The two bouts between German bred Max Schmeling and Alabama’s ‘Brown Bomber’ Joe Louis were significant not only for the enthralling spectacles that they were, but also because they embodied the wider social and political conflicts of the time. Schmeling fought out of a Fascist corner and epitomised the Nazi idea of the Aryan master race, whilst Louis fought out of an American corner that represented a Democracy that supposedly safeguarded the freedom and liberty of millions. Perhaps more poignantly Louis fought as an African-American, a race deemed inferior by both the racial theorists of Nazi Germany, and arguably a majority of the American population; so the fight became not only a means to show a political dominance, but also a means to advance the cause of African-Americans in the United States. The first bout saw Louis suffer his first professional defeat at the hands of Schmeling by means of a knockout in the Twelfth round, and ,after an intense build-up, the second match saw Louis triumph with a KO in the first – Watch the round here.
Again, the 1936 Berlin Olympics were infused with the Facsist/Democratic political conflicts of the time. The sporting events of the Olympics were a perfect platform for Hitler’s Germany to demonstrate the physical superiority of the ‘Master Race’. However, by winning four gold medals, Jesse Owens helped to damage a Nazi ideology that depicted Africans as an inferior race. Owens matched the World Record 100m time with 10.3 – a feat you can watch in this video.
The ‘Politischederby’ is one of the fiercest rivalries in club football between FC St. Pauli and FC Hansa Rostock. This is not a typical derby defined by place, such as the famous Arsenal Tottenham North London derby, but rather a derby defined by the diametrically opposite politics the two teams share. St. Pauli leans heavily towards the left-wing, liberal politics, whilst Hansa Rostock occupy the other end of the political spectrum. Read more about the history of the rivalry in this interesting article.
1968 Mexico Olympics – John Carlos and Tommie Smith
1968 was another year of fierce political, social and economical upheaval around the world, and nothing epitomised the striking overlap between the political and the sporting worlds better than John Carlos and Tommie Smith‘s Black Power Salutes whilst on the podium. The Vietnam war raged on, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated, and racial conflict and unrest in the US was reaching new heights. Carlos and Smith used the global platform of the Olympics to protest against this prevalent racism, to dispute notions of racial superiority and inferiority, and to show support for the individuals struggling, bleeding and dying for civil rights- all through the silent raising of a fist.
Ping Pong Diplomacy 1971
After decades of non-communication between the Democratic United States and Chairman Mao‘s Communist China, a squad of American Table-Tennis players, whilst at the world championships in Japan, were invited to a friendly competition on Chinese soil. The strange turn of events that saw some of the first American officials set foot in China since the 1940’s, captured the worlds attention, and pushed the U.S and China into warmer relations; a small, bizarre, yet significant step towards ending the cold war. Aside from this particular Communist/Democratic issue, the competition also helped to divert attention away from the brutal consequences and many deaths caused by Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward‘.
Overcoming Apartheid and the 1995 Rugby World Cup
The south African rugby team, known as the Springboks, were excluded from the first two rugby world cups because of anti-apartheid sporting boycotts of South Africa. The national team also tended to be despised by the majority of black South Africans due to its exclusion of ‘non-white’players. After the end of Apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994 South Africa hosted the 1995 Rugby World Cup, and Mandela urged the population to get behind the once hated team. The suffering and inhumanity prevalent in the Apartheid era was still fresh in the memory of players, supporters, and onlookers but the enormous odds against a South African victory and their surprising victories went some way to uniting the country in a sporting way. The famous final saw the underdogs South Africa trump their natural rivals New Zealand 15-12, leading to the famous pictures of Mandela handing captain Francois Pienaar the trophy; a gesture seen as strong, but delicate steps towards reconciliation between black and white South Africans.