Indonesian Lalu Muhammad Zohri took the unprecedented step of showing his stance against social injustice by posting a video critical of the government.
The video was Lalu’s way of supporting the growing unrest among the Indonesian workforce against the government’s proposed new Labour Law.
But within hours of posting the video, Lalu has taken down the post, seemingly at the behest of either the Persatuan Atletik Seluruh Indonesia (PASI) or the political powers.
That Lalu was forced to do so, shows just how athletes in Asia, especially, are continually stopped from speaking their mind on social issues.
At a time when the sports fraternity in the West is bucking the long standing trend in voicing out on social issues, athletes in Asia are being turned into lame ducks.
Two years ago Lalu Muhammad Zohri became the first Indonesian and the only Asian male athlete to win a medal at the World Under-20 championships. He clocked a time of 10.18 to win the prestigious 100m race.
The stand by the 20-year-old, who has a personal best of 10.03 in the century dash, would have been a strong statement of support for the disgruntled labour force. With no other sports personality or even the hugely followed entertainment personalities taking up the issue, Lalu’s stand was a lone voice of dissent.
In September 2018, with much fanfare Indonesian president President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo delivered the intention of Indonesia to bid for the 2032 Olympics to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach during the latter’s visit to Bogor Palace in West Java. The bid was officially made in February last year.
With the recent calls from various quarters that social and political activism athletes should be allowed even during the Olympics, the suppression of Lalu’s rights does not augur well.
While the IOC advocates for political neutrality, the Olympics are inherently contested terrain — a celebration of athleticism and, by virtue of national teams, a stage for geopolitical triumphs and tensions.
But, athletes are increasingly seeking a voice on matters that transcend sport, such as racism and sexism. The IOC has recently also revised its guidelines governing Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter.
Rule 50 states that no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in the Olympic areas.
Olympic athletes are now entitled to “express their opinions”, but not during competitions or at the Olympic Village, medal ceremonies and other official ceremonies. This is allowed elsewhere: press conferences, team meetings and social media.
While the IOC guidelines is not what athletes wanted in totality, it was still a move in the right direction.
Social media was the very platform Lalu took to voice his stance against the much-criticized proposed Labour Law. And he has been smacked down almost instantly.
Even World Athletics chief Sebastian Coe said on Thursday that he believes athletes should have the right to make gestures of political protest during the Olympic Games, contrary to official IOC policy.
Lalu’s decision to voice his support for the working class was not at all surprising, considering his humble roots. He is from a small village on the eastern island of Lombok, where he lived in a small house made of wood and woven bamboo.
When he won the world junior title, even affording shoes was difficult, with his older sister saying Lalu asked her for Rp400,000 to buy running trainers. The youngest of four sibling, often trained barefoot before he made his mark on the tracks.
The success story of Lalu has inspired many fellow athletes and Indonesians living below the poverty line, and served as a reminder for the authority to pay more attention to the talents in rural areas.
Stifling his voice will not endear to the working class in Indonesia.