Ashling O’Connor: Reaction to Nicholas Anelka’s 'quenelle' and Twitter trolls is true reflection of our society – and that is one built around hope rather than hate

Sport has been used as a global platform to make points for the better

Symbolism is everywhere in sport: triumph over adversity, David versus Goliath, personal redemption etcetera, etcetera.

It is also a conduit for a rather less savoury kind of imagery – an extreme example being the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Given its universality, it can be no surprise that sport reflects most things about our society, the good and the evil.

However, even by these standards, it has been a remarkable week. First, West Bromwich Albion striker Nicolas Anelka was charged by the Football Association after celebrating his first goal against West Ham United with the “quenelle” – a gesture he says is purely an anarchic one but most people believe carries anti-Semitic overtones.

Then Stan Collymore, the former striker turned radio pundit, received such a tirade of racial abuse via Twitter after suggesting Luis Suarez dived to win a penalty that he was forced to spend his birthday on TV news and chat shows challenging the social networking site to do something about it.

And finally, Beth Tweddle – one of the nicest, hard-working and unobtrusive athletes you will ever meet – was subjected to such a flood of cruel insults, again via Twitter, that even hardened hacks at Sky Sports News, who arranged the studio Q&A, confessed to being “absolutely shocked and sickened”.

All individual cases but all sharing a common theme: the recognition that sport has the power to carry a message widely, immediately and with such a resonance that it cannot go unnoticed.

Anelka wanted a reaction just as much as the vile abusers of Collymore and Tweddle did. Part of me says we should just ignore them. Nothing is more frustrating for an attention-seeker than indifference.

We do have to draw the line somewhere and racial abuse is well over it. Bullies and racists must be dealt with. But I come back to the point about universality. Sport might occasionally be hijacked by a person or a movement for the wrong end but it has also been used as a global platform to make societal-shifting points for the better.

The most famous is the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. What if the raised, black-gloved fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos had been ignored?

Another was Nicky Winmar, the Australian Rules footballer who responded to racial taunts in 1993 by lifting his St Kilda jersey, pointing to his indigenous brown skin and yelling at the Collingwood crowd: “‘I’m black – and I’m proud to be black!”

What if photographer Wayne Ludbey had dismissed that gesture as attention-seeking rather than a powerful social statement that made the front page of The Sunday Age newspaper a day after the end of the retrial of the police officers in the Rodney King case? Indifference in both those instances would have been criminal.

Sport is about opinions; it is one of its core strengths. People care about it deeply. Another image that was impossible to ignore this week was of Sjinkie Knegt, the Dutch speed skater, raising his two middle fingers to the back of rival Viktor Ahn, who was celebrating his winning leg in Russia’s team relay gold medal at the European Championships.

Far from sporting behaviour, and Knegt was rightly disqualified for flipping the double bird, but at least it showed he cared about defeat. Sport would be so much poorer if we tried to constrain the passion.

So we take the villains as a foil to the heroes. To do otherwise would be to sanitise sport to the point of banality. We would miss seminal moments in our history because we were so busy looking the other way.

If crimes are committed or rules broken, there will be consequences. Just as some people will shout stupid things from  the stands, others will fire off idiotic  Twitter posts.

But so long as ennui remains a stranger to sport, there will be opinions from across the spectrum. We can’t stop that. We cannot have freedom of expression without hearing or seeing things we disagree with or find offensive.

It is the reaction that says more about our society anyway. Judging by the public response this week, which reflects  the moral decency of the majority,  sport’s message of hope rather than hate is winning through. That in itself is symbolic.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Books should be for everyone, says Els, 8. Publisher Scholastic now agrees
booksAn eight-year-old saw a pirate book was ‘for boys’ and took on the publishers
Life and Style
Mary Beard received abuse after speaking positively on 'Question Time' about immigrant workers: 'When people say ridiculous, untrue and hurtful things, then I think you should call them out'
Life and Style
Most mail-order brides are thought to come from Thailand, the Philippines and Romania
Life and Style
Margaret Thatcher, with her director of publicity Sir Gordon Reece, who helped her and the Tory Party to victory in 1979
voicesThe subject is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for former PR man DJ Taylor
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Ashdown Group: Head of IT - Hertfordshire - £90,000

£70000 - £90000 per annum + bonus + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: H...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions