A Brief History of Protest in Sports

From angry gladiators to Suffragette sabotage

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Sports and protest often go together: As soon as someone makes a call, somebody else is disputing it. But in recent weeks, the really big clashes have happened off the playing fields, as President Donald Trump and others criticized football players kneeling during the national anthem. Such mixing of sports, politics and protest has ancient roots—on the part of both spectators and players.

An early protest by a player comes down to us in “Lives of the Twelve Caesars” by the Roman historian Suetonius (69-130 A.D.). An unnamed gladiator once refused to fight in front of the Emperor Caligula. Then, the gladiator, seeing he would die anyway, grabbed his trident and killed his would-be victors.

But in the ancient world, spectators, not players, were mostly the ones to express their feelings. At Rome’s Circus Maximus in 190 A.D., a young woman followed by a group of children rushed forward during the races and accused an official of hoarding grain. A crowd gathered, threatened the home of Emperor Commodus and succeeded in getting him to fire the official.

Another mass sporting protest wasn’t so civil. In sixth-century Constantinople—the ancestor of the city now known as Istanbul—tensions reached a breaking point between the Blues and Greens, political factions that took their names from colors worn by charioteers. When one side lost at the city’s Hippodrome in 532, a crowd started a mass insurrection known as the Nika Riot. Tens of thousands died in a city whose population was about half a million, and Emperor Justinian never again allowed chariot racing at the Hippodrome.

Perhaps with these rebellions in mind, rulers of the Middle Ages kept sports largely aristocratic, with pageantry in and peasants out. Sometimes, though, a game could be a form of protest. During the heyday of England’s Puritan government in the mid-17th century, some towns rebelled by staging soccer games, which were anathema to Puritans.

Sports regained its full status as a mass spectator event at the end of the 19th century. In 1906 Athens, 10 years after the first modern Olympics, Peter O’Connor, an Irish track-and-field athlete, protested British rule by refusing to accept his silver medal under the British flag. Instead, O’Connor scaled the flagpole and attached an Irish one.

Back home, British sports lovers faced a challenge when the Suffragettes began sabotaging men-only sporting activities. This culminated in a tragedy: During the 1913 Epsom Races outside London, protester Emily Davison ran onto the course, reached for the bridle of King George V’s horse and was trampled to death.

Racism fueled one of the most famous Olympics protests, at the Mexico City games in 1968. American runner Tommie Smith had won the 200-meter race; John Carlos had won the bronze. Wearing no shoes, to symbolize black poverty, the two men raised fists in a black-power salute.

In sports, though, there are many winning plays, and that goes for ways to protest iniquity as well. In 1973, champion tennis player Billie Jean King and some other players were unhappy about the vastly unequal prize money between men and women. Ignored and furious, the women left the circuit and started their own organizing body, the Women’s Tennis Association. The net gains are history.

A Brief History of Driving on the Left

Over the centuries, plenty of empires and nations have driven on the left side of the road

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Fifty years ago this month, on Sept. 3, 1967, the world turned upside down in Sweden. Or rather it went from left to right: On that day, the Swedes abandoned 200 years of left-hand traffic, or LHT, to switch over to RHT. The event was commemorated as Högertrafikomläggningen (the right-hand traffic diversion) or H-Day for short.

Bahrain, Finland and Iceland soon followed Sweden’s example. Pakistan considered switching to RHT in the 1960s but decided it would be too difficult, am

ong other things, to change the habits of the country’s numerous camel-cart drivers. Even the U.K. briefly toyed with the idea only to drop it because of cost and rising nationalist affection for driving on the left.

By the early 1970s, more than 160 countries had switched to RHT, leaving just the U.K., its former colonies and a few other holdouts on the left. Such is the global dominance of RHT that it might seem that humans have always felt more comfortable on the right side of life. After all, studies suggest that some 85% of people are right-handed.

But there’s nothing natural about driving on the right. Evidence from cart tracks on Roman roads in Britain suggests that traffic flowed on the left. This makes sense, since wagon drivers held their whips in their right hands, like charioteers, which causes the whip to cross diagonally to the left, make oncoming drivers less likely to get struck.

LHT continued long after the Roman Empire disappeared. Medieval knights carried their swords on the right and their shields on the left, so by keeping to the left side of the road, their sword arm was free to strike at any foe they might encounter as they traveled.

In 1300, Pope Boniface VIII instituted the first holy Jubilee, a year-long celebration of Catholic faith that prompted mass pilgrimages to Rome. The ensuing chaos on the roads forced Boniface to issue a decree ordering pilgrims to pick a side and stay left.

Five centuries later, the British government had to issue a similar directive, the General Highways Act of 1773, after the rise of mass horse-ownership led to increasing anarchy on the streets. A popular ditty ran: “As you’re driving your carriage along; / If you go to the left, you are sure to go right / If you go to the right, you are wrong.”

Driving on the left didn’t face a real challenge until Napoleon decided that all countries in the French Empire must go right—emulating France, which had switched during the Revolution. (It was considered aristocratic to hog the left side of the road.) Thus the Napoleonic War was a battle of lefts and rights, with Napoleon’s foes—Britain, Portugal, the Austro-Hungarian Empire—staying left.

The U.S. started to drift toward driving on the right after winning its independence, probably to make an anti-British point. Yet the person most responsible for RHT in America was Henry Ford. Before then, the wheel and controls were sometimes on the right or even in the middle of the car. In 1908, Ford announced a new model that had the steering wheel on the left, so that passengers would always exit curbside—“especially,” the publicity materials claimed, “if there is a lady to be considered.”

Driving on the right received a grim boost from Hitler, whose megalomania, like Napoleon’s, was such that all conquered countries had to emulate German RHT.

When not being propelled by imperialism or capitalism, does RHT always win over LHT? Apparently not. In 1978, Japan went fully LHT, as did Samoa in 2009. As with so much in life, humans are unpredictable, stubborn creatures who, given the chance, will go in any direction they please.

‘WHAT BOOK would historian Amanda Foreman take to a desert island?’ – The Daily Mail

Historian Amanda Foreman shares that she is currently reading The Dry by Jane Harper

. . . are you reading now?

The Dry, by Jane Harper. The hero, Aaron Falk, is a Melbourne-based federal agent, whose life has settled into a narrow furrow of work and more work.
However, he harbours a dark past that comes back to haunt him after his childhood friend inexplicably kills himself and his family.
Falk reluctantly returns to his home town and finds a seething community that’s suffering from more than just a prolonged drought. A complete page-turner.

. . . would you take to a desert island?

J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings. One of the reasons people love the LOTR so much is because it’s both familiar and strange at the same time.

Tolkien was an expert on Anglo-Saxon and Middle English and, when he wasn’t writing about elves and hobbits, he was analysing Beowulf and other epics. He poured all his scholarship into LOTR and then disguised it through layers of mythology and imagination. Continue reading…

WITF TV Picks for the week of August 20, 2017

Sunday August 20 at 9:00pm – Endeavor on Masterpiece – Follow Endeavour, who while struggling with Joan Thursday’s sudden departure, is consumed by a nightmarish hunt for a serial killer. He must race against time to find the connection between a chess-playing “thinking” machine and a baffling drowning.

Monday August 21 at 9:00pm – NOVA – Join scientists and citizens alike as they observe the first total solar eclipse to traverse the US mainland in more than a generation. Discover the storied history of eclipse science and follow current, cutting-edge research into the solar corona.

Tuesday August 22 at 8:00pm – Diana – Her Story – Twenty years after Princess Diana’s death, this new film reveals her story in her own words. What emerges is the narrative of a shy young girl who stepped onto the world stage in 1980 and departed in 1997 as its most famous woman.

Wednesday August 23 at 9:00pm – The Farthest – Voyager in Space – Launched in 1977, NASA’s epic Voyager missions revolutionized our understanding of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and their spectacular moons and rings. In 2012, Voyager 1 left our solar system and ushered humanity into the interstellar age.

Thursday August 24 at 10:00pm – The Ascent of Woman: A 10,000 Year History – Dr. Amanda Foreman journeys around the world to study the experiences and expectations of women living in various societies throughout history.

Friday August 25 at 9:00pm – Great Performances at the Met – Hear Sonya Yoncheva sing the tragic courtesan Violetta in Verdi’s classic, with Michael Fabiano as her ardent lover Alfredo and Thomas Hampson as his disapproving father Germont, in a revival of Willy Decker’s staging conducted by Nicola Luisotti.

Saturday August 26 at 9:00pm – Death in Paradise – When a prisoner is killed in their custody, DI Goodman and the team are under pressure to solve the case quickly. Humphrey’s father visits Saint Marie intent on meddling in his son’s life.

The Real Value of a University Degree by Amanda Foreman – The Sunday Times

Amanda Foreman (lower right) at Sarah Lawrence College in 1988

In four days’ time several hundred thousand 18-year-olds will be having a collective freakout. Finally, after weeks of sweaty waiting, they will receive their A-level results. You may be one of those waiting. Or you may be one of the relatives and friends bracing themselves for impact. Either way, there’s a date with destiny at midnight on Thursday. That’s when all first-choice university applications will have cleared the system. Continue reading…

‘The More-Bitter-Than-Sweet History of Sugar’ by Amanda Foreman – The Wall Street Journal

‘If sack [wine] and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked,” says the rollicking Sir John Falstaff in Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part 1.” That was a more innocent time. Nowadays, books such as Gary Taubes’s “The Case Against Sugar” have linked it to many of the world’s health crises, including diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure. Continue reading…