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Evarist Bartolo

The story you don’t know about

The irony of it all is that those who spew hate towards people who escape conflict and violence are among those people who cheer on the same people when they become football stars

evarist_bartolo
Evarist Bartolo
16 August 2017, 8:13am
The friendship which was born during those games between Jesse Owens and his German rival, Carl Ludwig Long, showed that the human element is beyond political propaganda
The friendship which was born during those games between Jesse Owens and his German rival, Carl Ludwig Long, showed that the human element is beyond political propaganda
The 1936 Berlin Olympics was supposed to be a show of Nazism and authoritative power. The headlines preceding the games were more focused on the political meaning, rather than the athletes. So when Jesse Owens, an African-American, sprinted to victory it dampened proceedings for the organisers. Owens may have grabbed the medals and the front and back pages of the newspapers, but there were others. Mack Robinson won the 200-metre dash and Archie Williams won the 400-metre race. Who would’ve said that, just a few years later, they’d be fighting the same people that watched them perform in those games.

It was arguably a defining moment, because for the first time in modern history sport became more than games. It showed compassion and human spirit and, in those times, it was a political expression in itself. The friendship which was born during those games between Jesse Owens and his German rival, Carl Ludwig Long, showed that the human element is beyond political propaganda. 

In today’s world, sport is still capable of sending strong messages. These messages are effective not because they are intentional, but because of the reality of our societies. Take the Premier League in England, which started two days ago. The sport is a beautiful example of how different people from all corners of the world can come together and build something magical. Of course, there’s the business-end of football, with huge transfer fees, salaries and TV rights bungled up.

But it’s also individual stories which are nothing short of amazing. Stoke City striker, Saido Berahino, had to flee his home country in Burundi as a child and seek political asylum in the UK. He has repeatedly credited football for helping him integrate in British life. 

Christian Benteke, another star who’ll be on our television on Saturday afternoons, was born in Congo. His parents fled violence and settled in Liege. Likewise, Luka Modric fled the Balkan War in 1992 and was a refugee. Former World Cup winner and Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane, Arsenal midfielder Taulant Xhaka and Bayern Munich star David Alaba were all born shortly after their parents left their home countries due to conflict.

The stories of famous and less-famous football stars whose parents were refugees, or who were refugees themselves, are relatively common.

The irony of it all is that those who spew hate towards people who escape conflict and violence are among those people who cheer on the same people when they become football stars. The paradoxical nature of this behaviour is beyond me. 

Sport has always been a shining example of what we can achieve as humans. Beyond the athletic aspect, there is also a deep understanding that people come together for a common goal, that what we can contribute is more important than where we came from or the colour of our skin. I understand that geopolitics is a complicated business. In no way can one simplify a complicated and fragmented Middle East situation into a soundbite. However there’s an inherent and quiet message to be derived from sport. It seems people are dehumanised as refugees, seen as unwanted and unloved by society. That is until they sign a contract with a top football club and they become successful. Suddenly, they are cherished and loved by all. They become icons. We buy their name on our football shirts, for 70 euros a pop. But isn’t that person intrinsically the same?

Jesse Owens, in 1936, showed the world that race differentiation is simply something concocted in our minds. As football returns to our screens 80 years on from those Olympic games, the contradictions in the beliefs of some people among us still rings true.