UNITY: FIGHTING PREJUDICE VIA SPORTS

Published February 12, 2023
Shahnawaz Dahani receives a hero’s welcome in Larkana after his exploits for Multan Sultans
Shahnawaz Dahani receives a hero’s welcome in Larkana after his exploits for Multan Sultans

Sports has many definitions. One of the most popular definitions is: ‘An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.’

But sports as we know it is far more than entertainment. It is an industry, that, too, a billion-dollar industry or even more than that. Sports can do wonders for bringing harmony and peace in the world. The great Nelson Mandela once said: “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand.”

Starting from within neighbourhoods and going towards nations, the impact of sports can better be demonstrated in terms of evidence rather than clichés. 

Cricket is easily the most popular sport in this part of the world. The Pakistan Super League (PSL) with the participation of city-based franchises has a fanatical following. There had been no cricketer from the interior of Sindh who could be called a ‘star’ till the emergence of Shahnawaz Dahani of Larkana. He has been shining with the Multan Sultans in the PSL to the delight of the people of not only Larkana but entire Sindh.

Sport has the power to unite people and play a role in discouraging and shunning prejudices. One need not look too far back to see how it has accomplished this

Multan is a city in the province of Punjab but due to Dahani’s presence, Multan Sultans gets tremendous support from Sindhi people. The team’s PSL matches are shown on big screens in all of Sindh, especially the interior of Sindh. It is through the Multan Sultans that Dahani has graduated to play for Pakistan now.

The PSL 8 commences today (February 12). This season, matches have been scheduled in Multan for the first time, with the Sultans playing their first five games at ‘home’. Multan is at a distance of less than four hours from Sindh and many people from Sindh have planned to travel to Multan for the Sultans’ games.

It all contributes towards increasing harmony among the people of the two provinces and also decreasing the sense of deprivation among the Sindhis.

Pakistan and India have differences on many issues. They have fought wars. But field hockey is the national sport of both countries. Both have enjoyed great successes in hockey in the past. The Subcontinental style of hockey used to be the envy of the world.

I remember as a kid, at the 1973 World Cup, Pakistan, the defending champions, lost to India in the semi-final. We had been told that India is an enemy country, so we kids said that it would be good if India gets beaten in the final. But our elders told us no. “India should win as victory for India will be victory for the Subcontinental style of hockey.” They felt sad when India lost the final against Holland.  

Likewise, at the 1982 Hockey World Cup in Mumbai, when hosts India couldn’t make it to the semi-finals, Pakistan became the favourite team for the Indians. The crowd fully supported the Green Shirts in the semi-final and the final. Pakistan lifted the World Cup among cheers by both Pakistanis as well as Indians.

When Pakistan won the hockey gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the Indian Prime Minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi, lauded the achievement in a message of appreciation. “Pakistan’s victory is the continuation of the Subcontinent’s great tradition in hockey,” she said.

Nelson Mandela, in a South African Rugby shirt, presenting the World Cup to Francios Pienaar
Nelson Mandela, in a South African Rugby shirt, presenting the World Cup to Francios Pienaar

Perhaps nothing epitomises the role of sports in bringing peace and harmony than the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa. In 1994, Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa. He was South Africa’s first democratically elected Black president and, despite the peaceful overtures, there was a lot of work to do in addressing the racial animosity, which still existed in that country.

Understanding the ability of sports to unite people, Mandela decided to use the 1995 Rugby World Cup as a way to heal deep racial divides, which back in 1995 would not have been as simple as said.

Rugby was traditionally seen in South Africa as a White sport. Additionally, the Springbok, the symbol of the national rugby team, was also seen by many Black people as a symbol of oppression, since it was also used on the emblems of the Apartheid police and defence forces.

Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress pushed on with their plan, addressing Black people and beseeching them to see the bigger picture as a Springbok success at the World Cup would benefit all South Africans.

He struck up a close friendship with Francois Pienaar, the captain of the Springbok rugby team, and the two of them worked together on promoting unity between Black and White South Africans. They knew that, while hosting the Rugby World Cup would be beneficial in fostering unity, nothing short of complete victory would bring what was really required. 

During the opening matches, the new South African flag was waved in the crowd alongside several old South African flags, which was a worrying sign. The old South African flag was the ultimate symbol of Apartheid. The Black population used to support South Africa’s opposing team during the Apartheid days.

But it all changed gradually as the World Cup progressed. South Africa won all three pool matches, the quarter-final and the semi final to reach the final. The Black population was now right behind the South African team.

The stage was set for a thrilling final that would make history, no matter the outcome. Nobody in the stands was waving the old South African flag. The country had, by then, dropped prejudices, at least for the time being, and embraced Mandela’s vision.

When Mandela walked into the stadium, the mostly-White crowd chanted, “Nelson! Nelson! Nelson!” The final between South Africa and New Zealand was a real thriller. It went into extra time with South Africa ultimately winning the World Cup.

The South African players were overcome by tears as they dropped to their knees before gathering themselves and getting up for a victory lap. In a post-match interview, a journalist asked Francois Pienaar what it was like in the stadium having the support of 60,000 South African fans. Francois replied: “We didn’t have 60,000 South Africans, we had 43 million South Africans.”

To the crowd’s delight, Mandela came on to the field wearing the No. 6 jersey of Francois Pienaar. Handing over the trophy to the captain of the victorious team, he said: “Francois, thank you for what you have done for the country.” And Francois replied: “No, Mr Mandela, thank you for what you have done for the country.”

It is rightly said that the 1995 Rugby World Cup played a pivotal role in avoiding the very real threat of civil war, which loomed like the sword of Damocles over the South African population in the early 1990s.

The writer is a freelance sports journalist based in Lahore.
He tweets @IjazChaudhry1 and can be reached
at ijaz62@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 12th, 2023

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