The following piece was published back in 2008 in the November/December issue of Canadian Dimension magazine. Socrates died last Saturday. He was one of the greatest footballers of his generation, but more importantly, he matched sporting talent with a commitment to justice and egalitarian politics; a rare thing in the hyper-corporate sports culture of today. Farewell to a giant of football and a giant of the Brazilian left. Check his obituary in the Guardian here.
Searching for Socrates
I’m not disappointed by Canada’s performance at the Summer Olympics. Socialists ought to be internationalists by definition and as unconcerned with the patriotic displays of sporting prowess of their own countries as they are with that of any other. Besides, the Olympics was originally conceived to demonstrate individual achievement, athletes as representations of their own commitment and excellence, not that of their nations. But I am seriously dismayed at the lack of political protest that marred – at least from a radical’s standpoint – the Beijing Games.
Despite all the hype that preceded the Games – and resulting Chinese concern with the potential to be politically embarrassed by dissenting athletes – these Olympics were unusually quiet and the athletes disappointingly quiescent. As I wrote in my last CD column, the Olympics and protest go hand in hand; so why so few voices of dissent when the Games are held in one of the most oppressive states in the world? This absence cannot be solely attributed to the authoritarian management of the Games (and the athletes themselves) by the Chinese government. Sure, the iron fist Beijing employs to rule its unruly migrant workers was put to use for the Games, but visiting athletes had ample opportunity and diplomatic protection to carry out acts of dissent.
Whether the oppression of the Chinese working class, the denial of basic civic and political rights, the suppression of religious groups, or the imprisonment of dissidents, there were no shortage of issues to protest at the Games. And of course, Tibet, which I leave last only because its popularity as a political cause celebre has as much to do with the fad of Buddhism amongst the North American middle class as with concerns for the national liberation of a people (Americans in particular seem attracted to Tibet while peculiarly the U.S. anti-war/anti-occupation movement is waning, but I digress). Maybe the lack of protest at the Games merely signifies the decline of the political athlete.
This brings me to one of my own sporting heroes, the Brazilian soccer player, Socrates. If ever there was a model of the politically engaged athlete, Socrates was it (with Muhammad Ali a close second). He was a man of contradictions. Considered a late-bloomer he made his debut for the Brazilian national team at the age of 25 and continued to play well into his forties. Despite being 6 foot 4 he was one of the most elegant midfielders to ever grace the game. And although he studied to be a medical doctor he smoked a pack-a-day throughout his career.
Like in many countries, in Brazil politics and soccer overlap: the personalities, the players, and the fans. Socrates captained the club Corinthians during some of the darkest days of the Brazilian dictatorship. Historically, Corinthians are the working class club of Sao Paulo and count the nominally socialist president Lula da Silva amongst their fans. But during the days of authoritarian rule, ownership of the club was controlled by right-wing elites close to the military. From 1978 to 1984, Socrates organized the Corinthians Democracy movement, an informal players association that demanded players’ rights but was understood by fans and players alike to be a symbolic challenge to the dictatorship.
The movement wrestled effective control of the club from the team’s management and installed a workers democracy with players voting on club matters. In one of the bravest acts of politico-sporting history, in 1982 the players voted to print “Vote on the 15th” on the back of their team uniform in the hopes it would motivate Brazilians – and particularly Corinthians’ working class and socialist support who had felt the brunt of authoritarian right-wing rule – to vote in the November 15th election. The election turned out to be a pivotal moment in the democratization of Brazil and Corinthians Democracy is widely regarded as an important factor in the country’s transition to democratic rule.
While Canada has never produced its very own Socrates, Canadian basketball player and two-time NBA MVP, Steve Nash, risked ridicule and scorn to vocally oppose America’s war on Iraq. It’s too bad our national basketball team didn’t qualify for the Beijing Olympics. And it’s too bad the Games have past with the Chinese people still searching for their very own Socrates.
Published in Canadian Dimension Nov/Dec 2008 42 (6)