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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
From Mean Girls to Mamet: Lindsay Lohan
theatre
Sport
Nathaniel Clyne (No 2) drives home his side's second goal past Arsenal’s David Ospina at the Emirates
footballArsenal 1 Southampton 2: Arsène Wenger pays the price for picking reserve side in Capital One Cup
News
Mike Tyson has led an appalling and sad life, but are we not a country that gives second chances?
peopleFormer boxer 'watched over' crash victim until ambulance arrived
Arts and Entertainment
Geena Davis, founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
tv
News
i100
Travel
travelGallery And yes, it is indoors
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
The Tiger Who Came To Tea
booksJudith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

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

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Account Executive/Sales Consultant – Permanent – Hertfordshire - £16-£20k

£16500 - £20000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

KS2 PPA Teacher needed (Mat Cover)- Worthing!

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: KS2 PPA Teacher currently nee...

IT Systems Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

Day In a Page

Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

BBC Television Centre

A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

My George!

Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
10 best rucksacks for backpackers

Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world