Keep sports free of politics

There are already enough places where dispute and division are allowed to spiral out of control.

Hundreds of fans and supporters cheer the bicycle riders of the 101st Giro d'Italia, one of the most prestigious road-cycling races in the world, as they begin the race in Jerusalem on May 4, 2018. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Hundreds of fans and supporters cheer the bicycle riders of the 101st Giro d'Italia, one of the most prestigious road-cycling races in the world, as they begin the race in Jerusalem on May 4, 2018. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Rabbi Sruli Fried. Credit: Courtesy.
Rabbi Sruli Fried
Rabbi Sruli Fried, MSW, is the Executive Director of Bike4Chai, the highest per capita experiential fundraising event in the world, and Tour De Simcha, an all-women’s cycling and running event in support of children and families living with pediatric illness and crisis.

We live in an age in which society is swept up by political and ideological divisions. Celebrities take positions on issues that have little to nothing to do with their talents, business are boycotted or promoted based on the politics of their owners or employees, and products succeed or fail simply because they are identified with specific political messaging.

I fear that all this has gone far beyond the point where it can be controlled, but I have one remaining hope or plea: That the world of sports remains a domain free of such unnecessary divisiveness.

For millennia, sports have served as a forum for the healthy pursuit of excellence. While that pursuit can be competitive, athleticism thrives when it is linked to sportsmanship and team-building. This involves acknowledging that, as intense as the competition might be, we compete with respect and integrity.

That competition should never be personal. When the final buzzer sounds or the finish line is crossed, we should respect the game and our opponents regardless of who he or she might be.

There are many welcome examples of life lessons learned through sports: The iconic handshake line at the end of a hard-fought hockey playoff series. The marathon runner who jeopardizes their personal record to help a fellow runner who has tripped and fallen. The baseball pitcher whose first reaction when he accidently injures his opponent is to check on their welfare.

There are countless such examples, which prove that, ultimately, sports and integrity can rise above everything else and bring people together.

As someone who has dedicated years to advancing the sport of cycling as a means of uniting communities and raising funds in support of children, I see this particular aspect of sports as a source of pride. It motivates my humble call to keep that which divides us out of the realm of athletics.

It was thus extremely upsetting to see a recent case in which the participation of an accomplished Canadian cyclist in a Women’s Day event was canceled because she had previously served in the Israeli army. To be clear, the cyclist’s purpose in speaking at the event was to address cycling and overcoming personal adversity—nothing else. But haters who thrive on cancel culture have no qualms about harming someone based on their ethnic or political allegiances and will take any opportunity to do so.

Of course, as a Jew, targeting a cyclist for her pro-Israel views bothers me personally. I stand strongly behind my brothers and sisters in Israel and know that too many physical and verbal attacks on defenders of Israel are motivated by a latent antisemitism that is growing at an alarming rate.

But I also firmly believe that fashionable political causes should be largely irrelevant to the sanctuary of sports. Races, games, meets and tournaments should be events at which people are treated as people and as a part of a team. They should be judged on their athletic accomplishments and sportsmanship.

I realize that some might see this plea as naive in today’s world, particularly amid the intensity of Israel’s current war. I am willing to admit that many people will not heed my call.

But I also believe that sports are a place where the impossible becomes possible; where we test our limits; where foes can become friends; and, yes, where political and national rivals recognize that the power of athletic competition can transcend our differences.

There are more than enough times in our lives when discord and debate are allowed to spiral out of control. Let’s not let sports become one of them.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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