[Point de vue de Rodolphe Husny] When sport becomes political

The author is a former conservative strategist. He was a political adviser in the Harper government as well as in the opposition.

Carey Price made a mistake. Not that of defending the privilege of having a hunting weapon to practice his hobby, no, that of promoting an organization without having done his homework. Before associating, the rule is to make sure that we share common values. We do not promote with the code “POLY” if we have the slightest sensitivity towards Quebec. The CH player learned it the hard way. It was not his stance against Bill C-21 that sank him, but his inability to anticipate the crisis born of his blindly supporting the Canadian Coalition for Gun Rights.

Athletes have had an ambiguous relationship with the political world throughout history. Some even served as tools of state propaganda, as in Hitler’s Nazi Germany during the 1936 Olympics, or in Mussolini’s Italy, which demanded a fascist salute from its athletes, a gesture the cyclist Gino Bartali had proudly refused to pose, in 1938.

This year we celebrate the 50e anniversary of the Series of the Century. In the midst of the Cold War, hockey games were played as much on the ice as in the political arena. Closer to home, Argentina hosted the FIFA World Cup in 1978, which they won during the dictatorship of the military junta. Putin held the Olympics in Sochi. Ditto for the Beijing regime in 2008 and 2022.

Regimes still use sport to consolidate their state weight. This is the case of Qatar with the World Cup. Some athletes have paid dearly for the conflicts in which they have been embroiled. This was the case during the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics by the United States and sixty countries, including Canada. The Eastern Bloc responded in the same way in 1984 at the Los Angeles Olympics. Not to mention the horror stories experienced by athletes from East Germany and the Iron Curtain countries. Or the institutionalized doping that persists in Russia, or the demands of the Iranian regime which prohibits its athletes from fighting an Israeli.

The influence of athletes in politics

Fortunately, sport can be a vehicle for reconciliation. South Africa’s rugby victory, led by Nelson Mandela, helped turn the page on the ravages of apartheid in 1995. There is a glimmer of hope each time the two Koreas march together at the Olympics .

Athletes have also made strong, individual gestures to fight against discrimination, racism and injustice, such as Jesse Owens and Cornelius Johnson when they defied Nazism at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. History has also remembered the raised fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, among the most striking images of “Black Power” in the United States.

In baseball, Jackie Robinson, the first black professional player, in 1947, will have had symbolic value. Boxer Mohammed Ali made an impression by denouncing conscription and the Vietnam War in 1966. By kneeling on the ground, Colin Kaepernick – imitated by several NFL players – did a lot to denounce police violence. As for Sheldon Kennedy, he dared to lift the veil on sexual assault in hockey. Conversely, the appalling behavior of the leadership of Hockey Canada is a disgrace that has tarnished their organization and our national sport.

After sport, politics?

We almost had a Prime Minister of Canada at the Olympics. The runner John Turner, qualified for London, in 1948, had a car accident which prevented him from participating. Hockey player Jean Béliveau was offered the post of governor general, which he refused.

In Quebec, the Minister of Sports, Isabelle Charest, was a speed skater, while hockey player and former analyst Enrico Ciccone has been an MP since 2018. Richard Legendre, a former junior tennis champion, was meanwhile Minister of the Parti Québécois .

In Ottawa, former goaltender Ken Dryden served as minister under Paul Martin. Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough competed in the Paralympic Games in swimming. Kayaker Adam van Koeverden is an MP, as is former marathon runner Peter Fonseca and former Saguenéens coach Richard Martel. Former cyclist Lyne Bessette was also an MP.

Winning a Stanley Cup can make it easier to enter the Senate, as was the case for coach Jacques Demers and Frank Mahovlich of the Maple Leafs. The skier Nancy Greene, the paralympic athlete Chantal Petitclerc, Larry Smith have also been or are still senators. Despite his nickname, Serge Savard, known as the “Senator”, has never been.

Sports notoriety in politics

Sport and politics can also go hand in hand. In 2014, during a trip by the President of Finland to Canada, Saku Koivu was part of the delegation. He had been put to the service of “hockey diplomacy” to strengthen the ties between our countries.

The unique Maurice Richard often spoke alongside the equally unique Maurice Duplessis. Former wrestlers have been bodyguards, including Jean Rougeau for René Lévesque. But public outings are sometimes heavy to bear. Guy Lafleur regretted confusing the right to veto with the right to vote after taking a stand on Charlottetown in 1992.

Parachuted in as deputy leader of the Green Party, George Laraque did not move the needle of his party. Ditto for Angelo Esposito or Philippe Gagnon, one of the most decorated Paralympic athletes, both disappointed candidates, in 2019. In 2015, Prime Minister Harper had received the support of Wayne Gretzky. This year, the Rouge et Or dissociated themselves from Éric Duhaime when he wore a jersey in the team’s colors and was accompanied by a former player, Arnaud Gascon-Nadon.

All these examples show how thin the line can be between instrumentalization and change, between the just cause and its unfortunate recovery, a line crossed briskly this week by Carey Price.

Correction: The first version of this text mentioned the 1936 Munich Olympics. It should read instead that it was the Berlin Olympics.

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