Many months ago, Megan Rapinoe, star of the freshly-crowned American World Cup winning football team, had told Eight by Eight magazine she wasn’t going to the White House (most winning teams are known to stop by), and added she doubted if she’d get an invite. When the video resurfaced, it attracted the typically incoherent wrath of US President Donald Trump. He chided Rapinoe about learning to respect the country, White House, flag, etc. This, he said, was “especially since so much has been done for her and the team”. Rapinoe, of course, got the job done in the World Cup final against Holland at Paris with penalty kicks. But she left no room for doubt about her choice to not be “co-opted”.
Being co-opted is one of sport’s oldest phenomena. Not just the Roman emperors or the Nazi regime, every ruling dispensation loves casual control over winning athletes, parading them around as the nation’s success stories. But in the US, there’s no dearth of Tommie Smiths and John Carloses with their Black Power salutes and Muhammad Ali with his ability to defy and the conviction to strike the dissenting note. Rapinoe, a champion in the same mould, has similarly become a global darling for refusing to back down after Trump’s harangues.
In India, never is co-option as evident as in the lead-up to national sports awards, when athletes are forced to angle for the Arjuna through political lobbying, and ahead of Republic Day, for the Padma awards. There is mindless parroting of scripts handed down, with little thought given to independent opinions. Not the most politically attuned nor astute, most Indian athletes have never spoken their mind unless it aligns with predictable jingoism. Playing safe equals playing to win here, there’s no Megan Rapinoe in sight.