The lavender-haired soccer player was the star of the Women’s World Cup, a resplendent talent whose charisma, class and personality were permanently on display.
Openly gay – “you can’t win a championship without gays on your team. It’s never been done before. Ever,” she said – she revelled on the biggest stage of all.
Her politics, sexual standing and social mores were front and centre – just as she wanted. It would have counted for little had the US petered out, but the team was boundless as they successfully defended their title.
Rapinoe talked the talk and delivered with a swagger.
Some commentators have compared her to Muhammad Ali, although that may be a stretch. Ali stirred the social consciousness like no-one before or since and became a transcendent 20th century sporting figure. Courage was at the heart of his self-determination.
Ali went up against an entire government, was stripped of his heavyweight championship and sent to jail for refusing the draft. Whites pilloried him, but he stirred something in the public consciousness, forcing many to question the reasons for the Vietnam War. History has treated him well and he remains a towering global figure, even in death.
Rapinoe’s emergence is welcome because it is a reminder that sporting figures can be both socially conscious and vocal. The US women’s soccer authorities never tried to shut her down, unlike other sport federations who rather encourage their athletes to spout platitudes. Yet freedom of expression is everything in modern sport, in the chase for eyeballs.
SA sport has little to recommend when it comes to athletes taking a strong social or moral stand. But there have been exceptions.
In 1981 Bruce Fordyce (a Wits student, unsurprisingly) defied the apartheid government by running Comrades with a black arm band to protest the race accepting R5000 from government. The act jolted the consciousness of white South Africans and, predictably, the National Party was furious.
And Cheeky Watson might have been a Springbok, but he turned down an invitation to attend trials in 1976, having aligned himself with the “black” rugby sector. The Junior Bok became a pariah in the white community, but he didn’t care: his allegiance lay with the black players at the Spring Rose club.
Perhaps the most visceral (and visible) act of social consciousness in an African context was delivered by Andy Flower and Henry Olonga in 2003. The cricketers wore black arm bands during their first game at the World Cup, to “mourn the death of democracy in Zimbabwe”.
Given the methods of Robert Mugabe, this was an incredibly brave stand. The cricket union went into meltdown, Olonga was charged with treason and both players were forced into exile. The pair were lauded for their courage and conviction. “They shine out like diamonds in a pile of mud,” wrote one newspaperman.
For those who say there is no place for politics in sport, we’re long past that sophistry. Sport has always been a useful tool of governments because it is so powerful and encompassing. Athletes have a voice. Just a pity so few demonstrate this as vividly – and mightily – as soccer’s newest star.@ClintonV