Belfast Telegraph

Play fair with sports stars, let them fly their own flag

In sport, as in life, individuals must be allowed to choose their identities, argues Chris Donnelly

The town of Philadelphia, Mississippi will always be associated with the terrible killings of the three civil rights campaigners in 1964 that inspired the film Mississippi Burning. But the town's second claim to fame is that it nurtured one of the most talented young black athletes to ever play the game of American football at college level: Marcus Dupree.

Dupree's story is a tragic tale of unfulfilled talent, but one part of his story has striking undertones for our society.

Marcus was born in Philadelphia just three weeks prior to the infamous killings. By the time he would begin school, the state of Mississippi had introduced integration.

Also in his class was the son of the deputy sheriff who had been convicted of arresting and handing the slain civil rights workers over to Klan members to be killed.

His son would become a friend of Marcus and the two would spend time at each other's homes when growing up. The deputy sheriff was reputedly a big fan of the talented Dupree and, by the mid-1970s, newspaper stories were being written about the remarkable sight of black and white residents of the divided town making the Friday night trip to the high school field to watch the young player.

It's a remarkable story of the unifying potential of sport. But sport has its negative moments, too. And as Celtic manager Neil Lennon deals with the knowledge that a fourth explosive device has been intercepted on its way to him, that reality can be profoundly depressing.

One hundred and five years ago, one of Ireland's earliest Olympic medallists, Peter O'Connor, scaled the flagpole during the medal ceremony for the long-jump event, in which he won silver, and waved a green Irish flag in protest at the Union flag erected in his honour.

As an Irish athlete in the pre-partition era, O'Connor was forced to compete under the auspices of the British Olympic Council.

The episode serves as a reminder, if one were needed, that seeking to impose an identity upon others is rarely a successful endeavour. Sporting allegiances in Northern Ireland are inextricably linked with political and religious identities.

The the troubles visited upon Neil Lennon during his career as a player and manager illustrate how the desire to make our sporting personalities project an image and identity consistent with our polarised community has dictated sentiments towards those individuals.

On this point, Gregory Campbell introduced a sour note in the build-up to the ill-fated Paul McCloskey bout with Amir Khan last week.

Campbell objected to promotional posters identifying the Dungiven-based McCloskey with an Irish tricolour, indicating that not only would this alienate unionists, but it was an inaccuracy as the boxer's identity would have been more accurately depicted were he pictured with the Ulster Banner (commonly known as the 'Northern Ireland flag').

Similarly, a number of discordant comments were registered on the Sluggerotoole political website during Rory McIlroy's ultimately- failed Masters odyssey, indicating disapproval of his open identification with the Ulster Banner on his website.

This failure to accept the legitimacy of expressions of our distinctive political and national identities has also divided the football fraternity in Ireland, most acutely with regard to the issue of player eligibility. Yet, as the 2012 London Olympics approach, it is perhaps fitting to recall the sense of elation genuinely felt by many following the twin successes achieved for this region by the Olympic medallists in Beijing, Paddy Barnes and Wendy Houvenaghel.

Competing under different national flags and colours, their symmetrical triumph represented a beacon of hope and points us towards a future where embracing the right of individuals to determine their own identity is celebrated without reservation.

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