This article appeared in the Sunday Herald
In Soviet Russia, Stalin manipulated sport, as he did every other walk of life, to his own ends. In football, Dynamo Moscow, under the auspices of the secret police, were emissaries of his regime, a parody of the whole absurd business of Communism. Uncle Joe’s worker-gods ran amok with the competition – of course they did. They also made a mockery of sporting ideals such as fairness and skill, and as a result were secretly despised.
A South African rugby team in the image of that country’s government would most decidedly not run amok with anyone, but as an example of political interference in sport it would be equally pernicious. The self-styled Rainbow Nation’s ANC leaders are right now big on what they call “transformation”, which in rugby terms means attempting to broaden participation among blacks, who make up 79-per cent of the population. A laudable aim, surely, but one which should be carefully implemented.
Instead, the heavy hand of the state in South Africa is likely to set the game back years. When the Springboks won the World Cup last year, black and white stood shoulder to shoulder in celebration, regardless of the fact there were no black players, and only two of mixed race (wingers Bryan Habana and Jon Paul Pietersen) in the squad. The ANC’s favoured policy of selection according to race, with the aim of making the team two-thirds black, would see the country drop out of rugby’s international elite overnight and many of its best players defecting. Harmony, you can be sure, would not be well-served.
The ball was set rolling last week with the appointment of Peter de Villiers, the Sprinboks’ first black coach, chosen ahead of overwhelming players’ favourite Heyneke Meyer, who is white, but also the most successful South African provincial coach of the post-apartheid era. The South African Rugby Union boasted that their top positions were all now filled by blacks, while Oregan Hoskins, the organisation’s black president, revealed how blinkered his junta has become with the unwitting remark that he was looking forward to the day “when we won’t look at appointments in colour compartments”.
The fact is that de Villiers is clearly not the best man for the job. Nor would a predominantly black side be capable of defending the World Cup in 2011. Policies of inclusion must start at the grass roots. Imagine the New York Knicks basketball team filled with Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in order to reflect the city’s ethnic diversity, or the Oxford-Cambridge boat race contested by kids from the estates instead of Americans, Nordic-looking chaps and the occasional earl. By all means increase participation, but the highest levels in sport should remain the preserve of elites. No matter which “compartment” they arrive in.