final score to New Zealand and when the final whistle blew the country was changed forever. Its incomprehensible said Pinnar.

Now read 100 Ways Sport and Recreation Develops Communities.

Do not forget to subscribe to the Sport and Exercise Dev SA newsletter. Remember sharing is caring. Until next time, keep moving.

Works Cited

[1]     B. Editors, “Billie Jean King Biography,” 2 March 2018. [Online]. Available: www.biography.com/people/billie-Jean-King-9364876. [Accessed 19 May 2018].

[2]     L. Schwaartz, “Billie Jean won for all women,” [Online]. Available: https://espn.com/sportscentury/features/00016060.html. [Accessed 19 May 2018].

[3]     T. e. o. E. Britannica, “Babe Dedrikson Zaharias,” [Online]. Available: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Babe-Didrikson-Zaharias. [Accessed 07 August 2018].

[4]     L. Schwartz, “Didrikson was a woman ahead of her time,” [Online]. Available: https://www.espn.com/sportcentury/features/00014147.html. [Accessed 07 August 2018].

[5]     L. Schwartz, “Jackie Robinson Changed the face of Sports,” [Online]. Available: https://espn.com/sportscetury/features/00016431.html. [Accessed 19 MAy 2018].

[6]     B. Editors, “Jackie Robinson Biography,” 18 January 2018. [Online]. Available: www.biography.com/people/Jackie-Robinson-9460813. [Accessed 19 May 2018].

[7]     L. Schwartz, “An american hero,” [Online]. Available: https://www.espn.com/sportscentury/features/00194717.html. [Accessed 07 August 2018].

[8]     B. Editors, “Jesse Owens Biography,” 18 January 2018. [Online]. Available: https://www.biography.com/people/Jesse-Owens-9431142. [Accessed 07 August 2018].

[9]     Readmikenow, “Natalie Du Toit: First Disabled Athlete to Swim in the Olympics,” 09 March 2017. [Online]. Available: https://howtheyplay.com/individual-sports/Natalie-du-Toit-First-Disabled-Athlete-who-Qualified-To-Compete-Against-Able-bodied-Athletes.

[10]     B. Editors, “Oscar Pistorius Biography,” 24 November 2017. [Online]. Available: https://biography.com/people/Oscar-Pistorius-20910935 . [Accessed 08 August 2018].

[11]     IOC, “Olympic Truce,” [Online]. Available: https://www.olympic.org/Olympic-Truce. [Accessed 08 August 2018].

[12]     D. C. Young, “The Olympic Truce,” [Online]. Available: https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Olympic-Truce-1688469. [Accessed 08 August 2018].

[13]     D. Smith, “Francois Pienaar: ‘When the whistle blew, South Africa Changed forever,” 8 December 2013. [Online]. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/nelson-mandela-francois-pienaar-rugby-world-cup. [Accessed 19 May 2018].

[14]     The Real Invictus: How Nelson Mandela united South Africa through sport. [Film]. CBC News: The National, 2013.

[15]     E. A. Wolff, “Sport and Dev Users,” [Online]. Available: https://www.sportanddev.org/eg/user/Eli-wolff. [Accessed 19 May 2018].

[16]     Wharton, “Advocate Eli Wolf the disabled athlete is still Siloed and Segregated,” 19 January 2012. [Online]. Available: kwhs.wharton.aapenn.edu/2012/01/advocate-eli-wolf-the-disabled-athlete-is-still-siloed-and-segregated/. [Accessed 19 May 2018].

[17]     Berkey Centre, “Eli A Wolff,” [Online]. Available: https://Berkleycenter.Geogetown.edu/people/Eli-A-Wolff. [Accessed 19 May 2018].

Thando W. Dlamini

Sport Development and Exercise Science Practitioner

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