No-one would claim that Barack Obama’s triumphant election to the White House little over a year ago represented a magical solution to finally end racism in America, and no-one assumes that when the self-proclaimed Greatest Show on Earth roles into South Africa this year, racism will suddenly vanish from sport. Don’t get me wrong, a World Cup in Africa is almost as exciting as it is overdue, but racism is still a problem within sport which most of us acknowledge, but still unfortunately choose to ignore.
Serena and Venus Williams, with 18 Grand Slam singles titles between them, are tennis legends, and bona fide role models. They have dominated women’s tennis for an entire decade, out-lasting and out-playing almost all of their rivals along the way, and yet they still suffer from discrimination on court and in the media, just because they are unashamedly proud of who they are. In the 2001 Indian Wells final, Serena Williams was booed throughout, despite being on home soil, and her family had to put up with racist slurs more suited to pre-Abolition times than 21st century California. The sisters understandably decided to boycott the event in future years. They were then met with a backlash of criticism when they announced that despite Indian Wells being made a compulsory tournament for 2009, they would continue to stay away from the Californian desert event. Some journalists claimed that “eight years should be long enough for wounds to close” and implied that the Williams sisters were complaining over nothing, while others seemed to think that the sisters’ main motive for their boycott was to hurt the event financially. It didn’t seem to even enter the thoughts of these writers that the Williams sisters may be avoiding the tournament because they were hurt by the racist way in which they were treated. This head-in-the-sand way of thinking only serves to encourage the senseless accusations, which are perpetually aimed at the Williams family – that they’re brutish, and arrogant, that they manipulate the system, and that they fix matches between them. It is this thinly veiled racism that must be eradicated from sport.
This is not a stand-alone incident, either. The lack of black football managers in the English game – there are currently three managing professional clubs – along with the presence of only seven Asian players in English football shows that the issue is far-reaching. FIFA have taken up their usual anti-racism position in advance of the World Cup, with President Sepp Blatter, of “tighter shorts for female footballers” fame, once again telling the media that his organisation will come down hard on racist fans: “If there’s any evidence of racism, the red card is not enough, we will have to eliminate the team from the competition or deduct points.” On the face of it, this is a powerful statement against racism, but only if it is backed up with actions, and I for one will not be holding my breath come June. This is, after all, the same head of FIFA who fined The Croatian Football Federation £14,920, a miniscule sum, for racist chanting by their fans against Emile Heskey in England’s 4-1 victory in 2008, and crassly referred to Man United’s treatment of Cristiano Ronaldo as “modern slavery”. Football, as well as sport in general, clearly still has some way to come in terms of tackling racism.