Jesse Owens, perhaps the greatest athlete of all time, won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. He was credited with “single-handedly crushing Adolph Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy.
As much as he was lauded for this perceived propaganda, Owens was still treated as pariah by the majority of the Americans back at home. Despite his numerous accolades, many posthumously, the White House never did officially recognise his feat at the height of his career.
The then President Franklin D Roosevelt never bothered to invite the American hero to celebrate the victory. And he was even forced to take the service entrance instead of the main entrance to a dinner honouring him at the Waldorf Astoria after a Manhattan ticker-tape parade.
Ironically Owens was treated just as any other white athlete while he was in Berlin as compared to the treatment he received back at home.
Despite his Olympic exploits, Owens took on menial jobs as a gas station attendant, playground janitor, and manager of a dry cleaning firm to survive. He also raced against amateurs and horses for cash.
While many Black athletes now are earning millions, racism in the USA has never really been eradicated but rather emboldened by the likes of former president Donald Trump and many of the Republican party leaders and followers. Ironically Owens himself was a staunch Republican, at a time when the party actually stood against racism.
While racism was an inherent part of the American culture since the beginning, it was never the same with Malaysia.
But over the last couple of decades, we are being exposed to a more subtle but sometimes seemingly systemic racism in play.
Among the Indian community social media engagement, two issues related to sports racism recently seems to be sticking out like a sore thumb.
The first is the non-mention of the two Indian Malaysians, who were the first to scale the Everest, in the local schoolbooks. Instead it was the two youngest Malaysians, who were highlighted.
The second is the unilateral decision of the headmaster in a Johor school, who wanted to desegregate students into different sports based on their race and ethnicity.
This is a country that once not only celebrated the exploits of sportsman without looking at the colour of their skin but also gave equal opportunity to all in sports.
Many of us still do not see race and religion in any aspect of our daily lives, but we are also increasingly seeing a growing number of other Malaysians leaning towards exactly that.
Like the headmaster, we still classify certain sports as belonging to certain races when that should never be what it should be.
Basketball is still seen as a Chinese game when an Indian player was once in fact the captain of the national side. Sepak takraw is seen as a Malay sport when again an Indian player was once a key tekong in the Malaysian side.
Kabaddi is seen as an Indian sport, when the national women team’s captain is a Malay.
Much of these negative and racist connotations have to do with the leaders, both in sports associations and political hierarchy.
When I was a young sports reporter, I attended a basketball press conference and the entire press conference was conducted in Chinese by a a politician who was also a sports leader. It was only after I raised my displeasure and asked whether I should leave the press conference that it was switched to English.
In many social functions when the topic veers towards sports, I am always asked where are the Indians and Punjabis in the national hockey team or what happened to all the Indian athletes.
There is no doubt in some people’s mind that there has been some form of social engineering in different stages that has resulted in these imbalances.
But, I have also personally seen a number of budding Indian sportsmen opting to give up sports using the slightest hint of the so-called racism in sports as an excuse without even fighting to show what they were actually capable of.
When the Malaysian Indian Sports Carnival (SUKIM) was initiated to uplift Indian sports, isn’t it also a type of racism. The formation of the Malay Cricket Association or the Malaysian Chinese Football Association or the Malaysian Indian Badminton Association is all geared towards the empowerment of athletes from one particular race.
Aren’t these indications from the sports leaders themselves that they needed special avenues to help athletes upgrade themselves based entirely on race?
Does this mean that the Sports Ministry and its agencies had in fact failed to promote and develop sports without any bias?
The Olympic charter, that every sports leader expounds, claims that sports should be void of racism and sexism. How effectively is this being implemented in Malaysian sports?
When Lee Zii Jia won the All-England recently, there were claims in the social media that he would have got a Datukship if only he was not a Chinese. This is just another example of subtle racism in play. Mohamed Hafiz Hashim won the All-England in 2003 but he had not received a Datukship till date.
If you make a simple observation on the social media, one will already see traces of racism and bias in play. More shares and likes for an athlete of a certain race will almost always come from those of the same race.
When Donald Trump labelled poorer countries as “shithole countries” it was a reflection of his own racism. His actions and words helped empower the inherent racism in his followers.
It is important that our own leaders, let it be the politicians, sports leaders, community heads and even educators, to stop empowering the hidden racism in the growing group of Malaysians by their words and actions, no matter how subtle it may seem.
Sports is supposed to be a tool for unity, let us not turn it into a weapon for racism.