Should Athletes Get Political?

By December 16, 2022 Research Publications

The 2022 World Cup is finally reaching its climax with the final fast approaching. Over the past few weeks, the tournament has seen its fair share of political statements from different corners and countries. Apart from organisations and political figures, some athletes and teams have chosen to use visible actions to make their point. For instance, the German team covered their mouths for their team photo against Japan, and the Iranian team chose to stand in silence as their national anthem played.

Colin 2017 decision to kneel during the national anthem to protest inequality and oppression in America kickstarted intense debate on the role of politics and activism in sport. Kaepernick’s protest was certainly not the first of its kind. At the 1968 Olympics, two American medalists raised their clenched fists on the podium as a symbol of solidarity with the Black Power movement. Entire countries have been banned from sporting events, and superstar athletes such as Muhammad Ali have made headlines for acting on their political beliefs.

Now more than ever, the eyes of the world watch athletes on social media and across international news outlets – scrutinising their actions for meaning and political stances. How do Singaporeans feel about the relationship between sports and politics? Do they feel the same way about local athletes? We surveyed 100 Singaporeans to hear their thoughts.

While a large majority of respondents agreed to the broad question of whether “sport and politics should be separate from one another,” further questions reveal more nuance in how they feel about different political statements and potential consequences. For instance, a similar majority do not feel that athletes should be penalised for making political statements. When asked about Singaporean athletes making political statements, most respondents feel neutral, while 22% feel positive.

With social media and rolling news picking up on athletes’ lives and careers, fans of these athletes are exposed updates and information outside of sport. Our respondents show variation in how they view athletes making statements outside of sport. For instance, while 32% feel it is Unimportant or Very Unimportant for athletes they support to share their political ideology, 51% feel that it is at least Somewhat Important that athletes speak out about political issues.

On further probing, 32% of respondents specifically state that athletes should stick to speaking about sports only. However, 27% feel that athletes should be able to express political stances off-pitch and a further 13% feel that this can extend to actions off-pitch as well. Actions on-pitch, however, are less acceptable to the respondents, with only 8% in total.

On the whole, these results suggest that Singaporeans have a preference for sport and politics remaining mostly separate. However, they also reflect a shift in attitudes and a recognition that there can’t be a perfect separation of sport and politics – for instance more openness to athletes using their platforms and prominence off-pitch to express themselves, and an unwillingness to see them penalised for political statements.

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