The ubiquitous nature of sport gives it a huge breadth of audience in the ongoing struggle for social justice. We saw this recently in America, with the way some athletes used their platform to reassert that #BlackLivesMatter.
Listed below are four British athletes, who could end up as lodestars for their own impact, not just on the sporting arena, but beyond it.
The inclusion of Moeen Ali in the England cricket team this summer was something of a punt by the selectors. The Worcestershire man was thrown into the deep end of Test cricket, and showed he could swim by scoring a tremendous 108 not out in the 2nd Test against Sri Lanka. Needing to save the match, Ali batted for over six hours to get England within two deliveries of drawing the contest.
However, Moeen’s real breakthrough came as a bowler. He went from an ostensible “part-timer” to a key facet of England’s attack later in the summer, when he took six wickets to bowl England to victory against India in the third Test, and level the series. England went on to win the series 2-1.
What makes Moeen such a significant presence isn’t just his importance to the team, but that he’s become one of the most popular players with swathes of the England fanbase. This could prove an important rejoinder to the ongoing problem of Islamophobia in this country. Moeen has shown remarkable grace in having to deal with Islamophobic insults on social media, or having his beard described as as a “Taliban beard.”
Moeen has openly – and repeatedly – declared that his Muslim faith is not only more important than playing for England, but it has also helped him in his cricketing career. His relevance goes further than his sporting exploits, as he showed when he wore wristbands that said, “Save Gaza” and “Free Palestine”. He also does work with the charity Ummah Welfare Trust.
Despite being criticised for the wristbands, and being told that he’s “playing for England, not his religion”, Moeen is proving that being Muslim and English is not incompatible. He himself has said, “I am a Muslim, yes, but I am also very English.”.
2015 is a big year for English cricket. The World Cup starts next month, and this summer brings the Ashes, with England trying to regain the urn they lost in ignominious fashion last winter. While England are outsiders on both counts, if Moeen has another good year, he could end up as the first Muslim to win the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award.
The 2012 Olympics was set up for the likes of Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Chris Hoy to shine. What one didn’t expect was for Nicola Adams to become a beloved British sports star.
Adams did more than just win a gold medal. She was the first woman of any nationality to be an Olympic boxing champion. Her achievements take on greater significance because she’s not only a woman, but a bisexual black woman.
Adams’s public persona is largely one of an endearing athlete. Indeed, I think there’s something of a #CarefreeBlackGirl about her.
However, no-one succeeds in the boxing ring through passivity. In her profession, Adams is as skilled as they come. She followed up her Olympic gold with gold at the Commonwealth Games last summer, and will defend her Olympic title at the Rio Games in 2016.
Adams has used her position to speak out against those who proffer the sexist view that women don’t belong in the boxing ring. She was also signed up to advertising endorsements from companies like Nintendo and Marks and Spencer, as one of Britain’s “leading ladies”. While the topic of capitalism has merit in this regard, the optics of a dark-skinned black woman in such a position cannot be overlooked.
In addition, back in 2012, Adams was voted the most influential LGBT person on the Independent’s Pink List.
For Adams to succeed as an athlete is impressive enough. But for her to do it as a bisexual woman of colour makes her one of the most significant athletes in the country.
Hopefully history will remember this current era of the England women’s cricket team as one of the finest sports teams ever to come out of Britain. Part of that team was Guha, who as a fast bowler, helped England to win the Ashes in 2005, and the World Cup & World T20 Cup in 2009. before retiring in 2012.
While her achievements on the cricket field are noteworthy, my reason for the inclusion of Guha on this list concerns her work as a pundit. Late last year, she was added to the list of commentators for the iconic BBC radio show, Test Match Special.
The world of sports commentary is a world that remains, to use the idiom, “pale, male and stale”. On the podcast I co-host, The Greatest Events in Sporting History. We did an episode on great sports commentators, and swiftly realised that commentary is a sphere of the sports world where women remain locked out.
On these pages we often talk about the benison of young children of colour looking at the television, advertising billboards, or book covers, and seeing people who look just like them. Well, we shouldn’t forget the things we hear, as well as what we see.
Guha’s commentary career is still in its nascent stages, but there’s no reason – well, no good reason – why she can’t become one of the most important voices in the cricketing conversation in Britain.
Much like Nicola Adams, Smith also competes in a sport that has long been considered a no-go area for women. Smith competes as a weightlifter, and won a Commonwealth gold medal earlier this summer.
She also broke the British record in the 58kg class at London 2012. However, in the build-up to the Olympics, Smith was featured in a BBC documentary. Some of the online reaction to the documentary was both sexist and cissexist. This is an all too common thing suffered by women in sport, who don’t fit narrow beauty norms that are both Eurocentric and fat-phobic.
Smith wrote an absolutely splendid response to this bigotry on her personal website. This would be impressive at any time, but Smith wrote this when she was only 18 years old, and in the middle of preparing for an Olympics in her home country.
Sport should never be a place (although it often is) where anyone is made to feel unwelcome, and if Smith’s career continues on the upward curve it’s currently on, young girls may be inspired to head to their nearest gym, and pick up a barbell.
During Smith’s Commonwealth Games success, one of the many congratulatory tweets she received described her as “a machine”. While well-intentioned, such a choice of words can reify the way women of colour are often seen as not fully human. Journalist Carrie Dunn wrote a good corrective to this when she said that Smith, “…isn’t a machine. She’s an incredibly impressive, incredibly dedicated athlete who’s achieved an awesome amount at an astonishingly young age.”
 – While given the nickname of “The beard that’s feared”, Moeen has stated that its fetishisation will only go so far, saying he does not allow people to touch it.
 – And as she showed in her celebration, Smith could have easily ended up as a gymnast instead of a weightlifter.
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“Two Weeks Notice” is Shane Thomas’s bi-monthly column encompassing “Pop culture to sport, and back again”.
A mixed-race film graduate, Shane comes from Jamaican and Mauritian parentage. He has been blogging about sport since 2010 at the website for The Greatest Events in Sporting History. He is also a contributor to ‘Simply Read’, the blogging offshoot of the podcasting network, Simply Syndicated. A lover of sport, genre-fiction, and privilege checking, Shane can be found on Twitter, both at @TGEISH and @tokenbg (and yes, the handle does mean what you think it means).