Some Thoughts on Amir Khan and Cathy Freeman*
The lanky teenager bedecked in red stepped into the ring: eyes wide. The Union-Jacked fan club stood cheering in the stands, providing their last minutes of support before the fight that would determine the 2004 Olympics gold-medal in the 57-60kg division. Britain’s youngest ever boxer at the Olympics: Amir Khan. The fight would end in a comprehensive victory to the wily old champ, Mario Kindelan in his ‘last ever fight’, but Khan would win many fans for the fight he brought to the boxing game. This kid Amir Khan can be proud of himself, and the whole of Britain is proud of him because he’s had a fantastic games and I can categorically say – a star is born here. So ran the commentary.
Doing it for Britain
Khan became a figure of successful Asian integration into British sporting elite. Journalists praised his achievements in the ring, while also boosting him up as a symbol of British society’s mixed demographics. Seeing Khan do well, seeing his evident British patriotism was a feel-good moment for many Brits. Much like Cathy Freeman’s victory in the 400meters at the Sydney Olympics. Much like Mo Farah’s success in the 5,000m and 10,000m at the London Olympics. Nothing warms the cockles like a member of an ethnic minority doing good on the sporting field, eh. But over time, the athletes change, and their convenience for endorsing mainstream political ideologies also slips. Politicians though, can’t help grabbing at athletes and sportsmen and women, for a quick boost in their popularity.
Daniel Burdsey, writing back in 2007, said of Khan: ‘[his] shelf-life as a politically valuable individual is arguably limited to how long he reinforces (or, equally important, is perceived to reinforce) dominant discourses on ‘race relations’, citizenship and belonging’ (Burdsey 2007, p. 625). Burdsey, however, is cynical regarding the likelihood that Khan would be willing to make controversial statements in the manner of the late Muhammad Ali: ‘the sponsorship and endorsements that come with impending stardom reduce the scope individuals have to speak out on contentious social and political issues’ (Burdsey 2007, p.625).
By comparison, one of Australia’s greatest athletes, Cathy Freeman, has had to negotiate the stories and values bestowed upon her, with seeking to convey her own position and perspective. Freeman, perhaps unwittingly became a symbol of reconciliation for her victory in the 2000 Olympics. “It was not only a dream of mine to win an Olympic gold medal, but to do the victory lap carrying both flags [the Aboriginal and the Australian flag]”. Footage shows, however, the crowd only waving two flags: the Union-Jacked Australian flag and the green-and-gold yobbo, nationalist flag of the boxing kangaroo. This was a victory so ecstatic that even the great Michael Johnson’s race was delayed as Freeman did her victory lap. Freeman, though, had this to say regarding the then sports-mad and unapologetic prime-minister, John Howard: “You have to understand that when you have a government [i.e. John Howard’s] that is so insensitive to the issues that are close to people’s hearts [i.e. the stolen generation, of which her grandmother was a member], that have affected so many lives for the worse, people are going to be really angry and emotional.” (15 Years On)
Doing it for the Black, Red and Yellow Flag and for the other one
And so Khan, for all his Britishness upset the apple cart by saying he would love to box for Pakistan. Faux pas, much? Khan’s success in the boxing ring emerged in a context where Asians (re: Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis) were largely connsidered inferior and incapable of performing at the top, professional level of sport. The assumptions are based on essentialised views on Asian peoples and culture: they’re too religious, they don’t mix well, they’re not physically up to it, their culture doesn’t value sport. This stereotype differs largely from that of Aboriginal Australians: who are considered (only) naturally talented, but lack in work ethic and effort. Khan countered the presumptions of many by showing that he was a devout Muslim, a proud Brit and someone who was also tuned into his own Pakistani community and his heritage. He has never been exclusively British nor Pakistani: despite the wishes of the British public. And, unlike in the case of Asian cricketers playing the team sport of cricket, spectators had to confront Khan’s Pakistani-ness while watching him compete in his sport. He isn’t just a member of a team.
Why so white?
One of the leading concerns amongst the Asian community is this inherent idea that Asian’s are seen as a segregated entity who do not have any affiliation with ‘British sport’. This of course is false. Some of Britain’s core sports are dominated by Asians at the amateur and grassroots level. Having said that where are the Asians at the elite level? This in itself is where the problem manifests itself. Society has developed this ‘believe what you see’ mentality, and if you do not see something, it’s false. Multiple academic and industrial scholars tend to categorise such mechanisms as role models, or a lack of them when it comes to Asian representation. Or can it be the fact that Asians have their own sports; ‘Asian sports’? The general stereotypical consensus illustrates Asians have the prowess needed to hold rackets, a stick and a ball, but are not macho enough in dealing with the physical demands of football, rugby etc. I can count all the Asian’s who have competed at the elite level in Britain on both hands. Surprisingly, boxing dominates proceedings, with cricket and football far behind.
‘Prince’ Naseem Hamed was perhaps the first British Asian to hit the headlines in the 90’s with his eccentric displays of extreme cockiness, boxing skill and box office personality at the forefront of his success; admitting himself, being of Asian orientation did not affect his success. So why is it that contemporary sport still sees Asians as an inferior group? I myself have experienced this exact ideology when growing up and playing a variety of sports. I would consistently ask those around me why Asians did not feature in British sport when I was growing up, especially within the footballing environment and the response always seemed to be the same; ‘too much discrimination’. Looking back, that was probably the easiest and simplest way of answering the question. From then on it was instilled in me that Asians had to work twice as hard to gain half as much in sport. Nevertheless, I was always under the illusion things would rapidly change for the positive.
A clear emphasis is placed on educating those in and around sport. But does it really work? I have held and participated in workshops which aim to educate. Yes, it’s a proactive way of eliminating such prejudice, yet, it boils down to a majority v minority argument. Even though majority of society acknowledge the falsifying effects of stereotypes, a minority will always hit the headlines. So in essence, it becomes a catch-22 effect whereby educating society has produced significant results, yet, the statistics show otherwise. A study by The Independent found only 0.3% of all professional football contracts belonged to a player of South-Asian origin. A similar study by The Guardian established only 6% of cricket contracts belonged to a player of South-Asian origin. The list goes on and on.
The awareness of Asian inclusion in sport has grew exponentially over the past decade. Previously, industry experts, governing bodies and academics are combining to tackle such discrepancies head on, however, there are some aspects which still need to be explored and critiqued. One of the areas lacking in such provisions is sport media, and how they promote British sport. Is mainstream society neglecting Asians simply because they feel they aren’t good enough, or is it a more complex issue? My thoughts alone stand with the latter statement. Though, it seems as though Khan’s popularity has changed the perspective of Asian’s sporting credentials.
Khan Boxing Out of the Box and Freeman’s Legacy
Amir Khan has become the boxer that many expected him to become after his quick rise to prominence in the 2004 Olympics. Yet, his detractors always talk about his glass chin. Khan’s brave showing in his fight against Canelo – despite being knocked-out – won him many fans for actually providing a competitive boxing match, where the unlikely seemed possible. Khan, the boxer, put himself into danger by going up above his boxing weight, and then, once there, didn’t recoil but took the bout on: boxing like a winner until the flattening blow. Khan has also been able to the author of his own destiny where he is not subservient to the ideological limitations imposed by his sponsors. Khan has been proud and defiant in standing up for his values through philanthropy and charity while giving up on the bling and glitz of his early days of stardom. Freeman, has slowly slipped out of the limelight since the heady days of her post-Olympic boom. She remains much vaunted for her win and the manner in which she achieved it. Her foundation goes about its work promoting education and health in Indigenous communities. Her legacy is for Aboriginal Australia and not for those who only enjoy her when she makes non-Aboriginal Australia forget about the gaps in education, wealth, health.
*Co-written with Andy Fuller
Daniel Burdsey, 2007, “Role with the punches: the construction and representation of Amir Khan as a role model for multiethnic Britain”, The Sociological Review, Vol.55, No.3, pp.611-631.