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26 April 2023

Sporting protest terrifies those in power because history tends to prove it right

Campaigners recognise that sport can smash through the fourth wall in a way politics and debate never can.

By Jonathan Liew

In the end, the London Marathon on 23 April passed off largely without incident. The “intelligence reports” cited in the Sun suggesting “hardcore eco-activists” were “hell-bent on action” proved to be unfounded. The “mob of eco-zealots” the Daily Mail insisted was descending on London to ruin the race did not materialise. Very few of the 30,000 saboteurs that GB News reported would be mobilising were evident at the side of the road, unless they were deploying the time-honoured protest methods of generous applause and drinking tea from a hot flask.

Naturally, this did not attract much attention in the subsequent coverage: a marathon undisrupted is not as good a story as the possibility that it might be. This was largely in keeping with how the recent wave of protests at British sporting events has been portrayed. Even to refer to it as a “wave” is to lend the issue undue narrative heft. On 15 April the Grand National at Aintree was delayed when activists from the campaign group Animal Rising scaled perimeter fencing around the course. Two days later a first-round match at the World Snooker Championship in Sheffield was suspended when a Just Stop Oil protester climbed onto the table and emptied a packet of orange powder over it.

[See also: The problem with sport’s endless “greatest of all time” debates]

Two incidents, by two separate groups, for the causes of animal welfare and the fight against climate change, generating no casualties and very little damage. The Grand National was delayed by 14 minutes. The cloth at the snooker was replaced and play resumed the following day. None of which feels remotely proportionate to the volume of outraged column inches and airtime generated – a moral panic made up of two parts extrapolation to one part base scaremongering. We are told that a “summer of sporting protests” awaits us, in which no event is safe. “How long before the Open or Wimbledon or whatever?” said Barry Hearn, the president of the World Snooker Tour, who advocates long custodial sentences for protesters.

Above all there is a sense that something sacred is being profaned. What, exactly? The risk to life is virtually non-existent. No violence is taking place, unless you count the frequently heavy-handed response by police and security personnel. Perhaps there was a clue in the words of Rishi Sunak, taking time out of his busy schedule to address the day’s pressing issue. “People who disrupt decent, law-abiding people’s lives, trying to gratuitously ruin great British sporting events that many have worked hard and saved to enjoy should be ashamed of their selfish and reckless behaviour,” the Prime Minister said on 19 April.

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All the hooks and choruses of right-wing, culture-war mood music are here. The opposition between “decent people” and “reckless” protesters, a distinction that suggests Sunak has very little experience of the Aintree crowd. The telling link between work, saving and enjoyment, the idea that a hard-won financial investment is being violated. The casual invocation of “great British”, an attempt to frame climate protest as not simply disruptive but unpatriotic, a desecration of tradition.

It is the last of these that is perhaps the most flawed reading of all. Say what you like about today’s sporting protesters – and most polling seems to suggest the public is broadly sympathetic to their aims, if not their methods – but they are by no means a new phenomenon. Indeed, the on-field protest is one of this country’s great sporting traditions, a noble and venerable inheritance of which Animal Rising and Just Stop Oil are merely the latest executors.

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Perhaps the best known was the suffragette Emily Davison, killed at Epsom racecourse in 1913 while trying to attach a flag to the king’s horse. In 1969 and 1970 a controversial tour of Britain and Ireland by the South Africa men’s rugby union team was serially disrupted by anti-apartheid protesters. In 1975 an Ashes Test match at Headingley was abandoned after campaigners for the release of the armed robber George Davis vandalised the pitch. More recently, it has been athletes themselves who have exercised their right to conscientious objection, whether by taking the knee in support of Black Lives Matter or bearing the rainbow colours in protest at repressive LGBT laws.

For all the increasingly sinister attempts to control and commodify the sporting arena through laws and draconian security measures, the direct protest is a reminder that this remains a public space; our space. One of the reasons sporting protest arouses such strength of feeling is that it strikes us when we are at our most emotionally malleable. We want to discover new things. We want to have the boundaries of our world expanded. Sport can smash through the fourth wall in a way that politics and public debate never can. This may explain why, given long enough, sporting protest generally succeeds in its aims.

Davison received hate mail even while she was dying in hospital, but women got the vote. The anti-apartheid campaigners were condemned but apartheid eventually fell. George Davis was freed in 1976. Already, the organised slaughter of jumps racing is beginning to look like a sadistic relic of a bygone age – and be assured that one day, the burning of fossil fuels will be as taboo in this country as protests against it once were. This, perhaps, is what terrifies those in power most about the spectre of sporting protest: not the threat to public order or revenue, but the gnawing sensation that eventually, history will prove it right.

[See also: Football remains spectacular, but the trust between clubs and the public is broken]

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This article appears in the 26 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The New Tragic Age