Sports and Racism in Spain

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Coming now into my fourth week of living in Madrid, I have already had the opportunity to watch several football matches in bars around the city, one of which included a Real Madrid game. One of the cultural shocks that I should have known to brace for is the passion Spaniards have for their football, a tradition that is amusing and even endearing...up to a certain point.

Recently, however, I was watching a match in a bar and behind me were to raging individuals against the Real Madrid who kept namecalling Portuguese football superstar Cristiano Ronaldo "gitano", which in English translates to "gypsy". The goal of this blog entry isn't to go into detail on the continued discrimination of the Roma community in Spain, or in Europe for that matter, but rather, the slurs brought my attention once again to the complacency of racist imagery and prejorative words during sports events in Spain.

You can hear it in the bars, like I did. You can see it in the hooliganists' antics on the bleachers as was the case in early 2008 when spectators donned in blackface at the Formula One Grand Prix in Barcelona and taunted British racer Lewis Hamilton with offensive banners and jeers or when they made monkey screeches for French football player Thierry Henry, along with other black players as they was on the field during a friendly game in Madrid in 2004.

You can, however, and most problematically at that, see racism at higher levels of authority-the exact positions who should be the first to dissuage these tense situations instigated by deep rifts of understanding about what constitutes even the thinnest veneer of political correctness.

For example, in 2004 Spanish national soccer coach Luis Aragones called French star Thierry Henry "that black shit" and was subsequently fined by his national federation, although Henry was left offended by the gravity of the retaliation, in the form of a 3,000 euro fine that the agrieved football player found "laughable".

One of the most notorious cases came up in 2008 during the Beijing Olympic Summer Games, during which the Spanish Basketball Team took a group photo where they all made slit-eye gestures with their fingers. What really exponentially increases the shameful, comedy-of-errors of the situation is that the picture was part of an advertisement for a courier company that was the official sponsor for the Spanish Basketball Federation.

At no levels, both from the team management and the company's corporate team, did anyone question the appropriateness of the idea or how it would be perceived outside of Spain, despite past racism accusations. What's more, despite international outcry, days later Olympic athletes from the Spanish Tennis Federation were caught making the same gestures in a photograph.

In response to the negative attention following the circulation of the picture in international media, one of the basketball players, Jose Manuel Calderon wrote on his website that the photo had been "interpreted incorrectly" and that the players were asked to "pose with a wink" so they made an "oriental expression" as they thought it would be interpreted as "loving".

Insert foot in mouth.

Unfortunately, as the aforementioned example shows, when internationally shamed or called out, the culprits often use the classic Berlusconi "get-out-of-jail" free card with the "we were only trying to be cute/funny/friendly" response. Spain is left alone in a corner asking "what? what? why so serious" like that oblivious, obnoxious co-worker who always clowns around and never gets the memo about his/her uncomfortable jokes despite obvious hints by others and repeated subliminal messages.

Not only does this come across as grossly ignorant making it only more blatant that Spain has a systemic, institutional problem in sensitizing its citizens on cultural diversity awareness, but it is also a flippant, irrepentent reply that moves a disgraceful PR crisis from bad to worse.

Defendents might claim that rather than jumping to interpret incidents racism, they should be treated as acts of stupidity or gaffe. Nevertheless, the rise in the number of acts, the repeated mistakes and the continued irremorsefulness and lack of acknowledgement of wrongdoing on behalf of perpetrators raises legitimate concerns about Spain's self-awareness of their racist ways.

These setbacks are threatening to cost not only Spain's public image abroad and its overall dignity, but also Spain's status in sporting events themselves, through fines and threats to pull Spanish teams out of international federations or events. Both FIFA and the Formula One organizers have taken measures in the past to castigate such unruly behavior and send the message that racism has no place in good sportsmanship.

Regardless of whether Spain really recognizes or cares that there are problems with racism and overall sensitivity to diversity in its sports, one has to value reputation. Google image "Spain basketball" and many of the results you get are of this photograph from Beijing...coming up prior to even their official team photo.

For more on this issue, I also encourage you to read a wonderful article on the subject entitled "Racism, what racism? Asks Spain" from The Guardian by Paul Hamilos.

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