Sports & Politics: The Bedfellows You Can't Ignore
“Keep politics out of my XYZ,” has become a popular cry by those that believe political and societal conversations can be removed from any topic. It is frequently the outcry when the relations between sports and politics become clear. The same has been said about martial arts as of late, when it is easy to understand just how politics, sports and martial arts bedfellows since inception have been and will continue to be throughout time.
Max Schmeling and Adolf Hitler’s attempt to use the 1936 Olympics as a platform to promote Nazi Germany are two attempts that failed miserably when they met the likes of Joe Louis, Jesse Owens and other African American athletes. Juan Carlos and Tommy Smith’s iconic picture at the 1968 Olympics is another example of when sports were used to advance an ideology that went beyond the game. Throughout history there are a variety of examples that show people using sports to push a narrative that meant much more than winning a game.
So why would anyone think that martial arts such as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Judo, Wrestling, Boxing, or others would be devoid of political commentary. In many ways, the rivalries that erupt across martial arts occur due to the caste systems in which they were founded. There were times when some martial arts were only allowed to be taught to the wealthy and educated, leaving those of “lower class” living to figure out other ways to defend themselves. Styles such as Luta Livre and Capoeira found their roots in such ways. The ability to defend oneself, whether by hand or by gun, is highly political in nature so its asinine to think the two can be separated.
Which brings the conversation to the situations we see in martial arts today. All too common is it to find a popular name in the industry using their platform to spread debased conspiracy theories or promote stances which denigrates the ills others face. Yet, when those who understand societal norms speak up, they are met with the stale response “Keep politics out of BJJ,” as if it has not been there since the style began. A fundamental understanding of that history would reveal just how much politics played a part in the development of all martial arts. But to understand that, one would have to want to know the history behind what they practice or preach.
There are instances were gyms and promotions in the grappling community promote the idea that “All Lives Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter,” avoiding the conversation’s impact on the students of color that practice. All the way up to the UFC welcoming in Ramzan Kadyrov who has committed heinous atrocities against human beings for years. Politics and martial arts are drawing closer together today in very dangerous ways.
Voices around the world are demanding a social change toward equality for all. Those that push back against the voices of men and women like Colin Kaepernick or the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team will find themselves on the wrong side of history. The same is said for those that are refusing to see the parallels between politics and martial arts. They go hand in hand because often the hands is all people must fend for themselves.