On The Long Game, we highlight stories of courage and conviction on and off the field. From athletes who are breaking barriers for women and girls to a Syrian refugee swimmer who overcame the odds to compete at the Paralympics, the show examines the power of sport to change the world for the better.

A production of FP and Doha Debates


Ibtihaj Muhammad is the first Muslim American woman in hijab to compete and medal for the United States in the Olympic Games. An activist, entrepreneur and New York Times best-selling author, Ibtihaj continues to be an important figure in a larger global discussion on equality and the importance of sport.

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Executive Producers: Amjad Atallah, Jigar Mehta, Japhet Weeks | Executive Editor: Karen Given | Managing Producer: Rob Sachs

Episode 1

Nneka Ogwumike on Brittney Griner and the Politics of Pay Inequity

On today’s show, host Ibtihaj Muhammad interviews Nneka Ogwumike, the president of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, about the efforts she and others in the league have made to keep the spotlight on Brittney Griner. Griner, an eight-time WNBA All-Star, was sentenced in August to nine years in a Russian prison after pleading guilty to drug charges. Russian officials said they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow’s airport. In the conversation, Ogwumike talks about the injustice of Griner’s case. She also delves into her successes in negotiating the WNBA’s most recent union contract and her quest to end pay inequity in the sport.

Episode 2

Using Soccer to Spread the Word About the Plight of the Rohingya

Robi Alam is a Rohingya refugee. His family fled violence and persecution in Myanmar. A decade later, Alam was born in a refugee camp in Bangladesh. Life was hard in the camps, and Alam and his friends would wrap rubber bands around a wad of plastic bags and play soccer until the ball fell apart. When Alam was 10, his family emigrated to Australia, where many people have never even heard of the plight of the Rohingya. To help ease their transition, Alam and some of his fellow Rohingya started playing soccer again, informally at first in nearby parks. But their passion grew, and they formed an official club. They call themselves Rohingya United, and their goal is to raise awareness of the Rohingya issue. Now, there are Rohingya soccer teams scattered across Australia as well as in Canada, the United States, and other countries.

Episode 3

Lina Khalifeh: SheFighter

When Lina Khalifeh was young, all she wanted to do was play sports with the boys in her neighborhood in Jordan. But the boys bullied her, and her family punished her for getting into fights. That’s when Lina’s mother signed her up to learn taekwondo. Later, with 20 national and international gold medals under her belt, Lina became frustrated with the violence against women she saw all around her. She started SheFighter, the first women-only self-defense school in the Middle East. Lina works with women all over the world to teach self-defense and inspire them to take on active roles in society. Since its first studio opened in 2012, SheFighter has trained more than 25,000 women in 35 countries.

Episode 4

Bobsledder Kaillie Humphries and the Fight Against Abusive Coaching

Bobsledder Kaillie Humphries won her third Olympic gold medal at the 2022 Beijing Games. But, for the first time, instead of singing along to “O Canada” during the medal ceremony, Humphries belted out the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” She left Team Canada in 2018, after she says her federation failed to act on her allegations of verbal and mental abuse against the team’s coach. Now Humphries is hoping her story will help reform the Olympic system and help other athletes stand up against negative coaching and abuse.

Episode 5

A Soccer Star Gives Back to Sierra Leone


When Michael Lahoud was 6 years old, he fled civil war in Sierra Leone and came to the United States. He felt scared and alone. But with help from his favorite sport—soccer—Lahoud was able to make friends, find a community, and earn a college scholarship. Years later, while playing professionally in the United States, Lahoud was approached by a stranger who asked him, “How would you like to change the world?” For Lahoud, the answer was simple. He decided to build a school in Sierra Leone and use his platform as a professional soccer player to make sure that what happened in his home country never happens again.

For more information on how to support schools in Sierra Leone, visit Schools for Salone.

Episode 6

Biking Through the Pain of War

In 2015, Rebecca Rusch and Huyen Nguyen set out to bike 1,200 miles of the Ho Chi Minh Trail as strangers from once-opposing countries. The two cyclists navigated the infamous trail through Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, carrying the weight of their personal connections to the land. The journey challenged not only their physical capabilities, but their notions of war, pride, sorrow, and loss. Rusch planned the ride in honor of her father, who died in 1972 while flying a fighter jet over Laos. Rusch was 3 years old when her father died. Nguyen helped Rusch through the sometimes-dangerous terrain, carrying her own personal stories of the war. What did they face, head on, as they rode together?

Episode 7

Athletes Join the Fight for Women’s Rights in Iran

At first glance, the protests in Iran might not seem like a sports story. But in the lead-up to the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, there were calls to bar Iran from the soccer tournament altogether over the government’s treatment of women. Women in Iran have more rights than women in a place like Afghanistan. They have access to education. They can vote. They can be elected to Parliament. But they can’t choose whether or not to wear the hijab. And until recently, they couldn’t attend sporting events in person. That’s how sports and women’s rights came to be intertwined in Iran.

Episode 8

TIBU Africa Changes Lives Through Sports

This year, fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad traveled to Morocco to meet with 18 young sports entrepreneurs living and working in North Africa. The program is called “My Sport, My Future,” and it’s run by an organization called TIBU Africa. TIBU was founded in 2010 by former Morocco national basketball team player Mohamed Amine Zariat. It started as a program that used basketball to connect with underprivileged youth, but it’s grown to be much more than that. To date, TIBU has served more than 250,000 people, including girls in rural areas, kids with motion disabilities, migrants, refugees, young people, and women. Now, Amine Zariat is hoping to inspire others to use sports as an agent for change in all of Africa.

Episode 9

Soccer Opens Path to Reconciliation

Eric Eugene Murangwa was a 19-year-old goalkeeper for Rwanda’s most beloved soccer team when the 1994 Rwandan genocide against the Tutsis began. On the first day of the genocide, soldiers came to Murangwa’s house, looking for enemies of the state. But one of the soldiers saw an album filled with photos of his time with the team, and Murangwa was saved. He spent much of the genocide in hiding, helped by his teammates and supporters of his soccer club, many of them Hutus. Today, Murangwa is the founder of an organization called Football for Hope, Peace and Unity. It uses the sport as a tool to promote tolerance, unity, and reconciliation among Rwandan youth in order to prevent tragedies like the 1994 genocide from ever happening again.

Episode 10

Boxing Provides a Path Out of Poverty for Girls in Pakistan

Aliya Soomro was not yet 10 years old when she heard that a boxing coach near her home was training young girls. Soomro lives in Lyari, a densely populated neighborhood in Karachi, Pakistan, known for gang violence and dangerous streets. When she heard about this gym, where she could learn to box, Soomro jumped at the chance. And while her conservative family and community were concerned at first, boxing soon proved to be a path out of poverty for Soomro. Now, other young girls in Lyari are getting the chance to follow their athletic dreams.

Episode 1

Olympic Judoka Fights for Women in Afghanistan

+ReadClose transcript

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:00:05] Since August, tens of thousands of people have fled Afghanistan. [00:00:08][3.1]

Newsclip: [00:00:10] "The sudden capture of the country's capital has shocked the world and caused bedlam this morning at the Kabul airport, where thousands of Afghans are struggling to get on." [00:00:17][7.8]

Newsclip: [00:00:19] "People are literally clinging on to U.S. military aircraft as they try to take off. As far as commercial ... " [00:00:25][5.8]

Friba Rezayee: [00:00:25] Now, with all the athletes leaving the country, all the educated people are leaving the country, I have a concern that the legacy of education and the legacy of sport will leave with them. If education and sport die in a society, what will remain in the society? It will be an empty, meaningless society. [00:00:49][23.4]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:00:51] From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. This is The Long Game, a podcast about the power of sports to change the world. I'm your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. As an African-American, as a Muslim, from birth, you are political. Sports is how I learned to advocate for myself. It's where I found my voice. And this season on The Long Game, we're going to hear from other athletes who are using their voices to create meaningful change in this world. [00:01:18][26.8]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:01:25] Friba Rezayee knows what it's like to leave her country. She did it once as a child when the Taliban first took over Afghanistan. Friba returned in 2001. She started training in the sport of judo. And in 2004, she became the first woman to represent Afghanistan in the Olympics. But just a year later, Friba was forced to leave Afghanistan again. Friba spent several years in Pakistan and relocated to Canada in 2011. There, she worked tirelessly to support Afghan women in sports and education. Her mission is to help create her country's future leaders. But now that the Taliban is back in power, what's to become of Friba's dream of gender equality in Afghanistan? Here's Friba: [00:02:12][47.2]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:02:17] I always believed that everybody is equal, everybody's the same, everybody should be respected. And I was a very hardheaded child during Eid - Muslim families' festival, like Christmas - my mother made a joke that we are getting new clothes for the boys, but not for the girls, just to tease me. And one of my brother confirmed that, and I slapped him very hard. And I was only five years old. I did not like being treated like that even for a second as a joke, because to me, it didn't make any sense. I was like, 'If I am born, if I exist, I should have the same rights as my brothers.". [00:03:00][43.9]

Friba Rezayee: [00:03:04] I was born in Afghanistan, in the capital of Kabul. I was born in a big family. I had three sisters and four brothers. Given the Afghan society and Afghan culture and perspective towards women and girls, there was no gender equality. Boys and girls were always separated, and that always bothered me, because I did not see any fun in playing with the dolls or like sitting at home, like playing kitchen or like tea party. I was a very outdoor person. I always wanted to be very active. Always very - what do we call a "boyish" games? I was not allowed to go outside and play soccer with the boys, but I did. I was not allowed to go to just hang out with the boys outside, and I always got in trouble. But I always did that, because I wanted to set a precedent as a child for my existence and for my rights. My father always supported me, he's a very supportive that he always loved us, no matter what we did, and he always supported us, no matter what we did. My mother had the expectation from me that I would grow up, and I would get married early age. I would bear children, and I would become an obedient housewife, and I would become a good mother - a mother of probably six or seven children in Afghanistan. And I will have a very small and traditional life. She always expected that from me, but when I turned out to be the opposite, she was disappointed at the beginning. She wasn't happy when I played sport, when I went to my dojo, when I went for boxing. She was upset with me, and there were times that whenever I came home from my judo training, in order to make her happy, I would immediately go do the chores, do the laundry, wash the dishes, clean house to make her happy. But later, after the Olympics, she was realizing that this is what I wanted to do, and she supported me after that. [00:05:13][128.4]

Newsclip: [00:05:17] "What appears to be happening is that the Taliban are advancing ... " [00:05:19][2.7]

Friba Rezayee: [00:05:21] In 1995, when the Taliban took over the central government for the first time, my family became refugees, and we went to a neighboring country, Pakistan, and we went to Peshawar is the closest province to the Afghan border. Small refugee house, and we had cable at that time in a very - we had a very small glass TV. My brothers always watched Mike Tyson matches. They were a huge fan of heavy boxing, and I always watched those matches with them. And I also watched Laila Ali, the daughter of Muhammad Ali. [00:05:58][37.3]

Newsclip: [00:05:58] "Introducing the undefeated Laila "She Be Stingin'' Ali!" [00:06:04][6.0]

Friba Rezayee: [00:06:07] Seeing her fight like that, be very strong and very confident, that really spoke to me, and I wanted to do the same thing. I wanted to train hard, I wanted to practice hard, and I wanted to challenge her. In my mind, she was my idol and icon, as well as my opponent secretly like, "I am going to go train hard, and I'm going to challenge her." [00:06:31][24.0]

Newsclip: [00:06:42] "On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against al Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan." [00:06:52][9.7]

Friba Rezayee: [00:06:54] When the U.S.A. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, my family returned to Afghanistan immediately, like so many other Afghan families. And when we went back to Afghanistan, we started a normal life - everybody was expecting a normal life. I was enrolled in all-girls school. My brothers were enrolled in school. My dad got a job. My older brother got a job with the UN, so life was good. I was still very, very interested in pursuing my boxing dream. One of my sports teacher introduced me to the Afghan National Olympic Committee. They assigned a male boxing coach. He trained me. He agreed to train me, and he did. He trained me for a few weeks, but it was becoming very, very dangerous in Afghanistan to train boxing, because I was the only girl practicing in the entire country at that time. One day my coach called me, and he said that he can no longer train me, because it's not safe anymore. There were a few religious and fundamentalist guys who were waiting for me to come for the training to hurt me. They were waiting there with knives, with flogs and so many other tools to capture me and to hurt me. When I insisted that I wanted to train because I had a dream to go to Las Vegas, fight Laila Ali - when I insisted on the phone that I know I want to continue my training, my coach said that sport is not valuable than your life. And he hung up the phone. There was no way for me that I could continue my boxing, but I was still in search of finding a sports center in Afghanistan where I could go and train, and I found out there was a place where they trained girls. This was a small dujo. I run towards the dujo, and I was only 16 years old. I was like full of energy. There was dust in my hair, on my shoes, and I met my coach Farhad Hazrati, who's still my coach with a like. sharp breath. And I told him that, "Coach, I want you to train me boxing, because I want to challenge Laila Ali." He just stared at me, and he was like, "OK, come in." He trained me boxing for a few days, but he later told me, "We don't train boxing here, but we trained judo." As soon as I walked in on the judo mats, when my feet touched the mats, I knew that this is it. This is how I will find my strength as well as my freedom. [00:09:36][162.2]

Friba Rezayee: [00:09:38] We were only three teenagers practicing judo in the entire country. There were other girls, but they were very young. We were peers. We wanted to support each other, and we wanted to encourage other girls. And we knew that this is not only sport for us, this is how we bring visibility to our rights. I wanted to show and prove it to the Afghan society that women and girls are as strong as boys and men, and we can do it and also show it to the world that Afghanistan has such girls and such women who are fighting for their rights, who are working very hard to normalize women's rights. So it was very significant. It was very precious to us. In judo, we have a philosophy by saying "tai sabaki" in Japanese, which means the control of your body, and that is, itself, is very empowering. Once you have control of your body, mind, you have control of your life, and then you can lead. And you can lead as an example for the rest of the people in the community. I was very proud to be able to train and lead the kids at the dojo, and I was also gaining respect. So the the connection between the sport and women's leadership is very significant, very strong. You can't separate the two. [00:11:05][87.1]

Friba Rezayee: [00:11:07] National Olympic Committee was getting ready to send Afghanistan's team to the Olympics, and I was selected to represent Afghanistan and represent women at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. That itself was a huge achievement for me. I was honored. I was privileged to be able to represent my country. And I competed against a four-times world champion from Spain. I enter the mat. I wanted - I wanted to win. I did not win and I was very upset. I was crying hysterically, and I called my family members, especially my father and one of my brother and I - I was crying on the phone, and I told my father that, "I'm so sorry I did not win, I let you down." But my father said that, "Don't worry if you don't didn't win, you made history. This is like first tep on the moon." That was very encouraging, and that made me feel better. That was it. History was made. I became the first Afghan woman to participate in the Olympics. That was a very proud moment. I'm still proud of it, and I'm still hold that very precious to me. [00:12:26][78.6]

Friba Rezayee: [00:12:30] When I returned from the Olympics, I was still at high school, and I went back to high school to continue my classes. One of my teachers - she was very, very nice, and she was very kind to me. And she gathered a group of girls to sing the national anthem to me. And they did. It was very sweet, very nice. Imagine those girls in their black and white uniform, and they stood in front of me. They sang the national anthem, and my teacher was very supporting, and she gave me a big hug, and she kissed my forehead. And she said that, "You are pride of our country." When I returned to my dojo, the number of enrollment at the judo and judo sport at the dojo increased. There were a lot of, like I would say hundreds of girls and women who wanted to play sport, and this was the sports revolution for Afghan women. It opened a pathway for other Afghan girls to play other sports. So many other girls joined different sports: volleyball, basketball, soccer. You name it, Afghan women that. And this was also a message to the world that there are women and girls in Afghanistan who are fighting for their rights, and they want Afghanistan to be same as the rest of the world. [00:13:50][79.5]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:13:59] You're listening to The Long Game, From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. I'm your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. And now back to Friba Rezayee and her story about women and sports in Afghanistan. [00:14:18][19.1]

Friba Rezayee: [00:14:26] I was receiving death threats from the fundamentalists, from the religious people and also from patriarchy. They said that this is un-Islamic. This is untraditional of Afghan girls to compete at international arena and not cover her head, show some skin. Although judo uniform is very covered, it has long jacket and very covered pants. I did not have a typical Afghan girl look. I cut my hair very short, like boys haircut, and I died it red. And I refused to cover my head, and I would - I would go outside and walk like that, and that put me on the spot. So I was a little bit famous in the local community. These people were sending me threatening messages by text messages, phone calls as well as they dropped letters at our house. People would verbally abuse me, physically abused me, and I was under a lot of threats that I could not even go outside. I would just stay at home. I went into hiding, I went into hiding for a couple of months for my and for my family's safety. What drove me to Canada is is the freedom to be able to practice and to be able to do whatever I want to do. There is no limits. I have always wanted to help other Afghan women to get their education and as well as they have access to sports and sports leadership. In 2018, myself with other activists as well as university professors, we came together, and we formed the Women Leaders of Tomorrow. Our first objective is to find scholarships and bursaries for young qualified Afghan women from Afghanistan to North American universities. And our second component is our sports component GOAL, G-O-AL, which stands for Girls of Afghanistan Lead. The goal was to train these girls professionally and at highest level possible, so they become their community leaders, they become professional athletes, or become the sports instructors, especially judo instructor, because in Afghanistan, we don't have a prominent female judo coach. and we provide online mentorship as well as English language training, an English language program for the Afghan women and girls in Afghanistan. The goal and the purpose of this is that so Afghan women learn the international language, and they can speak for themselves in their own words, because it's crucial for us to hear the authentic stories from Afghanistan from those women directly. This project was a very, very successful, and we were producing leaders, we were achieving our goals, but we had so many plans, including the plan to send our team to 2024 Olympic Games. And the girls were still practicing, and they practiced judo on the mats until the day that the Taliban returned. [00:17:34][188.4]

Newsclip: [00:17:36] "The Taliban are now in complete control of Afghanistan. The sudden capture of the country's capital has shocked the world." [00:17:42][5.9]

Newsclip: [00:17:46] "Hours after arriving in Kabul, sitting at the president's desk.". [00:17:50][3.1]

Friba Rezayee: [00:17:51] All our rights and freedom were halted overnight. My heart was broken, my heart was bleeding, but my mind could not comprehend the fact that this was happening. We lost everything. We are in uncertainty. We don't know what's going to happen. Everybody went into hiding. Our dojo was shut down, they're still shut down. Everybody is terrified, because everybody's waiting for that knock from the Taliban at the door to come and capture them and take them to their Sharia law. Taliban were patrolling the neighborhood where our dojo's are. They actually sat down inside our dojos, and they were waiting for the girls to come for the training so they can upper hand the girls directly there. But the girls were very intelligent. They did not go to the gym to practice, because they knew the Taliban are patrolling the neighborhood. The Taliban also started taking the survey in the neighborhood, writing down the names of those people who worked for the government who worked for the international organization. They included the female athletes in that list. One of our prominent judo athletes sent me a message saying that the Taliban raided her house, and the Taliban wanted to capture her and bring her to justice. And they ordered her to come and appear at the local mosque in front of the members of the community and in front of the local leader of the Taliban. They scheduled her to be lashed or flogged 100 times in front of people for playing sport. We were able to get her to safety immediately with our contacts and our resources, but she was in hiding and on the run from the Taliban for three weeks. [00:19:34][103.0]

Newsclip: [00:19:37] "The airport, now overrun. Desperate, chaotic scenes as massive crowds surged onto the tarmac, desperate to get out of the country." [00:19:44][7.7]

Friba Rezayee: [00:19:52] We tried to get her one of those airplanes, either through Canadian or a U.S. military airplanes. We added her name on the list. She was on the official list for the flights. She waited five nights in the car with her dad to get a chance to get on the plane at the airport. And there were suicide bombers. Many people were killed. There was totally chaos - I'm sure you have seen the pictures from the Kabul airport. So she was there. She did not get a chance to get on the plane, and the flight stopped. There were no flights. There were no airplanes. While this was happening, my Afghan coach - the coach that I asked to train me boxing because I wanted to challenge Laila Ali - he was on Taliban's list, as well. Taliban was particularly looking for him. He would be judged for training girls and allowing the two gender to practice at the same time. And because he has been supporting and training Afghan women and Afghan girls for such a long time, for the last two decades, we had to find a safety and shelter for him, as well. And then with - with our contacts, with our collaboration with IJF, International Judo Federation, we managed to secure visas for them to Uzbekistan. They are now both in Uzbekistan, in Tashkent, but the rest of the judo team remaining in Afghanistan, they are in such a vulnerable situation, and they are terrified for their lives. I am terrified for their lives. [00:21:25][93.8]

Friba Rezayee: [00:21:32] Everybody is forced to stay at home, there are no sport, there's no education. Taliban recently released a decree that girls are not allowed to go to school above sixth grade. They closed all the secondary schools and education for girls and women, and they also closed all the universities. Taliban simply banned women from participating in any sort of sport. And right now, our dojos are locked, like literally locked. They put a lock on the door. One of our athletes was in Afghanistan, she says that "This is my life now. All I do is I'm in my living room around our bedroom. All I do is eat, sleep, and breathe." And she says, "This is not the meaning of life. This is not the purpose that I was, I was born." I am trying and I'm working tirelessly to get our judo team into safety as soon as we can. It's extremely difficult, it's extremely complicated, but we are working. I'm not giving up my hope, and we are still planning to send our team and hopefully two girls to the 2024 Olympic Games. [00:22:46][73.9]

Friba Rezayee: [00:22:50] It is devastating, because Afghan women had so many achievements and so many goals in the last two decades. Women run for office, women run businesses, women were in the parliament, women - there were female athletes, teachers, doctors, you name it, Afghan women did. And we hold those achievements and gains very dear to us, very precious to us. A 18 years-old in our program in Afghanistan right now said to me, "Friba, I want to become the first female president of Afghanistan." And I ask her how? And she says, "If you study history, and if you look out throughout the history, none of these dictators, none of these regimes lasted forever. Taliban are not going to last forever, either. I am 18 years old. I want to go pursue my higher education in a western country and get my education, get my masters and get my Ph.D. By the time I receive and I get my higher education, get my Ph.D., Taliban will be gone from Afghanistan, and I'll return to Afghanistan, and I will become a leader. And I will lead my country." I'm very, very proud of her, and I also believe in her. She is still in Afghanistan. We are trying to find her a scholarship at one of the colleges or even high school, because her high school is closed now, her studies are interrupted. It is very difficult, but we are trying to find her a scholarship. I believe in the power of people of Afghanistan, and I believe in the power of women and girls of Afghanistan, as much as Afghanistan has been devastated and has seen crises before. We are very, very strong, especially Afghan women are very strong. [00:24:46][115.2]

Newsclip: [00:24:52] "Rifle butts and tear gas used against women asking only to work, go to school, and to be included in Afghanistan's new government. The protests began Thursday ... " [00:25:01][9.7]

Friba Rezayee: [00:25:06] I had never seen Afghan woman so strong and so united. That is what is driving me. That is my hope. As much as I'm devastated, I cannot afford to lose hope, and I'm not giving up on my hope, because hope is the only thing that keeps us going. Regardless our geographical location, our team in Afghanistan and Afghan women in diaspora, we have centered our voices, we are helping each other, we are lifting each other up. There is a great unity among us now. We all have the same message. We all have same goals, and we are all working together to achieve the same goal, which is peace and human rights, women's rights in Afghanistan. I believe that the principles of human rights, democracy, and women's rights are stronger than men with the gun. [00:26:06][59.8]

Friba Rezayee: [00:26:13] That's it for this episode of The Long Game. I'm your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. The Long Game is a co-production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. This episode was produced by Cherie Turner and Karen Given, with help from Dan Ephron, Rob Sachs, Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah, and Jigar Mehta. Make sure to follow us on Apple or your favorite podcast app, and please leave us a review. To learn more, subscribe to Foreign Policy, a global magazine of news and ideas. Or visit Doha Debates, A production of Qatar Foundation. This season on The Long Game: [00:26:52][39.1]

Guest 1: [00:26:53] This is how we showed the world a different narrative, a different story about the Palestinian people, about the struggle we live. In football, we believe that we are free." [00:27:02][8.3]

Guest 2: [00:27:02] Now imagine that you're in the middle of these people who are your designated enemies, your so-called enemies. It shows the kind of feelings that sport and cricket can harness. [00:27:11][9.1]

Guest 3: [00:27:12] I think the turning point was when we saw the video of the Liverpool supporters and their singing, "If he scores another few, then I'll be Muslim too. And sitting in the mosque, that's where I want to be." [00:27:20][8.3]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:27:20] And we'll take a look at the protests that often accompany mega-sized sporting events, including the 2022 Qatar World Cup, and ask the question: Can mega event activism actually lead to lasting change? That's this season on The Long Game. [00:27:20][0.0]

Growing up in Afghanistan, Friba Rezayee didn’t always do as she was told. She didn’t enjoy the games the girls were supposed to play, so she played outside with the boys, even though it wasn’t allowed. As a teenager, Rezayee was introduced to the sport of judo, and she immediately knew that this would be how she would fight for her freedom. Rezayee qualified for the Olympics in 2004 and became one of the first two women, along with Robina Muqimyar, to compete for Afghanistan at the Olympic Games. More recently, she founded Women Leaders of Tomorrow, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing sports and education to women and girls in Afghanistan. Her mission is to help create her country’s future leaders. But now that the Taliban are back in power, what’s to become of Rezayee’s dream?

Episode 2

Cricketers Lead the Way for India and Pakistan

+ReadClose transcript

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:00:00] The rivalry between the cricket teams of India and Pakistan is a little like if a billion people tuned in to a Red Sox / Yankees game, but add in nationalistic fervor on both sides and things can get a little tense. Fans can get aggressive. [00:00:12][12.9]

Newsclip: [00:00:13] It's absolutely mad here at the Dubai International Stadium. This is the first time that Pakistan has beaten India in any World Cup, leave alone the T20 World Cup format. [00:00:23][9.6]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:00:23] But just a few weeks ago, on October 24th, when the Pakistani men's cricket team ended a 29-year losing streak by beating India in a World Cup match. A small moment after the match captured the hearts of viewers on both sides of the border. [00:00:37][14.3]

Newsclip: [00:00:38] You can see the teams shaking hands ... [00:00:40][2.1]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:00:41] When Indian captain Virat Kohli walked over to congratulate Pakistani opening batsman Mohammad Rizwan, he ruffled Rizwan's hair. Rizwan grinned up in pure joy as Kohli smiled back. The photo went viral. [00:00:55][14.3]

Unidentified Speaker: [00:00:57] Seeing pictures of camaraderie between Indian and Pakistani players - I think it definitely was a moment that wasn't lost on me. [00:01:02][5.9]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:01:06] From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. This is The Long Game, a podcast about the power of sports to change the world. I'm your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. Reporter Maria Karimjee has our story. [00:01:18][12.5]

Mariya Karimjee: [00:01:21] There's a story I've heard a few times, almost like a legend in Karachi, where I live and spent my childhood. It comes up whenever anyone talks about the India-Pakistan cricket rivalry. It's about a woman, Sana Kazmi, who crossed the India-Pakistan border to watch the two countries square off in the 2011 Cricket World Cup semifinals. This cricket rivalry is one of the biggest in the world. It's hard to describe to people who don't watch cricket and who don't live in the subcontinent. But when there's a match between the two countries, it sometimes feels like everything else has come to a stop. [00:01:56][34.6]

Sana Kazmi: [00:01:58] You know, everyone's thinking about it. It's it's like when you're in a crowd, when you go to a concert - you're part of something bigger than yourself. So this is like that on steroids. And sometimes I think it must be really annoying for people who are not interested in cricket, because you can't escape it. It's everywhere. [00:02:17][19.5]

Mariya Karimjee: [00:02:17] That's Sana. Like me, she grew up watching cricket in Pakistan. In 2011, the Cricket World Cup was hosted by India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. [00:02:29][12.1]

Newsclip: [00:02:30] That could be it. That will be it. [00:02:32][2.0]

Mariya Karimjee: [00:02:34] In the first quarterfinal match, Pakistan beat the West Indies by 10 wickets, setting up a semifinal matchup with India. [00:02:39][5.6]

Newsclip: [00:02:40] One of the great wins in the history of World Cup cricket. [00:02:42][2.9]

Mariya Karimjee: [00:02:44] Pakistani fans who watched that match saw the World Cup in their immediate future. [00:02:48][4.1]

Sana Kazmi: [00:02:49] As soon as we won that match, I, I remember calling up a friend and I was like, "Hey, should we go to India?" And she was like, "Should we?" You know, and it was like half a question and half like, you know, like, "Are you crazy?" [00:03:01][11.9]

Mariya Karimjee: [00:03:03] But getting to Majali, India, where the match will be played, was anything other than straightforward. [00:03:08][4.5]

Sana Kazmi: [00:03:09] We started, you know, looking for information, like how does it work? Where do we get the tickets? Where's the the visa information? And there was nothing. There was nothing out there. Thanks to Twitter, I knew a bunch of sports journalists, so I asked them. Nobody knew anything. [00:03:24][15.8]

Mariya Karimjee: [00:03:25] Sana needed two things: a visa to get into India and a ticket to go to the match. She created a hashtag "#GetTheGirlsToMohali," asking Twitter for help. [00:03:35][10.1]

Sana Kazmi: [00:03:36] A bunch of like, you know, celebrity type Twitter celebrities kind of with large followings saw it or liked it or retweeted it. [00:03:45][8.9]

Mariya Karimjee: [00:03:45] To get the Indian visa as Pakistani citizens, they needed to submit a utility bill of someone in India who would vouch for them. [00:03:52][7.1]

Sana Kazmi: [00:03:53] So there was an Indian journalist from BBC who just like, scanned and gave us her documents. Like, "You can use them." Like she didn't know us from Adam, she had just followed our campaign. [00:04:02][9.0]

Mariya Karimjee: [00:04:03] Sana and her friends cobbled together three tickets through the kindness of internet strangers then flew to Islamabad to apply for their visas. The night before the match, they heard back from the Indian High Commission. They'd been approved. They boarded a bus to Wagga, the one point between India and Pakistan that you can cross the border via land. The girls were going to Majali. [00:04:24][21.7]

Mariya Karimjee: [00:04:28] When Pakistan and India first started playing cricket against each other in 1952, just five years after partition, it was much easier to cross the border and watch matches. But relations between the two countries soon soured over Kashmir. And by 1965, they'd gone to war. When Pakistan and India next faced off on the cricket pitch 17 years later, the wartime tensions have seeped into the sport. When Pakistan beat India in 1978, the Pakistani captain declared it a victory for all Muslims against Hindus. [00:05:02][34.0]

Rahul Bhattacharya: [00:05:03] The idea of another cricket team representing your enemy, it is a strong one, and it is a pervasive one. I don't think it's a healthy one. [00:05:12][8.9]

Mariya Karimjee: [00:05:12] That's Rahul Bhattacharya. He's an Indian cricket journalist. When relations between the two countries normalized, cricket thrived. Through the 1980s and 1990s, Pakistan and India played each other at neutral venues. In early 1999, during a stable time, India invited the Pakistani cricket team to tour the country. In 2004, Pakistan reciprocated. The Indian team flew into Lahore. [00:05:37][24.9]

Rahul Bhattacharya: [00:05:38] And the sort of, the welcome that the Indian - not just the players, but all those who travel from India - got from the Pakistanis on that tour was just beyond overwhelming. Nobody thought it would be quite like this, you know? [00:05:52][13.9]

Mariya Karimjee: [00:05:52] Rahul came to Pakistan with the Indian team for this 2004 tour. [00:05:56][3.6]

Rahul Bhattacharya: [00:05:57] I remember the cab driver had told me his - the air conditioner was not working. Later in the conversation as he found out from India, he sort of switched up immediately. So it was working all the while, but I was given the special treatment only because I was from India. [00:06:14][17.2]

Mariya Karimjee: [00:06:15] Rahul was so bowled over by the hospitality that he and other Indians were shown during their time in Pakistan that he wrote a book called Pundits from Pakistan about how the tour went well beyond cricket. It helped normalize relations between the countries and created a sense of goodwill between fans of the sport on both sides of the border. The 2004 tour came during a moment of real friendship and peace between the two countries. The first match in Pakistan was in Karachi at the National Stadium. Rahul was there, and he watched Inzamam-ul-Haq, one of Pakistan's greatest batsmen, hit a century. That means he scored 100 runs. But still he fell short of the target. India won the match, but the Pakistani fans broke out in extended applause. [00:07:03][48.0]

Rahul Bhattacharya: [00:07:05] I remember the atmosphere. You know, there was all this banging of empty mineral water bottles to get the sort of rhythm going, and that continued all the way to the end. And then there was a moment of silence when the final catch was taken. And after that, this sort of sea of applause, very, very thrilling and moving moment. And you can imagine being in the middle of a stadium in front of such a large audience and being applauded is, in itself, such a rousing thing. [00:07:31][26.1]

Mariya Karimjee: [00:07:31] The moment was transformative. [00:07:32][0.9]

Rahul Bhattacharya: [00:07:34] Imagine that you're in the middle of these people who are your designated enemies, your so-called enemies, and them giving you this kind of welcome appreciation. It shows the - the kind of feelings that sport and cricket can harness. And that statement, it's a statement of sort of - it's beautiful and enlightened and civilized statement. And it's all it's kind of thrilling in its magnanimity. [00:07:57][23.2]

Mariya Karimjee: [00:08:01] For Rahul, the tour presented a kind of possibility for cricket and for Pakistan and India. If in relatively stable times, the teams could pop over and play matches like this, perhaps that would go a long way towards establishing rapport between the two countries. [00:08:17][15.2]

Rahul Bhattacharya: [00:08:18] Just the idea that India and Pakistan could tour each other, and there are people who could go over to one another's countries and watch these matches and people could engage in that manner and this being normal - a part of something that can happen every couple of years, as it happens with other teams - it seems to be, now in retrospect, a wonderfully mature thing. A state of affairs if you know where people are on both sides of the border are behaving like adults. [00:08:45][27.5]

Mariya Karimjee: [00:08:46] But Rahul says those who say that cricket is a tool of diplomacy have got it a bit backwards. [00:08:51][4.6]

Rahul Bhattacharya: [00:08:52] Cricket was always part of a greater engagement between the countries. India and Pakistan will not just be able to - It's not for the Indian Cricket Board to call the Pakistan Cricket Board and say, "OK, let's play a few matches next week," or next month or whatever it is. When you have channels of communications open between the government, when you're sort of actively seeking to promote a trade and cultural exchange between the two countries, a cricket tour comes almost like a showpiece event in this. It's when the governments are in the mood to speak to one another, when it will even be open to the idea of considering a cricket tour. [00:09:28][35.5]

Mariya Karimjee: [00:09:29] Just four years after Rahul visited Pakistan, tensions with India hit a boiling point once again. In November of 2008, a terrorist organization from Pakistan carried out a coordinated series of attacks in Mumbai over the course of four days. Almost 200 people died. [00:09:47][18.2]

Newsclip: [00:09:49] A nation of many faiths lights candles and offers prayers for the dead in Mumbai. [00:09:55][5.2]

Mariya Karimjee: [00:09:58] Relations between India and Pakistan turned frosty yet again. India implied that Pakistan's intelligence services had aided and abetted the attack. Pakistan denied this. [00:10:08][10.3]

Newsclip: [00:10:09] Gunmen on the streets of Lahore. A brazen and deadly attack on a high profile target. [00:10:13][4.3]

Mariya Karimjee: [00:10:14] Less than a year later, the Sri Lankan team came to Pakistan for a tour. While in Lahore on their way to the stadium, the Sri Lankan team was attacked. International cricket in Pakistan came to a grinding stop. As relations with India continued to sour, matches between the two countries were few and far between, disappointing scores of fans across the world. So when Pakistan was matched up against India in the semifinal of the 2011 Cricket World Cup, Sana, that lifelong Pakistani cricket fan, knew the match would be a big deal. At Wahgah, she and her friends moved through the line of other Pakistanis trying to get to India. It seemed everyone else was there for cricket, so they crossed over without much fanfare. [00:11:05][50.5]

Sana Kazmi: [00:11:06] Overall, people - and this is, I think, more so on the Indian side - were just amused to see us, because we were all in like our white and green and flags and hats and, you know, like just being kind of like obnoxious fans. And they were just all laughing. [00:11:19][13.7]

Mariya Karimjee: [00:11:22] But they still have to get to the stadium five hours away. And they also had to pick up their tickets. [00:11:27][4.4]

Sana Kazmi: [00:11:28] We see these two Pakistani uncles in like Pakistan team jerseys emerge from that same gate. And they have their sunglasses on, and you know, they were walking with a lot of confidence and no anxiety. And there was a guy who was carrying their suitcases behind them. So they seemed like they were all set. And I told my friends, "Guys, why don't we just go with them, like they're going to the same place?" [00:11:52][24.4]

Mariya Karimjee: [00:11:53] Sana and her friends hitched a ride with those men, worrying about how to tell them they still needed to pick up their tickets. But they quickly found out the men they were with had extra. [00:12:01][8.7]

Sana Kazmi: [00:12:02] The way we found out was they were calling their friends in Chandigarh - they had friends there - and trying to convince them to come to the match. [00:12:10][8.1]

Mariya Karimjee: [00:12:11] But Sana and her friends had a better idea. [00:12:12][1.5]

Sana Kazmi: [00:12:13] It was like a five hour drive. I think like three and a half to four hours of that was just us trying to convince them to, you know, give us their tickets. [00:12:25][12.1]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:12:30] You're listening to The Long Game, from Foreign policy and Doha Debates. I'm your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. And now we return to our story of India, Pakistan, and cricket diplomacy. [00:12:46][15.8]

Mariya Karimjee: [00:12:47] Sana and her friends got the tickets and arrived at the stadium a little after the match started. Then, they watched as Pakistan slowly lost to India. There's a reason that Sana's story was mentioned to me so many times. For starters, there's a real magic in it. Three young Pakistani women traveling together to India, which, here, is often seen as enemy territory. There's also the fact there's really no easy, quick way to travel between the two countries, especially when tensions between them are so high. But the real magic, to me, anyway, was what happened after the match. Pakistan lost, and it became so apparent that Pakistan was not going to win that the teeny tiny section of Pakistani fans at the stadium started leaving early. Sana and her friends didn't leave early. And once India had won, the stadium unsurprisingly broke out in celebration. Sana realized that she was in hostile territory. [00:13:47][59.8]

Sana Kazmi: [00:13:48] It was really crowded and so many Indians, so many Indian fans came up to us for just a chat and they were like, you know, "Thank you so much for coming to our country," and, you know, "You guys played really well." And you know, some of them, like, want to take pictures with us. And I remember one girl came and said, "You guys deserved to win. You did better." Like, no didn't. [Laughs] I just went for the cricket, like I said. But the response, not just in terms of while I was there, but in the interactions that I had with Indians both before and after going there, that really made me want to just engage more. [00:14:36][47.4]

Mariya Karimjee: [00:14:37] Sana returned to India the following year again to watch a cricket match between Pakistan and India - the last time the two countries would play each other outside of a tournament. [00:14:46][9.5]

Sana Kazmi: [00:14:47] But this time I stayed for 10 days, you know, because I wanted to see it beyond the cricket, and it was so much fun. I, you know, I love the chaat there and all the vegetarian food and the shopping, and just - just so many things. [00:15:02][14.9]

Mariya Karimjee: [00:15:06] In the decades since Sana's last trip to India, there have been fewer and fewer matches between India and Pakistan. And for the youngest generation of Pakistani and Indian cricket fans, the rivalry between India and Pakistan doesn't feel the same as it once did. [00:15:21][14.9]

Uzair Sattar: [00:15:22] As a follower and fan of Pakistan cricket, much of the focus that I've had hasn't been on India-Pakistan, just because of the really sordid state of affairs that's left almost no cricket between us. [00:15:33][11.5]

Mariya Karimjee: [00:15:34] That's Uzair Sattar, a 22 year old cricket fan. In his lifetime, he only remembers watching about eight India-Pakistan matches. Like me, Uzair is a Pakistani who got his love of the game from his father. [00:15:46][12.6]

Uzair Sattar: [00:15:47] My dad's why I started watching cricket. He's been a fan all his life, and his favorite story about India-Pakistan that he's told me was in the 80s. Imran Khan is bowling to Sunil Gavaskar. He describes like a specific ball that Imran Khan bowled, or like pitched, almost like on the wide line and then sort of just cut back in to bowl and Gavaskar didn't even offer a shot. He has like these very specific moments that he remembers with great, great fondness about India and Pakistan that I think have remained with him even today. [00:16:28][41.4]

Mariya Karimjee: [00:16:29] Hearing these stories, Uzair started feeling that perhaps he'd gotten the shorter end of the stick. [00:16:34][4.7]

Uzair Sattar: [00:16:35] I would personally much rather have been a cricket fan in the 80s or in the 90s, when things are more focused on the sport as opposed to sort of everything else that goes around it. [00:16:46][11.3]

Mariya Karimjee: [00:16:48] When I first spoke to Uzair in early October, there was no reason to believe this narrative would change. The T20 World Cup was fast approaching. [00:16:56][7.6]

Newsclip: [00:16:57] In a massive, global embarrassment for Pakistan ... [00:17:00][3.5]

Mariya Karimjee: [00:17:00] A month before the tournament, New Zealand's team flew to Pakistan after 18 years to play a cricket tour. But on the day of the first match, New Zealand cited a specific, credible security threat and left the country. [00:17:13][12.8]

Newsclip: [00:17:14] The decision to pull out of the first one day in Rawalpindi came just minutes before the toss. [00:17:18][4.2]

Mariya Karimjee: [00:17:19] England, which was due to play two matches against Pakistan in mid-October, followed suit, canceling their tour. This meant the Pakistan team was not able to practice in the way they'd hoped and served a massive blow for international cricket returning to the country. On the 24th of October, Pakistan and India played each other in the T20 World Cup. [00:17:41][22.1]

Newsclip: [00:17:41] The tournament may have started today, but all eyes are fixated on tomorrow's big game. The most anticipated clash in the calendar year ... [00:17:49][8.3]

Mariya Karimjee: [00:17:50] In Karachi, where I live, it felt like everyone was planning their weekend around cricket. Chai babas all over the city projected the match onto the walls of their buildings. Karachi government officials put up giant screens in the city. The feeling of excitement and anticipation was everywhere. From the very first ball, Pakistani fans felt as though they were watching something incredible. [00:18:12][21.9]

Uzair Sattar: [00:18:13] And then, at the start of the third over, Shaheen Shah Afridi was probably one of the best balls of his career. Bowling fast and hits the middle of the wicket on middle stump, straightens up like an arrow and just faintly clips the top before the bell trickles down in a very sort of cinematic way. And, you know, Pakistan is all celebrating. And so those first three overs, I think, put us on top. [00:18:39][26.4]

Mariya Karimjee: [00:18:44] Pakistan won, the first time they beat India in a World Cup game, surprising everyone, especially diehard Pakistani fans who knew their team was the underdog. And it was right after that match that the viral photo was taken of Kohli ruffling Rizwan's hair. Pakistan went on to win every game of the group stage. They headed into the semifinals undefeated. Then, after a valiant attempt to beat Australia, fell short of the mark. But for every fan I spoke to, including Uzair, the loss didn't feel as devastating. [00:19:19][35.8]

Uzair Sattar: [00:19:21] We were two good days away from being the champions and winning and winning the trophy. That didn't happen, so it's obviously disappointing, but it doesn't feel as heartbreaking as previous tournament exits might have been. [00:19:35][14.0]

Mariya Karimjee: [00:19:35] Part of that was because Pakistan's team is comparatively young and is brimming with talent. But part of that was also because, in addition to winning their matches, Pakistani cricket players were also winning the hearts of everyone around them. After soundly beating Namibia, for example, the Pakistan cricket team visited the Namibian dressing room to congratulate the players. [00:19:55][19.9]

Uzair Sattar: [00:19:57] It was a step taken completely in line with what sports should do to sort of bring people together. [00:20:03][5.8]

Mariya Karimjee: [00:20:05] After their win against Scotland, Scotland's Twitter account posted a video of Pakistan and Scotland sharing a birthday cake for one of the Pakistani players. [00:20:12][7.0]

Uzair Sattar: [00:20:13] These 11 cricket players and the coaching staff and the broader team have done more for like the soft power of Pakistan than any initiative that I've seen in recent years. And it's so sort of second nature, and it's so natural, because we're doing it through a sport that we love and play and it's a part of who we are as a people now. And so the potential that cricket has to be, you know, a conduit to sort of change hearts and minds about, quote unquote Pakistan's image, I think exists. [00:20:41][28.3]

Mariya Karimjee: [00:20:43] During the World Cup, international teams like Australia, who haven't been to Pakistan in decades, announced upcoming tours. New Zealand, too, expressed interest in returning to Pakistan, and the International Cricket Council announced that Pakistan would host the 2025 Champions Trophy. Fans believe that it wasn't just the way the team played that sealed these deals. [00:21:03][20.1]

Uzair Sattar: [00:21:03] I'd say Pakistan cricket represents the soul of the country in a really good way at the moment, because ultimately players are a product of their society. And so right now, I think what we're seeing with this Pakistan cricket team is probably the best version of Pakistan that I've seen in a while. The way the spirit of cricket really permeated throughout the tournament as a whole speaks to the fact that cricket isn't just a game, it's sometimes much more than the sum of its parts. [00:21:34][30.4]

Mariya Karimjee: [00:21:39] But for me, a Pakistani fan in Karachi watching this tournament and all that was at stake, what struck me was that it was still play. It was still fun. And maybe that is the secret for cricketers acting as ambassadors for their country. [00:21:53][14.0]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:21:59] That's it for this episode of The Long Game. I'm your host Ibtihaj Muhammad. The Long Game is a co-production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. This episode was produced by Mariya Karimjee and Karen Given, with help from Dan Ephron, Rob Sachs, Japhet Weekes, Amjad Atallah, and Jigar Mehta. Make sure to follow us on Apple or your favorite podcast app, and please leave us a review. To learn more, subscribe to Foreign Policy, a global magazine of news and ideas, or visit Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation. Next week on the podcast, last spring before their World Cup qualifying matches, athletes from Norway, Germany, Netherlands, and Denmark staged protests against Qatar, host of the 2022 World Cup. At issue was their treatment of migrant workers. [00:22:53][53.9]

Guest: [00:22:54] It's a life of perpetual toil, really in pretty harsh conditions for very little pay. [00:23:00][5.9]

Guest: [00:23:01] We've seen that the World Cup has added a level of scrutiny, has really shone the spotlight on Qatar. That scrutiny has accelerated the changes that were anticipated - already anticipated as part of the reforms. [00:23:13][12.1]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:23:14] That's next time on The Long Game. [00:23:14][0.0]

https://open.acast.com/public/streams/618446be191fd30013ed07be/episodes/619bf3a607b024001b7d1654.mp3 The rivalry between the cricket teams of India and Pakistan is a little like if a billion people tuned into a Red Sox-Yankees game. Add in nationalistic fervor on both sides, and things can get tense. When Pakistan beat India in 1978, the Pakistani captain declared it a victory for all Muslims against Hindus. But until recently, Pakistan had never beaten India in a World Cup match. That changed when the Pakistani team made an unexpected run all the way to the 2021 T20 World Cup semifinal. And as Pakistani fans watched social media videos of their team visiting the Namibian dressing room and sharing a birthday cake with members of the Scottish team, some started asking, “Is this the future of cricket diplomacy?”

Episode 3

Sports Activism and the 2022 World Cup

+ReadClose transcript

Newsclip: [00:00:02] Please rise for the national anthem of Norway. [00:00:04][1.2]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:00:10] Last March, ahead of their World Cup qualifying match, the Norwegian men's national soccer team removed their warm up jackets to reveal white shirts with black letters that read "Human rights, on and off the pitch." Players from Germany, Netherlands, and Denmark would later stage similar protests against Qatar, host of the 2022 World Cup. At issue was the treatment of migrant workers. [00:00:36][26.1]

Nick McGeehan: [00:00:38] It's a life of perpetual toil, really, in pretty harsh conditions for very little pay. [00:00:44][5.9]

Max Tuñón: [00:00:44] We've seen that the World Cup has added a level of scrutiny, has really shown the spotlight on Qatar, and that scrutiny has accelerated a lot of the changes that were anticipated already anticipated as part of the reforms. [00:00:57][12.8]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:00:59] From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates, this is The Long Game, a podcast about the power of sports to change the world. I'm your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. There's an upside to hosting a mega-sized sporting event. Government's plan new roads and train stations and airports. And when you build it, people come - different people, new people who may not have visited before. Often, these mega-sized sporting events bring with them a spotlight. [00:01:28][28.9]

Newsclip: [00:01:29] Next month, more than three and a half million soccer fans are expected to head to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the World Cup. But there are some serious questions about whether Rio is ready to play host. [00:01:39][9.6]

Newsclip: [00:01:40] We actually think nothing of the World Cup, because we are living in poverty. [00:01:43][2.9]

Newsclip: [00:01:44] During the World Cup final this July in Moscow, Verzilov ran onto the field in a police uniform protesting against police brutality in Russia. [00:01:52][7.4]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:01:53] But how effective is this mega event activism? And what happens when the circus leaves town and the spotlight goes dark? Reporter Ken Shulman looks at three case studies: South Africa, Brazil and, of course, Qatar. Here's Ken. [00:02:09][16.6]

Ken Shulman: [00:02:14] In early 2011, I traveled to Qatar. Doha, the stunning capital city, was humming, a ring of designer skyscrapers framing a bustling network of construction sites below. This Gulf emirate, a teardrop shaped country about the size of Connecticut, had just been awarded the 2022 World Cup. And Qataris were excited. They were the first Arab nation to host the competition. As part of their World Cup bid, Qatar had promised to build seven brand new stadiums. Now that required labor, and in a country with just over 300,000 citizens, that meant migrant labor. Back then you'd find those laborers on the Corniche, Doha's scenic waterfront promenade. Indians, Pakistanis, migrants from the Philippines, homesick workers who lived in labor camps and who on their rare days off came down to fish or smoke or play guitar. Now, migrant labor was nothing new to Qatar or to the Gulf. Foreign workers built Doha's spectacular skyline. They built capitals and factories and highways in Bahrain, Kuwait, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. And in general, they were treated badly. [00:03:28][74.7]

Nick McGeehan: [00:03:30] We are often talking about abuses that equate to or come close to slavery. Now that's not to say these abuses don't happen elsewhere, but I think that - they are particularly severe in the Gulf. [00:03:40][10.6]

Ken Shulman: [00:03:41] That's Nick McGeehan. He's co-director of Fair Square Research and Projects. It's a London based NGO. Nick has spent lots of time in Qatar and the Gulf. He's an expert on migrant worker issues around the world. Migrants, he says, struggle wherever they land. But the situation in the Gulf is unique. [00:04:00][19.0]

Nick McGeehan: [00:04:01] Migrants are typically a small portion of the population in most countries. In the Gulf, it's about 80 to 90 percent. So the overwhelming majority of the population is in this situation. [00:04:10][9.2]

Ken Shulman: [00:04:11] That situation is the result of a system called Kafala. It's the system most Gulf countries used to regulate migrant labor. Under Kafala, a migrant worker needs an in-country sponsor, and that in-country sponsor pretty much controls the migrant's life. The migrant worker can't change jobs or leave the country without the sponsor's permission. It's essentially an open invitation to abuse. Thanks to the World Cup, Qatar has been in the crosshairs of the international human rights community, and that scrutiny has helped drive reform. Three and a half years ago, in 2017, Qatar invited the International Labor Organization to Doha to help overhaul the Kafala system. Today, migrants in Qatar no longer need permission to change jobs or leave the country. Max Tuñón heads the ILO Project Office in Doha. [00:05:04][53.3]

Max Tuñón: [00:05:05] Dismantling these two key elements is really at the cornerstone of the the labor reform agenda here in Qatar. The greater labor mobility that has been introduced since the Kafala reforms have led now to more than 220,000 workers changing employers in a year. That's over 10 percent of the workforce. [00:05:21][16.4]

Ken Shulman: [00:05:23] And Qatar, with help from partners like the ILO, has taken further steps to make labor contracts more transparent to institute a minimum and livable wage. It's a good start, says Tuñón, but the work is far from over. [00:05:37][14.4]

Max Tuñón: [00:05:38] So there are still issues to address, but when we think about the trajectory over time, how far things have come in the past three and a half four years, it's certainly a positive story. [00:05:48][9.3]

Ken Shulman: [00:05:48] So it looks like Qatar, lit up at least in part by the World Cup spotlight, has taken some bold steps. But how far will those reforms go? And what happens when the circus leaves town, taking the spotlight with it? A look at World Cups past might shed some light here, starting with South Africa, which hosted the tournament in 2010. [00:06:10][22.0]

Max Tuñón: [00:06:12] Well, I'm a third generation descendant of indentured labor who arrived here in South Africa since 1860. [00:06:20][8.0]

Ken Shulman: [00:06:21] Brij Maharaj is a geographer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. That's in Durban, a major South African port and a host city for the 2010 World Cup. His grandfather came to South Africa from India as an indentured worker. Indenture was just a step above slavery, a small step. Impoverished or indebted men signed binding contracts and boarded ships for far flung European colonies. Over 200,000 Indians came to the Durban area to work on sugar plantations. After a term of 5 or 10 years, they were free. [00:06:57][35.7]

Brij Maharaj: [00:06:57] And once they completed their indentured period, they began to engage in what is popularly known as market gardening. So around 1900, the vegetable and fruit needs of the Durban area was being provided by indentured laborers and the descendants. [00:07:14][17.0]

Ken Shulman: [00:07:17] These former servants sold their carrots and beetroot at a squatter's market near Durban's Warwick Junction. It was called the early morning market. By the 1950s, there were hundreds of stalls there. Indian and African traders sold in bulk and fed a broader network of satellite markets where locals bought their fruits and vegetables, spices, flowers, live poultry, and even traditional medicines. Maharaj and his brother worked at the early morning market when they were in high school in the 70s on weekends and holidays from before dawn to after dark. They lugged crates, swept floors, bargained with customers, and kept track of cash. It was a melting pot of cultures and a very lively scene. [00:08:00][43.3]

Brij Maharaj: [00:08:01] It's a hive of activity and it's a very busy place, and the people who came there were poor people because, you know, if you bought from a greengrocer, et cetera, you're going to be paying more. [00:08:13][11.7]

Newsclip: [00:08:14] The 2010 FIFA World Cup will be organized in South Africa. [00:08:20][6.2]

Ken Shulman: [00:08:24] Many South Africans, most South Africans, jumped for joy in 2004, when FIFA announced that their country would host the World Cup. It meant South Africa was back in the international fold after decades spent as a pariah during apartheid. And there was the promise of World Cup riches: airports, train hubs, sparkling urban centers, and most of all, jobs, badly-needed jobs in a country with one of the world's highest levels of inequality and unemployment. There were few South Africans, including Maharaj, who weren't completely sold on the idea, but most of them kept quiet. Support for Africa's first World Cup was an act of patriotism, a vote of confidence in the ruling ANC party, which had overthrown the racist apartheid regime. That patriotism didn't last long. [00:09:14][50.0]

Brij Maharaj: [00:09:15] I think after the hosting of FIFA 2010, the government privately conceded that they had - to put it crudely - were taken for a big ride by FIFA. We have more people living in shacks or informal settlements. There are more people without services like water, electricity, and sanitation. And, you know, unemployment rates are high. So regardless of the indicator that we use, 10 years after FIFA, the plight of the poor is they are worse off. [00:09:50][35.4]

Ken Shulman: [00:09:53] It might seem that neither the World Cup nor the very limited activism around it had any lasting effect on South Africa, at least for the country's poor. But that's not entirely true. There was at least one successful protest, and Mirage had a hand in it. Durban already had a soccer stadium when South Africa won its World Cup bid. But city leaders decided to build a new one. It's an architectural marvel with a signature arch and a cable car that, when it's not broken, offers stunning views of the city and the Indian Ocean. But the stadium is, if such a thing exists in Africa, a white elephant: dramatically underused and a constant cash drain for the city. Now, that's nothing new for World Cup or Olympic stadiums. Lots of planners overreach and overspend. And in Durban, that reach extended beyond the stadium, five kilometers south to be exact, to the early morning market. [00:10:51][58.2]

Brij Maharaj: [00:10:52] FIFA didn't ask for the market to be removed. The city authorities were using FIFA as an excuse to clean up the inner city, and cleaning up the inner city means pushing poor people out, because poor people are an embarrassment to the city authorities. So they came up with this idea of a mall. [00:11:13][21.0]

Ken Shulman: [00:11:15] A brand new shopping mall to complement the brand new stadium. It's not a bad idea, but a mall for whom? The locals could never afford to shop there. Meraj concedes that the early morning market and the surrounding area did need a facelift. Many spots were dirty, poorly lit, even dangerous, but it was a heritage site and a busy one. Nearly half a million commuters came through each day by bus, train, or on foot. Traders there did close to $140 million of business every year. Most of all, people who live nearby could afford to shop there. [00:11:51][35.4]

Brij Maharaj: [00:11:51] So it was a thriving economic hub for poor people. To build a mall in such an area was seen to be irrational, illogical. Most cities in the world actually promote these types of markets, because they have a popular appeal, they attract tourists, etc. [00:12:12][20.9]

Ken Shulman: [00:12:13] Maraj was no stranger to protest. As a student and as an academic, he spoke out frequently against apartheid. That activism got him noticed. His phone was tapped, and government security police tried to intimidate him on the street. But when the apartheid regime finally disappeared in 1994, South Africa's appetite for protests seemed to vanish as well. The battle was won. Everyone got behind the new government, and getting behind the government also meant supporting the World Cup. One morning, as Durban and the rest of the country were ramping up for soccer's greatest show on Earth, Maharaj found a letter printed in his morning newspaper, a letter about the early morning market. [00:12:55][42.1]

Brij Maharaj: [00:12:56] To be honest, it's the first time I became aware of the problem. So I went to a meeting. I didn't even carry a pen, you know, I listened to the challenges. And I said, "Yes, I can get involved." And there were other academics as well. [00:13:07][11.2]

Ken Shulman: [00:13:08] Meraj and his colleagues helped organize protest marches. They printed signs and banners, did radio and television interviews. It felt just like old times. A broad, diverse coalition. Traders, lawyers, porters, academics of all colors and stripes, all coming together to fight injustice. Except this time, the enemy wasn't apartheid. It was the ruling ANC party, the one that defeated apartheid. That felt a little weird. The fight got ugly. During one demonstration, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at traders. City officials even called the protesters racist, tried to paint them as a bunch of Indians trying to deprive Africans of the opportunities and benefits a mall would bring. [00:13:56][47.6]

Brij Maharaj: [00:13:57] Then they argued that Indian traders were exploiting Africans in the market and that some of the meetings where the city was trying to sell this project, you had chants of "Hamba ekhaya eMumbai." That's Zulu. And if you translate into English, it means, "Go home, go to Mumbai." And these chants were coming from what we called "rent-a-mob" groups, who were not linked in any way to the market, but were brought there by the ANC to almost intimidate the traders. [00:14:34][36.7]

Ken Shulman: [00:14:35] For the leaders of a country still recovering from decades of racial strife, it was a dangerous move. [00:14:40][5.0]

Brij Maharaj: [00:14:40] To make baseless accusation about race in South Africa is to throw a metaphorical hand grenade into a crowd. [00:14:46][5.6]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:14:51] You're listening to The Long Game, from Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. I'm your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. And now back to reporter Ken Shulman and our story about World Cup activism. [00:15:10][19.3]

Ken Shulman: [00:15:12] The traders and their lawyers turned to the courts, where they obtained a series of stays, or interdicts, against the city and the mall developers. It was a stall tactic. The traders didn't need to win their case. They just needed to run out the clock. [00:15:25][13.6]

Brij Maharaj: [00:15:26] The city was very much on the back foot, because they had very clear deadlines and has the interdicts prevented the traders from being displaced? The city, itself, realized that they may not be able to meet the deadline. [00:15:42][16.1]

Ken Shulman: [00:15:43] And run out the clock they did. Eventually, the city and the developers caved. The mall was scuttled, and he early morning market was saved. Many of the people who shop at Durban's early morning market and many of the people who work there live in what urban planners and politicians call informal settlements. These are city neighborhoods that spring up spontaneously, outside of government plans or regulations. About a third of the urban world lives in informal settlements in places that are often called shantytowns or slums. In Brazil, these informal settlements are called favelas. And the Brazilian city with the highest percentage of favelas is Rio de Janeiro. [00:16:27][44.1]

Theresa Williamson: [00:16:28] People need shelter. And so they squat. [00:16:30][2.2]

Ken Shulman: [00:16:31] That's Theresa Williamson. She's an urban planner. She lives in Rio, where she runs Catalytic Communities. It's an NGO that advocates for people who live in Rio's favelas. She says favelas may start out as slums ... [00:16:44][13.6]

Theresa Williamson: [00:16:45] ... but over time they actually consolidate and develop and residents improve their homes. And so most of the favelas in Rio are no longer characterized by the conditions that you would attribute to squatter communities, slums, or shantytowns. [00:16:58][12.9]

Ken Shulman: [00:17:01] For about four years, Brazil was the epicenter of world sport. In 2014, the country hosted the World Cup. Two years later, Rio staged the Summer Olympics. The one-two sporting punch create an opening for Rio's leaders to tackle many of the city's longstanding problems: congestion, pollution, poverty, and that meant sprucing up the favelas. In the beginning, everyone loved the idea. [00:17:27][25.7]

Theresa Williamson: [00:17:28] Because we had been in a stagnant economy for three decades in Rio, and there was money going to come in and the assumption was it was going to be helpful. The city government said, "We're going to upgrade all the favelas by 2020. We're going to plant 24 million trees to offset the carbon from the games. We're going to clean the Guanabara Bay and the pollution and the sewage," and all of those things were things that would have benefited the population. But then those aren't the things that transpired, and very quickly we were hearing cases of eviction. [00:17:57][28.9]

Ken Shulman: [00:17:59] Evictions. Instead of upgrading the favelas, Williamson saw that the government was trying to erase them, at least erase their character, homogenize them, turn them into something that might appeal to high-end tourists. She says she has nothing against high-end tourists, but she is critical of local governments who don't value the very assets that define their cities and their culture. [00:18:21][22.4]

Theresa Williamson: [00:18:22] Every single cultural manifestation you associate with Rio was either born in, developed in, or maintained in the city's favelas. Carnival, Samba, Passinho, Brazilian funk music nowadays, right, capoeira. Yet, these communities are chronically shunted to the side. Why? Because people who live there are low income. They don't have a lot of money to spend. [00:18:46][24.3]

Ken Shulman: [00:18:47] Now, let's be clear. Many of Rio's favelas needed cleaning up. There was substandard sanitation, crumbling streets, spotty electric and internet service, and there were gangs and drug dealers - not everywhere, but enough to make it a real problem. But there were also families, working people, students, whole communities caught completely off guard, [00:19:08][20.8]

Theresa Williamson: [00:19:09] And the government would show up with eviction notices and literally a bus to put your stuff in, and people didn't know they could fight back. [00:19:16][6.5]

Ken Shulman: [00:19:20] But they soon learned how. Residents started sharing stories and strategies, from one favela to another. Sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn't. And sometimes it was hard to tell, like in the favela called Vila Autódromo [00:19:33][13.4]

Theresa Williamson: [00:19:34] Vila Autódromo was next to the city's racetrack, it was actually named after the racetrack, because residents there moved there to build the racetrack. And when the Olympics were announced, they decided they were going to remove the racetrack and build the main Olympic site on that location. So this little favela of 700 homes was right next to what would become the main Olympic site. [00:19:56][21.8]

Ken Shulman: [00:19:57] There weren't any gangs or militias in Vila Autódromo. No drug traffic. Young people there tended to go to university. Most people move there by choice, and they didn't want to leave. Many of them stepped up to lead the resistance. A local schoolteacher, a local mother. [00:20:12][15.3]

Theresa Williamson: [00:20:12] And there was the president of the Residents Association, who - it was his third eviction. He had been evicted as a teenager from a favela in the south zone of Rio. He had been evicted as an adult from a part of City of God that was removed for road. And then he was evicted again Vila Autódromo. So he brought to the struggle the sense of not again, never again. [00:20:40][28.0]

Ken Shulman: [00:20:43] The battle against the eviction unfolded in the courts and on the streets. The international press played a critical role. [00:20:49][6.3]

Newsclip: [00:20:50] And preparations for the soccer World Cup in Brazil is meaning evictions for several Brazilian residents. [00:20:55][4.7]

Ken Shulman: [00:20:56] Evictions happen all the time in Rio, but the international press had rarely covered them. This time was different. [00:21:02][5.9]

Theresa Williamson: [00:21:02] If these evictions were not linked to the World Cup and Olympics, the international press wouldn't have been there. [00:21:07][4.8]

Ken Shulman: [00:21:08] On the ground, resistance grew increasingly creative and bold. Residents barricaded streets or formed human chains when police showed up. One local photographer shot a series of portraits of residents who'd received eviction orders. [00:21:21][13.1]

Theresa Williamson: [00:21:22] And he plastered them, pasted them huge on the sides of the homes so that if the tractors came, they would be demolishing right into the sides of these houses with these huge faces of the people who lived there. [00:21:33][11.6]

Ken Shulman: [00:21:35] The government didn't just use tractors and police pressure. There was also a soft sell, an effort, legitimate from their perspective, to purchase the homes in Vila Autódromo. They tried it with a local leader named Dona Penha, a quiet woman, a devout Catholic who stepped forward as a leader after a previous group of leaders had been evicted. [00:21:54][18.5]

Theresa Williamson: [00:21:55] So Dona Penha would say, "No todas tienen un precio," and that means, "Not everyone has a price." Her home, to her, was priceless. She had married her husband in their garage. She had raised her daughter. She had space for her mother and her child to everyone have space as they got older. She had trees. And, you know, she didn't see a price tag on there, so it didn't matter what the city offered. There is simply no price. That slogan really reflected not only Dona Pena but the community at large. It was plastered all over the walls with graffiti, and it came to symbolize Vila Autódromo, because it messed with a lot of people's worldviews. The idea that the government might be offering market rate there - one or two million reais - and she's not even having a conversation about it, because that's not what her home is to her. It's not a speculative good. It's her home. [00:22:51][56.0]

Ken Shulman: [00:22:52] If you visit Vila Autódromo today, you'll find 20 small white houses. These are the houses that the government built for the 20 families who resisted until the end and who were allowed to stay. Twenty families out of 700. The original houses were destroyed. And during your visit, you'll find the Evictions Museum, which Dona Penha helped create. [00:23:14][22.1]

Theresa Williamson: [00:23:15] They'll take you around to the church, which is the the original building that's still there. They'll walk you around where they have signs where things were before. Nothing was done with the site - this is really important. One little edge of it became an access road. A little park became parking, but the vast majority of the space was left as gravel and grass, so there was no need to evict people. [00:23:39][24.4]

Ken Shulman: [00:23:45] No todas tienen un precio. Not everyone has a price. It's hard to quantify the economic and social impact of events like the World Cup. It's even harder to chart the ethics. Opponents argue it's obscene for a country like Brazil to spend $3.6 billion on stadiums when so many people lack basic services, and it is a big sum. But the government spent 100 times that sum on health care and education over the same period. And yes, the evictions from Rio's favelas and from places like Durban's early morning market were definitely accelerated by the World Cup. But the World Cup didn't invent gentrification or inequality or graft. And some of the attention these events draw, however unwelcome by organizers, may even help to shift the social justice needle just a little closer to True North. As it appears to have done in Qatar, when Qatar in 2020 abolished the Kafala system and overhauled its labor laws. But how much influence did the World Cup actually have? Max Tuñón, the International Labor Organization project director, says labor reforms were already well underway in Qatar. [00:24:57][71.6]

Max Tuñón: [00:24:58] Certainly the World Cup was a major factor that accelerated the reforms, but it's not only about the World Cup. The changes that have been introduced in the past few years are also very much aligned with the national vision of the country, the national development strategy. [00:25:12][14.5]

Ken Shulman: [00:25:13] Tuñón says the labor reforms are just one element in a larger plan to diversify and modernize Qatar's economy. [00:25:19][6.2]

Max Tuñón: [00:25:20] That development strategy talks about the establishment of a more competitive economy, a more knowledge-based economy, a more diversified economy. And these labor reforms very much contribute to those goals as well. [00:25:30][10.4]

Ken Shulman: [00:25:33] For labor activist Nick McGeehan, Qatar's labor reforms had less to do with the World Cup than with Qatar looking for help navigating a regional quagmire. [00:25:41][7.6]

Max Tuñón: [00:25:42] I would say the more likely explanation for that is that Qatar was under a lot of pressure due to the aggression of its neighbors in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Qatar needed allies and its Western allies. It needed to put up a good face in order to protect itself from the aggression of the Saudis and the Emiratis. And looking good on labor rights was one of the ways they've done that, [00:26:04][22.0]

Ken Shulman: [00:26:04] And Qatar is quite different from Brazil and South Africa. It can afford to spend tens of billions on a World Cup. Its citizens, that 15 percent of the population, enjoy free education, free health care, job guarantees, even free electricity. [00:26:18][13.0]

Max Tuñón: [00:26:19] Whether or not they are all fully supportive of having the World Cup, the concerns that they would raise, they would raise internally. They're not protesting on the streets about this. The ones who are grabbing headlines are the reports of Human Rights Watch, are the reports of Amnesty International, are reports of international trade unions. It has been that sort of professionalized activism, if you want to call it that, that has driven press coverage and driven critical press coverage and to an extent, driven a reform process. [00:26:45][26.3]

Ken Shulman: [00:26:47] There's yet another distinction between the cases, and it's in the nature of the problem. [00:26:50][3.5]

Max Tuñón: [00:26:51] That's one of the interesting things working on this is it's fixable. It's not one of these intractable problems that you're never going to solve. These countries have all the money in the world to fix this problem if they want to. So people are going to work on it. But what will disappear, I think, is the the attention of editors, the attention of journalists, the attention of the types of people who can take the spotlight and turn it on Qatar in a way that's really effective. We lose that. [00:27:16][24.8]

Ken Shulman: [00:27:18] If there's a conclusion to be drawn, it's that whatever outside pressure may be brought to bear, real change needs to be driven from within. [00:27:25][7.3]

Max Tuñón: [00:27:25] I think, and this doesn't just apply to Qatar, but I think the solution to this problem doesn't lie in the West, doesn't lie in Western NGOs, reports that appeal to Western audiences. It lies in two places, one in the states that send workers to the Gulf, ensuring that they are more assertive in calling for the rights of their nationals. And the second one, and perhaps the more interesting one, is Gulf nationals themselves who often get overlooked in this debate. They're often absent from this debate. But you spend time in Qatar or Kuwait, and you'll find lots of Gulf nationals who are engaged in this issue and want to improve the way that migrants are treated in their country. [00:28:05][40.2]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:28:13] That's it for this episode of The Long Game. I'm your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. The Long Game is a co-production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. This episode was produced by Ken Shulman and Karen Given, with help from Dan Ephron, Rob Sachs. Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah, and Jigar Mehta. Make sure to follow us on Apple or your favorite podcast app, and please leave us a review. To learn more, subscribe to Foreign Policy, a global magazine of news and ideas, or visit Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation. Next week on the podcast, Batouly Camara is one of the first Muslim women to play professional basketball in hijab. [00:28:55][42.5]

Batouly Camara: [00:28:56] In that moment, I never felt more like myself to finally have the opportunity where there was no switch happening, there was no unveiling happening. It was just me, and I felt so much like myself. And I wouldn't trade that first moment for anything, because it really rooted me in the decision that I made and the woman that I wanted to be in the life that I wanted to live. [00:29:18][22.4]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:29:19] That's next time on The Long Game. [00:29:19][0.0]

There’s an upside to hosting a mega-sized sporting event. Governments plan new roads and train stations and airports. Corporate sponsors and foreign investors pile on. And when you build it, people come. Different people, new people, who may not have visited before. Often, these mega-sized sporting events also bring with them a spotlight on whatever problems plague the host nation. For the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, that spotlight has led to increased international scrutiny of the treatment of migrant workers. But how effective is this mega-event activism? And what happens when the circus leaves town and the spotlight goes dark? Reporter Ken Shulman looks at three case studies—South Africa, Brazil, and, of course, Qatar—to learn more. Because this episode touches on labor issues in Qatar, a disclosure: Doha Debates is a production of the Qatar Foundation, which is a state-led nonprofit organization in Qatar.

Episode 4

A Professional Basketball Player’s Hijab Journey

+ReadClose transcript

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:00:00] I qualified for my first Olympic team back in 2016. [00:00:02][2.7]

Newsclip: [00:00:04] No surprise that if Ibtihaj Muhammad has become one of the faces of Team USA. [00:00:07][3.7]

Newsclip: [00:00:08] This summer at Rio, she will become the first American athlete to compete in the Olympics wearing a hijab. [00:00:13][4.8]

Newsclip: [00:00:13] I mean, do you know how important that is? And what is a hijab? [00:00:17][3.8]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:00:17] I knew immediately that this journey was bigger than me. I was in a time and place where I had the opportunity to change the narrative for a global community, to set a new precedent of, you know, who a Muslim woman could be. You know, society never depicts Muslim women as athletes. We don't see ourselves, you know, when we walk in the sporting goods stores. So choosing to wear hijab and not being forced to wear hijab by anyone and feeling really comfortable and using my voice, I feel like I was ultimately shattering so many stereotypes. When I put on my fencing mask for the first time at 12 years old, there was so much power in that moment. No one knew underneath my mask that I was a girl or that, you know, I had brown skin or that I was Muslim and that I wore hijab. It was really more so about what I could bring to the table as an athlete. Like, how good could you be? That is what the foundation of sport is built on. It's about bridging people from different cultures, from different backgrounds who may even speak different languages and uniting them under this umbrella of really this ultimate goal of winning. That's what I've always loved about sport, and I feel like it's just a space where we can really create meaningful change in the world. [00:01:36][78.6]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:01:41] From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates, this is The Long Game, a podcast about the power of sports to change the world. I'm your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. Whenever an athlete steps onto a field, court, or fencing strip, they bring with them all that they are: their background, their lived experiences, their religion. But for some of us, our faith is a bit more visible than it is for others. As a college basketball player, Batouly Camara made three FInal Four appearances with the University of Connecticut. She's the daughter of immigrants, a children's book author, and she's founded her own nonprofit to help women and girls get access to sports and education. And if that's not enough, she's also one of the first Muslim women to play professional basketball in hijab. As-salaam alaikum, Batouly! How are you? [00:02:40][58.4]

Batouly Camara: [00:02:41] Alaikum-salaam. I'm doing well. How are you? [00:02:42][0.8]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:02:42] I'm good. It's so good to see you, to hear your voice. I'm just going to jump right in. I'm hoping we can start by clarifying something. As far as I can tell, you're the first Muslim woman to play professional basketball in hijab. But I keep hearing things that say you're one of the first. So which is it? [00:03:02][19.3]

Batouly Camara: [00:03:03] I am one of the first. I was the first one in Spain. It's been amazing to be connected to a few professional players in France and Egypt. So national teams such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia do have hijab wearing women. [00:03:17][14.0]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:03:18] That must be really liberating feeling to not be the only one on the court wearing hijab. Having other women who share the same faith. Being a representation of millions of people around the globe. You didn't wear hijab on the court at Yukon, but it's clear that you have been thinking about it for a while. Can you tell me a little bit about that? [00:03:39][20.8]

Batouly Camara: [00:03:40] Yes, it was -- it was really meaningful to me to understand that other women and other girls were playing the sport that they loved in hijab. And when I played at the University of Connecticut, and I was undergoing that transition, I always say that journey started probably two years prior to me actually taking hijab. But it was the next step of my spiritual journey that I didn't necessarily have the courage to make on the basketball court. I was wearing hijab in other spaces, but could never have the confidence to do it and to live my my full self on the court, a place that was so important to me. And so for me, there are about three core women who were in my circle when I was making that transition. Once I had a circle of amazing women who were in sport and who were wearing hijab, that definitely gave me a lot of confidence to do so and to know there's space for me and there's space for us in any facet, any game, and in any space. [00:04:33][53.4]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:04:34] So like you said, hijab is a journey. And it's different for every single woman. It was more of a lengthy journey for you. It took about two years before you made that decision to wear hijab full time. Can you talk a little bit about why it was difficult to make that jump? [00:04:50][16.1]

Batouly Camara: [00:04:51] I knew that once I started wearing it on the court, it was -- it was no longer personal. And that's what people don't understand. It's a personal journey. And when you're at some of the biggest stages in your life, you no longer have the luxury of of silence, if that is a luxury. You no longer have the ability to not speak on issues, which I've always wanted to, but it just was no longer mine and my journey. It became everyone's. It became a questioning. It became a "why." And, you know, so many different reasons that I had to kind of explain, you know, for my journey and something that was really personal to me. But then saying that it's a privilege to be on this platform and that if I have a chance to speak for for those who aren't necessarily get this opportunity, I have to take it. And it would be absolutely not ok for me not to do that, not to use this short time platform that I had in order to spread a message that was really important to me, but also that represented others. [00:05:50][58.2]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:05:50] I love that. Using your platform in meaningful ways is so important to me, as well. I know that not everyone was happy about your decision to wear hijab. Can you tell me a little bit about the agent who tried to change your decision? [00:06:03][12.3]

Batouly Camara: [00:06:04] Yes, there was an agent when I decided to go play baseball professionally, and like any athlete, this is the pinnacle of your career. This is what you look forward to as as a young person and as you're striving and you're going through the day to day actions of trying to improve your craft and. And I had very simple wants. I had very simple lists, you know. I wanted to get a certain amount. I wanted to be in a safe country, and I wanted to play in my hijab. And he was like, "That is absolutely not possible. That will not happen." He said, "I don't care what you do off of the court, you will not wear it out on the court." And it was very explicit. And I was a bit taken aback, but also, at that moment, I didn't know what to say. This is my first agent. I thought this was someone who was great for me, who would really represent me and want me to do my best. And so I didn't say anything in that moment, but it really triggered me deeply. It didn't sit right with me. I'm so thankful that I had enough support to say that this is not the agent who is going to represent you. [00:06:59][54.7]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:07:00] It's so important to have representation that understands your mission and understands who you are, and also just the importance of what representation and inclusion means, right? Not just off the court, but on the court as well. Can you take me to that moment when you finally stepped onto the court as a professional basketball player in hijab? What did that feel like for you, especially having people around you who were against this decision? What did that moment feel like? What was the crowd's reaction? [00:07:34][34.2]

Batouly Camara: [00:07:36] In that moment, I never felt more like myself to finally have the opportunity where there was no switch happening, there was no, you know, unveiling happening. It was just me, and I felt so much like myself, and I wouldn't trade that first moment for anything because it really rooted me in the decision that I made and the woman that I wanted to be and the life that I wanted to live. It was kind of like an inner moment and then an outer moment; I looked around, I said, "Oh my gosh." All I could picture was my sisters and those who are playing around the world and who were representing me, and I was now have the ability and the privilege to represent them on one of the highest ages of basketball, and so it was a very surreal moment. And it just made me remember: I don't want to take any of this for granted. And so I felt like myself, I felt like this was really important for me and for those who were experiencing this and for those who were going to experience a moment like this. [00:08:35][58.9]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:08:38] You would almost think that that would be the most difficult part, right, that last step in finally making that decision. And it's like God granted this permission and ease for you in that moment. How important were are your teammates during this time? [00:08:51][13.6]

Batouly Camara: [00:08:53] My teammates were incredibly important, because they just know me as me. You know, when people kind of see you how you see you, it's really important. And so we had discussions and we had conversations early on, and I think it was important for my teammates to see before our first game the questioning that was happening. So people would ask different questions, and I already had conversations with them so now they were speaking. You don't speak the language, but I saw them defending me in little ways that allowed us to build trust because for them, they saw me as their teammate. The person who was going to, you know, have their back on the court, the person who they had just went to war with in practice for over two months. And so for for outsiders to say anything was not okay with them, because now their teammate, and that's how they saw me. And that was that. [00:09:40][46.8]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:09:40] And that's one of the beautiful things about sport, right, is the ability to bridge cultures and people from different backgrounds, people who speak different languages. And have that support, I'm sure, made your journey a lot easier. We oftentimes forget how difficult it was for the people before us to kind of, you know, pave the way for our journeys to even be possible. I know that I had that not just being a hijab-wearing athlete, but particularly in the sport of fencing as a black athlete. There are a lot of prolific black athletes who made my journey possible, and for a long time, the International Basketball Federation, also known as FIBA, had a rule against headgear on the court. So for those who don't know the story, can you explain a bit about how that rule was lifted? [00:10:36][55.3]

Batouly Camara: [00:10:37] Yes. So a group of women, one of which was my really close friend Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, wanted to go play basketball professionally, and there was a ban against any headgear on. And essentially, it was a safety thing, and there were a ton of resources and documents that said that no one had ever been hurt wearing a headgear and that this was a rule that was honestly policing women's body and policing sport as a whole. But they had signatures. They went with international lawyers, and it was a huge, huge process for them. And I think over two years it took for them to get the hijab ban lifted as well as, you know, all international and all religious headgear and any campaign gear, essentially. That was a really big step for them, and it was interesting for that to be a full circle moment as I was in college and struggling with my hijab journey to see, you know, Bilquis go through her journey of not being able to play the game she loves and switched into a role of coaching. And then once I got to Spain, I remember the first day I was there she called me and said, "Spain was my dream country. Spain was where I wanted to go, and I'm so happy that you're there." And I said, "I'm so happy you fought that fight two years ago for me to be here." So it was a really beautiful full circle moment. [00:11:49][71.6]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:11:51] You're listening to The Long Game from Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. I'm your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. And now back to my conversation with Batouly Camara. You're the daughter of immigrants and your parents came to the United States from Guinea in the 1990's. What did your mother teach you about opportunities for girls and women in your home country? [00:12:19][27.4]

Batouly Camara: [00:12:21] My mom taught me at an early age that the opportunities were extremely limited. Celebrated, but limited. If you're a young girl growing up, you had two options and the first was to be a wife. That was your primary identity. That is what you strive to be. And the second was, was a mom. And the third would probably be a domesticated worker. And that -- that was it. And so opportunities are very limited for girls. And it wasn't until I started playing sports that I realized that women had other identities outside of those three. [00:12:55][34.0]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:12:56] I know that for me, fencing was a part of my life, because it allowed me to kind of exist as my true self, as an athlete without having to change parts of my uniform in order to play. Can you talk about how basketball was freedom for you? [00:13:12][16.6]

Batouly Camara: [00:13:13] Basketball gave me the ability to rewrite my story. And so once I started playing basketball, I saw women not just, you know, in the house, but they were doing amazing things. They were on the court. They were, you know, entrepreneurs. They were doctors. And this was all on the space of sports. They were so multifaceted in so many ways, and I was intrigued by this. I was intrigued by women showing emotion, women coming together, you know, the sisterhood. And that's what really drew me to the game was this sisterhood and just this shared experience of amazing women. And in my background, I grew up with amazing women, and so now to see them in a different light was really, really inspiring and important for me. [00:13:50][36.8]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:13:52] So how has faith played a part in kind of fulfilling your parent's dream for you, you know, growing up in the states? And also how has sport played a part in that? Because I feel like those things really have created so much opportunity for you. [00:14:12][20.1]

Batouly Camara: [00:14:13] I am so thankful that my parents just wanted me, above all else, to be a good human. And my father was a doctor and my mother was an amazing businesswoman and she still is. But their biggest focus was how do we assist the community? And so growing up, our house was packed, and I would see my father taking individuals to the hospital where he worked, you know, if they just came from Guinea or any country that they came from, providing them with that medical assistance. And then my mother had a huge boutique, and she would hire everyone. So one day it'd be a hair braiding salon, then it'd be like a barbershop or whatever that person who came from our country needed. She would financially provide it for them and allow them to be an entrepreneur and allow them to start their small business right in her boutique, which was huge and so it had two stories. And so we grew up in service and grew up in kindness in that what you want for yourself is what you want for others and what you give. And so that is what transcended, that is what continued as I started to play sport. My mother never called me to ask me if I had a great game. She asked me, "Are you being a good person? Are you serving your team? Are you able to sleep at night knowing you are kind and you do the best that you could? Did you want for your sisters and your friends what you wanted for yourself? Don't forget what you grew up on. Don't forget how you grew up and what's important to us." And so those values helped me to be a great teammate and help me to weather storms. And of course, you know the faith they instilled in me in knowing who I was and whose I was. And I think that is the highest achievement I think I've ever tried to accomplish is to be who they wanted me to be. [00:15:52][98.5]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:15:55] I love that Batouly. One of my favorite quotes from my favorite athlete of all time, Muhammad Ali: "The service you do for others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth." And I think that that speaks so eloquently to like our faith as Muslims, right? This idea of constantly giving back and wanting to, you know, use the things that you're passionate about to help others. You took a trip to Guinea to run a basketball camp. How did that trip change your life? [00:16:29][33.6]

Batouly Camara: [00:16:31] When I went to Guinea in 2017 for the first time, I remember going to the stadium. And as a young girl, I always say my mom never shared, you know, bedtime stories. It was always a history lessons. It was fun facts. It was real life things about Guinea and where we were from even, you know, just growing up in New York City. And so once I got to Guinea, things were pretty clear. All of the stories came back to me. And then I heard from the girls, you know, what is your experience like here? And it was the same. It was, if, you know, I don't continue my education, I'm going to get married, and I'm going to start a family. And those are things that are amazing and are celebrated, but not necessarily for every age group. And the girls said, "We need an alternative. We just need an opportunity to fight for our dreams." And basketball can take us so far. Basketball can create other kind of jobs. It can allow me to be the head of my household. It can allow me to receive an education using sport as a catalyst for change. And so that was that moment in Guinea. Everything and all the stories that I've heard for the past 21 years came to life and then actually hearing it from the girls and it made me feel like, you know, this is my duty. And to have those girls say, "Well, now that I've seen you, I feel like it's possible and I've seen success in sport," I felt like it was my responsibility to not just instill hope, but actually access and resources and opportunity, which then led me to start my nonprofit, Women and Kids empowerment. [00:17:51][80.4]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:17:52] So Women and Kids Empowerment. I love your mission, Batouly. I know how important sport is, especially for women and girls. What are you hoping basketball will do for the youth of Guinea and the different communities that you work with? [00:18:10][18.0]

Batouly Camara: [00:18:12] I really hope that basketball can create transferable life skills for them that they can use everywhere. And so that was what it was for me. And even in the way that we create our programs, we have our women empowerment series that works on workshops or we have our basketball camps are in Guinea and New York or global camp or we go in with our resident trainers and have these huge camps that are usually two weeks or a month. Our biggest goal is for kids to have a safe space to play, to build community right where they are because they may not necessarily be connected to everyone around them. And also have resources that they can use to further their game or to just play. And I think that's so, so important. And so that's a big mission for us is continuing that. And right now we're working on infrastructure and creating basketball courts for kids to play and working on our second basketball court, which should be complete in December. But again, really making sure that kids understand that there are people who love them, who really want them to win and want to provide them with the access, resource and opportunity to be their best selves. And again, the main point to gain transferable skills that they can use throughout the rest of their life. [00:19:19][67.6]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:19:20] I know how important access is when we think about sport. There's so much privilege in growing up in the states and having the opportunity to go outside and play. And with the sport of basketball, the beautiful thing is all you need is a ball and a space to play. So your nonprofit, even creating space in Guinea for kids to play the sport that they love, we're hoping that there are a lot more Batouly's coming out of Guinea soon. [00:19:48][28.2]

Batouly Camara: [00:19:49] I think so. I think so. And it's powerful when you -- when you see a girl who's taller than you at a younger age. And she says, "I just need the opportunity to fight for my dreams," and then goes and shows you that every day. And so when you have those stories, it's hard not to be inspired. It's hard not to wake up and think of, "OK, what more can we do for them?" So I think there's a lot more better Batouly's coming. More just holistic women and are going to be change makers and blaze a way for the next generation of leaders in Guinea and around the world. [00:20:22][32.6]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:20:23] Inshallah. That's what we're hoping for. Batouly, we're both children's book authors, which I'm sure a lot of people don't know. Can you tell me a little bit about your children's book, A Basketball Game on Wake Street? [00:20:36][13.5]

Batouly Camara: [00:20:38] A Basketball Game on Wake Street is a book I wrote back in 2020, and I started writing it two years ago. I think two years is my mark these days. That's when I kind of know something is for me. And I started writing this book two years ago, and it was a book in my heart because, as a young girl growing up in New York City, you know, you see a lot of different things, but it was when I went to the library, it was when I read Matilda that I felt like I really traveled and I became a curious person and I wanted to know more. And I felt like the best way was through a book and going on a journey and getting to know people. And I wanted to trade that experience. I would go to Guinea and then I'd show my girls pictures of India, or I go to France and I show, you know, my -- my girls in France, my girls in Guinea or, you know, in New York. And, and I said, "What is the way for them to kind of build a relationship?" And that was through a book. Let me share these experiences, everybody in A Basketball Game on Wake Street is somebody that I know. And that book brings together a group of diverse girls with unique abilities together for a basketball game. And again, that was my experience in Spain. Everyone is, you know, different religious backgrounds. Everyone has different abilities, and we're coming together for a basketball game, and that was really important in that moment. This book is also in French and in Spanish, and we're working to create more languages just so that different girls around the world can say, "Wow, there are so many girls who play basketball, and I'm so thankful that I see myself in this book." And that's been the best reviews when young girls say, "I see myself. Thank you for seeing me and sharing me with the world." [00:22:11][92.9]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:22:13] That's so beautiful. I remember being a kid and not seeing characters that look like me. And so having the opportunity to create that work, which, by the way, two years is not a long time for a children's book, which I didn't know until, you know, embarking on that journey myself, but creating that opportunity for our kids to see themselves. But also, it becomes a window for others to see us, as well. Right? Seeing hijabi character, seeing brown characters on the pages is definitely expanding the minds of many. Eventually, and maybe someday soon, I hope we will no longer have to say that this person was the first to do this, or one of the first to do that. What do you hope changes as a result of the barriers that are being broken now? [00:23:03][49.9]

Batouly Camara: [00:23:04] I think you said it perfectly that there is no more first, that there is just the next and the greatest and the best, but no more first. And that makes me excited, because young people and changemakers want to take up space and they want to be in every space and have different interests and are so unique and are so dynamic. And that makes me really, really excited for the future. But I think you said it perfectly that there are no more firsts, just the next, just the best. [00:23:32][27.8]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:23:32] We have to acknowledge, you know, why firsts even happen, because there are barriers that were intentionally put in place, you know, to prohibit people who look like us from not only playing in sport but from existing. So dismantling, you know, those different rules and policies that are in place that affect underserved underprivileged communities, communities of color, really important. Which is why the work that you're doing, your presence, creating space for people who look like us to exist and thrive and to believe that their dreams are possible is so important. Batouly, thank you so much for the work that you are doing, for the work you will continue to do, not just on the court, but more importantly, off the court. You are just a beautiful person who is really creating change, meaningful change, in our global community. [00:24:28][55.4]

Batouly Camara: [00:24:29] Thank you so much. That means more than you know to hear. And I thank you for being one of my first role models and someone who continues to inspire me every day and pushes me to do more and to use my platform in intentional ways. So thank you so much for everything that you do and everything that you are. [00:24:45][15.8]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:24:46] Batouly, appreciate you. [00:24:46][0.0]

Batouly Camara: [00:24:48] I appreciate you. Thank you so much. [00:24:50][1.3]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:24:52] That's it for this episode of The Long Game. I'm your host Ibtihaj Muhammad. The Long Game is a co-production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. This episode was produced by Karen Given with help from Dan Ephron, Rob Sachs, Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah, and Jigar Mehta. Make sure to follow us on Apple or your favorite podcast app, and please leave us a review. To learn more, subscribe to Foreign Policy, a global magazine of news and ideas, or visit Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation. Next week on the podcast, when South Africa was chosen to host the 1995 Rugby World Cup, it signaled the country's return to the international sports stage after the end of apartheid. But for the country's new leader, Nelson Mandela, the tournament was something more. It was a chance to help his young nation avoid catastrophe. [00:25:48][56.7]

Unidentified Speaker: [00:25:49] Mandela was very much aware of the need to try and solidify the foundations of the new South African democracy and avoid a civil war. [00:25:59][9.2]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:26:01] That's next time on The Long Game. [00:26:01][0.0]

Whenever an athlete steps onto a field, court, or fencing strip, they bring with them all that they are: their background, their lived experiences, and their religion. But for some athletes, their faith is a bit more visible than it is for others. As a college basketball player, Batouly Camara made three Final Four appearances with the University of Connecticut. She’s the daughter of immigrants, a children’s book author, and the founder of Women and Kids Empowerment (WAKE Academy). Its a nonprofit dedicated to helping women and girls get access to sports and education. And if that’s not enough, she’s also one of the first Muslim women to play professional basketball wearing a hijab.

Episode 5

How Rugby Helped Unify South Africa

+ReadClose transcript

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:00:00] When Nelson Mandela came into power in 1994, South Africa officially became a democracy. [00:00:05][5.0]

Nelson Mandela: [00:00:05] We enter into a covenant that we shall build a society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to talk tall without any fear in their hearts. Our rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world. [00:00:24][18.5]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:00:25] But it wasn't until the following year and an international sporting event that the country really came together. [00:00:30][5.1]

John Carlin: [00:00:31] A friend of mine said he was standing next to this bunch of sort of classic Right-Wing Afrikaners, wearing that sort of khaki outfits and drinking their brandies and cokes and how he just saw these guys, about half a dozen of them, all chanting Nelson's with gusto. Except for one of them who was so moved that he was just shedding tears and repeating to himself over and over, "That's my president, that's my president." And I think that sentiment of "that's my president" would have been echoed all around the country by thousands, if not millions of white South Africans who were watching that game. [00:01:10][39.7]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:01:11] From Foreign Folicy and Doha Debates, this is The Long Game, a podcast about the power of sports to change the world. I'm your host Ibtihaj Muhammad. The 1995 Rugby World Cup marked the end of apartheid and South Africa's return to the international sports stage. The home team, the Springboks, weren't expected to go far. Instead, they won at all. And if that sounds to you like the kind of thing Hollywood would make a movie about, you're right. It's the story at the center of Invictus, the 2009 film directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. [00:01:50][38.9]

Clip from Invictus: [00:01:52] Welcome, Mr. President. Gentlemen, forgive me for interrupting your work a day before an important match, but I just wanted to come and wish you good luck in person. Sometimes, very seldom, as president, I am allowed to do what I want. Mr. President, this is --. Oh, I know who this is. Andre. good luck. Thank you, Sir. Brendon, good luck to you, Gavin, good luck ... [00:02:23][31.0]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:02:25] The movie ends with Nelson Mandela being driven away from the stadium, his car surrounded by overjoyed fans. But the true impact of that day -- and that game -- is still felt in South Africa today. Reporter Elna Schutz has the story. [00:02:41][15.8]

Elna Schutz: [00:02:43] Akona Ndungane was just a child when South Africa won the 1995 Rugby World Cup. But over a decade later, in 2007, the Springboks won again. [00:02:54][10.4]

Newsclip: [00:02:55] Less than one minute to go. South Africa destined to become the world champions twelve years after they won it the first time. [00:03:03][7.9]

Elna Schutz: [00:03:05] Akona was a player on the team. He remembers flying back to Johannesburg's O.R. Tambo airport after the win. [00:03:13][7.1]

Akona Ndungane: [00:03:14] I think as a South African, and I speak on behalf of everyone that was there in 2007, you actually realize what it meant when you land back in O.R. Tambo and then you see, you know, the people that come and cheer for you. You know, everyone -- black, white, colored -- just all wearing the green jersey and just happy. [00:03:36][21.8]

Elna Schutz: [00:03:38] Akona felt the unity and pride in the country, not just on the official tour, but back in his smaller hometown, Mthatha. [00:03:45][7.0]

Akona Ndungane: [00:03:46] The former president of my dad's club arranged sort of like a tour for me to go back to Mthatha with my winning medal to just drive around in a bakkie -- [00:03:58][12.0]

Elna Schutz: [00:03:59] A bakkie -- that's the local slang for a small pickup truck. [00:04:02][3.2]

Akona Ndungane: [00:04:03] You know, you can see that it meant a lot to the people as well. And, you know, just to interact with the people -- [00:04:10][7.2]

Elna Schutz: [00:04:11] Imagine Akona, this broad-shouldered man with a warm smile and shoulder-long dreadlocks driving through the streets, waving to kids and people who can now see someone like them come home victorious. [00:04:25][14.2]

Akona Ndungane: [00:04:26] -- and just to show them, "Yes, I come from Mthatha. It's a very small place in the country, but anyone can come out of the place like that and go and represent the Springboks in the world. So, so it gave hope, I believe, to youngsters from Mthatha. [00:04:44][18.1]

Newsclip: [00:04:45] It's great to know that all the people in South Africa is behind us. And lot of blacks here. Yeah, yeah. [00:04:48][3.1]

Elna Schutz: [00:04:52] Being a black South African player and part of the champion team? That's something that Akona doesn't take for granted. Akona was one of six non-white players on the 2007 squad, and in 2019, when the Springboks won the cup again, they were led by their first black captain. [00:05:11][19.9]

Newsclip: [00:05:12] Siya Kolisi and South Africa. Rugby World Cup kings. [00:05:18][6.4]

Elna Schutz: [00:05:22] It wasn't always this way. [00:05:23][1.5]

Akona Ndungane: [00:05:24] You know, sometimes I even get emotional when I talk about it. And I think, you know, it starts to go back with the '95 World Cup, because for me, that's when I saw what it did in the country, because rugby was associated as a white sport. [00:05:39][14.9]

Elna Schutz: [00:05:40] Back in 1995, there was only one person of color on the squad. His name was Chester Williams. [00:05:46][6.4]

Akona Ndungane: [00:05:47] I think, as a black person, to see Chester Williams playing for the Springboks and scoring tries, it kind of gave me hope that, "OK, if he can do it, then there's a chance I can also do it." [00:06:01][14.6]

Elna Schutz: [00:06:02] Akona was young, just 14 when the Springboks played the New Zealand team. They were known as the All Blacks in the final. He wouldn't really understand what the game meant for many years afterwards. Still, he remembers it being a big deal. [00:06:18][15.5]

Akona Ndungane: [00:06:19] The hype around the Springboks winning and beating the All Blacks was for everyone to see and to understand. [00:06:25][6.6]

Elna Schutz: [00:06:26] But of course, Akona remembers that final. Every South African I know above a certain age has a memory of that day, including me. [00:06:35][9.0]

Akona Ndungane: [00:06:36] So what are your '95 memories that you have? [00:06:39][3.4]

Elna Schutz: [00:06:40] So I -- I was very young. I was five. [00:06:43][2.9]

Akona Ndungane: [00:06:44] Ouch. [00:06:44][0.0]

Elna Schutz: [00:06:47] [Laughs] I'm sorry. [00:06:47][-0.0]

Akona Ndungane: [00:06:47] [Laughs] No problem. [00:06:47][0.0]

Elna Schutz: [00:06:49] So my memory, I have a memory -- but I'm not 100 percent sure -- which is at that time, if you wanted to watch the game, I think you had to -- one of the options was to watch on DCV, which is like cable TV, I suppose. And we had it, but not all of sort of the people in the neighborhood did. So we would be the family where all of the uncles and aunts would come over. And so I have a memory of being a very young child and sitting in our living room with sort of everyone and having the snacks and like knowing that something big is happening, b0ecause everybody is in our house. [00:07:31][42.0]

Elna Schutz: [00:07:35] I want to take you back into that year, beyond the snacks and the cheering and the general joy of a World Cup, and explain why that tournament was and remains important to my country. 1995 was an exciting year for Rodney Nyathi. He was 17, about to finish high school, and looking forward to leaving his rural village to go study at university. With South Africa's first democratic elections just the year before, the racist political system of apartheid and laws restricting movement had been abolished. Rodney was now part of a new group of young people who could go to university wherever they wanted to. [00:08:18][43.5]

Rodney Nyathi: [00:08:20] It was a very, very beautiful year, because obviously I was looking forward to my admission to university, and Pretoria was my destination. [00:08:28][8.0]

Elna Schutz: [00:08:29] Pretoria was the capital, the seat of the previous government, and still culturally aligned to it. So Rodney was a bit tense about going there. [00:08:38][8.5]

Rodney Nyathi: [00:08:38] Of course, this was the different environment, an environment where you, as a black person at my age, will not just if even if you are lost in dirction will not generally approach a white person and ask for the direction. An environment where there was a lot of superiority complex and- inferiority complex. [00:08:58][19.1]

Elna Schutz: [00:08:58] But things were changing and happening, both in Rodney's life and in sports stadiums around the country. [00:09:04][5.5]

Rodney Nyathi: [00:09:05] And if you remember very well in anticipation of the World Rugby that was going to take place in the capital city some games and some in Johannesburg, the mood was very high, and we were living in great anticipation for this global showpiece. [00:09:21][16.0]

Elna Schutz: [00:09:22] For South Africa, this excitement was about far more than just being the host country. During apartheid, we had been excluded from competing internationally, and this was the big comeback. The fact that it was rugby in particular was also significant. [00:09:39][16.9]

Rodney Nyathi: [00:09:40] The sporting codes where so much of segregation way back then. Soccer was known to be the black sport, and rugby was more of a white sport. But the excitement was there, and I was looking forward to that, as well. [00:09:52][12.3]

Elna Schutz: [00:09:52] Staging a rugby tournament at a time when a more racially diverse government was stepping up was a bit risky and unusual to see. [00:10:02][9.4]

John Carlin: [00:10:02] Nelson Mandela had been president for one year. And Nelson Mandela's chief task as president was to cement the foundations of what was a young and fragile new South African democracy that was under threat, in particular from the right wing, from the far right. [00:10:28][25.4]

Elna Schutz: [00:10:28] John Carlin is a journalist and author. He wrote a book about this World Cup called Playing the Enemy, which was adapted into the movie Invictus. [00:10:37][8.7]

John Carlin: [00:10:38] There were significant numbers of people -- white South Africans -- who were unhappy, fearful. They had been led to believe -- conditioned to believe -- through their lives that nothing would be more nightmarish and more detrimental to their interests than a black government. Nelson Mandela had been sold to white people as a fearsome terrorist. [00:11:03][24.7]

Elna Schutz: [00:11:04] The new government was fragile, and the situation could have easily turned violent. [00:11:08][4.6]

John Carlin: [00:11:09] Yeah, it was a time of hope for South Africa, of course, with Mandela as president. But it was also a time of anxiety. And Mandela was very much aware of the need, as I say, to try and solidify the foundations of the new South African democracy and avoid what was still then perceived as the peril of a civil war and certainly not a full-on civil war, which was the worst case scenario, South Africa being submitted to a terrorist war by by the far right. [00:11:48][38.5]

Elna Schutz: [00:11:48] Nelson Mandela had learned about rugby during his time in prison. He used the sport as a way to connect with the prison wardens and government officials he was trying to negotiate with. Now that he was president, he was using the sport again deliberately. He and the African National Congress Party had agreed to host the Rugby World Cup before taking power, knowing its potential importance. [00:12:12][23.8]

John Carlin: [00:12:14] You know it's as if Mandela said, "OK, if you behave well and let us have the elections and respect the election results, then we're going to give you a present in exchange and that will be the Rugby World Cup." And so people, white people in particular, were very, very pleased about this. Black people were much more hesitant and saying, "You know, what the hell's going on? Why are we hosting this competition of the sport, which we hate so much, in particular, at the center of which is going to be the South African national team, the Springboks, which for us has always been a point of sort of dicord, an object really of hate, symbolizing all the racial discrimination we've endured for so long." [00:12:54][40.1]

Elna Schutz: [00:12:55] Previously, black people, if they watched rugby at all, would usually support whoever the national team the Springboks was playing against. Now, Mandela had to convince his own party, as well as the country at large, that it was a good idea to unite behind the South African team as one. [00:13:14][19.4]

John Carlin: [00:13:15] So there were obviously mixed feelings about this, but Mandela had given his blessing to the World Cup being staged in South Africa. And, you know, the vast majority of black people accepted Mandela not only as their leader, but as their hero, as their idol, and were willing to go along with it, even if they might have been a little bit perplexed as to what their sentiments might be once the World Cup start, whether they would actually continue with the old attitude of wanting the rival teams to win or whether now, at last, for the first time they actually want the South African national team to win. And that was a question that was very much in the balance as the World Cup drew closer. [00:13:57][42.1]

Elna Schutz: [00:13:58] Mandela connected with the team directly, starting with Francois Pienaar, the team captain. That's Matt Damon in Invictus, if you've seen the movie. [00:14:06][8.5]

Clip from Invictus: [00:14:06] Francois, what an honor. [00:14:10][3.4]

Elna Schutz: [00:14:11] Months after taking office, President Mandela invited Francois for tea at the Union Buildings. That's the seat of government. [00:14:18][6.9]

Clip from Invictus: [00:14:19] Thank you for coming all this way to see me. Yes, sir. Thank you for inviting me, Mr. President. [00:14:23][3.5]

Elna Schutz: [00:14:23] He may not have said it directly, but it was clear that Mandela was hoping Francois would be his champion to win the World Cup as a signal of unity. [00:14:32][8.4]

Clip from Invictus: [00:14:33] Tell me, Francois. What is your philosophy on leadership? How do you inspire your team to do their best? By example. I've always thought to lead by example, sir. Well, that is right. That is exactly right. [00:14:48][14.9]

Elna Schutz: [00:14:52] The day before the first game., Mandela made it more personal by visiting the squad during training. Francois addressed the media. [00:14:59][7.0]

Francois Pienaar: [00:15:00] Tomorrow, we know there's one guy in the stand that we have to play for, and that's the president. [00:15:03][2.8]

Rudolf Straeuli: [00:15:04] It wasn't planned. Never felt like a PR exercise. It felt like it was real. It felt like it was genuine. [00:15:11][6.5]

Elna Schutz: [00:15:11] This is Rudolf Straeuli. He was one of the Springbok players who was greeted by President Mandela that day. [00:15:17][6.0]

Rudolf Straeuli: [00:15:18] We were obviously underdogs and nobody expected us to really win the World Cup. We were just trying out, we're just privileged to be in that moment. [00:15:28][9.4]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:15:29] You're listening to The Long Game, from Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. And now back to the South African Springboks and the 1995 Rugby World Cup. [00:15:42][13.3]

Elna Schutz: [00:15:43] The Springboks adopted the slogan "One Team, One Country' for the cup. As the games went on, the Springboks had some wins and some losses, but the underdogs made it through all the way to the final. The big game took place at Ellis Park at the center of Johannesburg. Rudolph is now the CEO of the Lions Rugby Company, who play in that stadium. It is now called the Emirates Airline Park. So, to give me a better sense of that final, he and I get into a golf cart and take a bit of a ride. [00:16:15][31.9]

Rudolf Straeuli: [00:16:16] This is all main entrance where the buses stop, where the players drop off. [00:16:21][5.2]

Elna Schutz: [00:16:21] We head through the bottom of the building, which is eerily quiet on an ordinary day during a pandemic, and through the tunnel that Rudolph and the players walked onto the field. We stop in the middle of the pristine green patch and relive the moment a bit. Just a note here: Rudolph calls President Mandela by his clan name, Madiba, which is usually an endearing sign of respect. [00:16:46][24.4]

Rudolf Straeuli: [00:16:47] You could see the presidential box. Madiba was sitting up there with those maroon [?], and obviously that's where your VIP sitting. But the stadium was full. It was more than 60,000 people. It could take 62, but I think on the day, I think there was more than 70,000 people there. [00:17:10][23.3]

Newsclip: [00:17:11] What dramatic moment here at Ellis Park. I don't think I've ever seen so many flags in one stadium. [00:17:16][5.1]

Elna Schutz: [00:17:17] And what did the crowd look like? Was it a mix of races? [00:17:21][3.3]

Rudolf Straeuli: [00:17:22] It was a mixed crowd. Obviously, a majority was still white, but I mean, it was a mixed crowd. [00:17:27][4.4]

Elna Schutz: [00:17:27] Imagine a stadium filled to the brim with people. [00:17:30][2.8]

Newsclip: [00:17:32] 62,000 people that have crammed into the stadium. [00:17:35][2.5]

Elna Schutz: [00:17:35] It's already vibrating with the energy of excited fans, with the colorful new flag of the country, and the Springbok green and gold. And then out of nowhere, a Boeing 747 drops over the stadium, almost too close. [00:17:51][15.5]

Rudolf Straeuli: [00:17:57] From this side over to that side. And, you know, you could hear the eruption of people. [00:18:02][5.0]

Elna Schutz: [00:18:05] "Good luck, Bokke," -- that's another nickname for the team -- was painted on the underside of the plane. [00:18:10][5.3]

Rudolf Straeuli: [00:18:11] It was sort of another jaunt and another sort of would say that it was maybe a commercial trick, but it worked. [00:18:21][9.6]

Elna Schutz: [00:18:22] It was a clever trick. And then, as if that wasn't exciting enough, the new black president steps out onto the field to greet the almost entirely white team, and he is wearing not just a team jersey, but captain Francois Pienaar's number six. [00:18:40][18.4]

Newsclip: [00:18:41] Dr. Nelson Mandela, the president of South Africa, fully clad in the rugby jersey with a number six on its back of Francois Piennar, being introduced to the match officials of ... [00:18:51][10.5]

Elna Schutz: [00:18:51] The Springbok colors had almost been retired, but Mandela had pushed to keep them. So him wearing it now was a clear sign that he is the people's president, regardless of who they used to cheer for. There's even chanting for him from the crowd. "Nelson, Nelson." [00:19:10][18.9]

Elna Schutz: [00:19:13] Rodney, the 17 year old who was planning to go to Pretoria to study, watched the game in a bar, his first ever time really in one, surrounded by white people celebrating with them their sport. Now, supposedly, all of their sport. [00:19:28][15.4]

Rodney Nyathi: [00:19:29] It was sort of like a public holiday. It was sort of like, "Leave everything that you do and the nation should unite." 43 million people should unite behind the people that are on the pitch to defend our nation. [00:19:41][11.8]

Newsclip: [00:19:42] It seems like New Zealand will kick off, but what a what an unbelievable, spectacular year in Johannesburg. I think it's the whole theme of the thing, the vibes coming into the field. Everyone is so keen and full of looking forward to something that nobody really knows what's going to happen. Two evenly matched teams ... [00:19:58][16.6]

Elna Schutz: [00:19:59] Then, like in any game, the national anthem gets played. When the new country needed an anthem to represent it, some people wanted to scrap the old apartheid song, Die Stem, completely. Instead, Mandela and others pushed for the anthem to be rewritten in the languages spoken by its many different cultural groups and tribes. In the end, it's a mix of five languages representing different parts and people of South Africa. [00:20:27][27.6]

Rodney Nyathi: [00:20:28] You could see the kind of emotions that comes with the singing of a national anthem. We were not used to singing the anthem. [00:20:35][6.7]

Elna Schutz: [00:20:36] Would you do me a great honor and hum or sing our ahnthem. [00:20:39][3.1]

Rodney Nyathi: [00:21:06] [Sings South Africa National Anthem] [00:21:06][0.1]

Elna Schutz: [00:21:08] This moment gives me chills. I know it might seem cheesy now, and in some ways it is, but me, as a white person, sitting in Rodney's house, reminiscing and singing the anthem with him about how God should bless South Africa, that kind of thing was not freely possible before 1994. And, in a way, it was not possible before the Rugby World Cup. [00:21:32][24.3]

Rodney Nyathi: [00:21:33] [Singing South Africa National Anthem] And if you look at these, you could see that the anthem -- it's not only raising the curtain for the rugby to start, but this anthem is calling upon the nation to unite. But also, the anthem was to tell the world that, "Welcome come to South Africa, and we're about to show you a thing or two on the pitch." [00:22:12][39.2]

Newsclip: [00:22:13] Well, what does Zealand have in store for South Africa with a kick off? It's a short one, it doesn't carry 10 meters. [00:22:18][4.6]

Elna Schutz: [00:22:19] Now let's get to the actual game part. The Springboks were up against the New Zealand All Blacks. You may know them. They're famous for their intimidating players and performing the haka before every game. [00:22:32][13.6]

Rodney Nyathi: [00:22:33] So I remember: we're not the first to score a try. [00:22:35][2.5]

Elna Schutz: [00:22:36] New Zealand scored first. [00:22:37][1.2]

Rodney Nyathi: [00:22:39] So when you see the first try scored against you, it's it's like, "No. I wonder if this is going to go through." And I still remember they scored the second one again, before we even can. So your mood swings are high and low in the very same game, because the next moment you score that try, then the next moment they equalize. [00:23:01][21.2]

Elna Schutz: [00:23:02] South Africa jumped forward, but by full time it was equal. [00:23:05][3.5]

Rodney Nyathi: [00:23:11] My heart was nearly choked when the final whistle was blow, and it was a tie. And remember here, we're playing the All Blacks. [00:23:17][6.0]

Elna Schutz: [00:23:25] Rodney says it felt like the team was playing for the whole country, not just those in the stands. The game was pushed into extra time for the first time in a Rugby World Cup final. [00:23:37][11.4]

Rodney Nyathi: [00:23:38] But in the end of the day, it was a glorious day for all of us as South Africans. [00:23:42][3.9]

Elna Schutz: [00:23:43] Because of that drop kick? [00:23:43][0.3]

Rodney Nyathi: [00:23:44] Because of that drop kick. [00:23:45][0.8]

Elna Schutz: [00:23:47] There were several dropkicks during the game. That's when you let the ball bounce before kicking it up and over the goal posts, scoring three points. But the one Rodney and I are talking about was by Joel Stransky, just a few minutes before the end of extra time. [00:24:03][16.1]

Newsclip: [00:24:04] Back it comes to Stransky. Up goes the kick. [00:24:04][0.0]

Elna Schutz: [00:24:20] Rudolf Straeuli and I drove on the Ellis Park Stadium grass, and he shows me where it all happened. [00:24:25][5.4]

Rudolf Straeuli: [00:24:27] The winning moment was -- I'll show you. The drop goal was more or less from here. [00:24:32][5.0]

Newsclip: [00:24:32] That is it. The final whistle in South Africa win this Rugby World Cup by 15 points to 12. What a dramatic finish ... [00:24:42][9.1]

Rudolf Straeuli: [00:24:44] After the end whistle blew, we got together in a circle and we prayed just about all this. So it was quite powerful all this. We went down on our knees. [00:24:58][14.2]

Elna Schutz: [00:24:59] The jubilation was not just in the stadium, but throughout the whole country, with people of all races hugging and cheering in ways they normally wouldn't. The bar Rodney was in went wild. [00:25:11][11.4]

Rodney Nyathi: [00:25:12] Beers were spilling all over, not, not intentionally, because now when the emotion is seizing you, whatever is next to you will just spill out of joy. And there was no time to quarrel with your neighbor. [00:25:23][11.3]

Newsclip: [00:25:24] They're so delighted, and there will be parties tonight. [00:25:26][2.2]

Elna Schutz: [00:25:28] But it's not just about that one game. Something shifted in the political and cultural mood of the day. [00:25:34][6.1]

John Carlin: [00:25:35] The truly important thing was that it was the consummation of a five year task by Mandela to win over white South Africa, to persuade them that he was on their side, that he was a legitimate president, that democracy was okay, that it was okay for black people and everybody to vote. And most of all, he achieved through that World Cup what was the central mission of his presidency, which was to consolidate the fragile young democracy. After that Rugby World Cup final, it was simply not possible that South Africa would go to war. It was simply not possible that a significant sector of the white population would rise up against Mandela's democracy, because they would simply lack the support required among the white population at large. So that game, it should not be seen in isolation when Mandela had been working on this, had been a wooing white South Africa for five years. If he hadn't done all his preparatory work, if he hadn't sent out conciliatory messages to white South Africans, then that Rugby World Cup would not have had anything like the same political effect. It's not something that happened, you know, in isolation. It was the sort of the culmination of a whole leadership process that Mandela had been very deliberately engaged in for five years. [00:27:01][85.5]

Elna Schutz: [00:27:02] Politically uniting groups of people that had been so deliberately divided by giving them voting rights and more equal opportunities is one thing, but actually getting people to feel equal to consider each other on the same side, that shift is harder to make. And it has to start somewhere. The last 27 years of South Africa's democracy haven't been all smooth sailing. There are significant challenges in the country, and some now look at the "rainbow nation" narrative of the 90's as overly simplistic. It also shifted things for many people on a personal level. Remember Rodney, the teenager nervous about studying now sitting in a bar with white people watching their sport? [00:27:48][45.5]

Elna Schutz: [00:27:49] You were getting ready to go to university in Pretoria? Did that moment change anything? [00:27:55][5.5]

Rodney Nyathi: [00:27:56] It did. It did change. It brought a lot of confidence. You get to know that we are living together as a nation. White is a color, it's not a human being. It gave me the confidence to say, "I'm going out to pursue my dream, and I cannot be stopped from achieving what, because my dream can only be achieved when I'm at a certain location." I came to Pretoria, and pursued my studies. And after that I started to work and live with white people. I'm living now in a community where my neighbors -- back-opposite, front-opposite, left, right -- are white people, people who so kind of heart, kind of spirit, and kind with your own deeds. But then if you look this personally, it gave me that confidence to say, "Surely there's nothing to be scared of." We no longer have what you call the so-called "white careers." We no longer have the so-called "white locations." We living as one and sort of the umbilical cord has been ripped off, and I'm free now. The sky is the limit. [00:29:04][68.5]

Elna Schutz: [00:29:05] Rodney's son, Lungelo Nyathi, is about the same age as his dad was in 1995. We now chat to him about rugby. It's quite a different conversation. For him, the decision to play rugby in school had nothing to do with politics and presidents. [00:29:21][15.9]

Lungelo Nyathi: [00:29:22] It all started in grade five. My Afrikaans teacher saw that I was a bit taller than my peers, and then he recommended that I play rugby. I was not into it at first, but then the girl that are sitting next to me said that she would come and watch me if I played. So obviously, I then decided to play rugby. [00:29:41][19.4]

Elna Schutz: [00:29:42] And yet, even for Lungelo, there's something special here. So me and your father have been talking a lot about the past and rugby in 1995, what rugby has meant for the country and for race relations. What do you think about all of that? Does it ever cross your mind? [00:30:00][18.3]

Lungelo Nyathi: [00:30:03] Not really. Maybe one. But the term that I really thought about it was when I was just scrolling on Instagram one day and I came across this quote. I don't know who came up with the quote, but it said that if it wasn't for sport, we would still be having world wars. And this quote really said a lot because of what sport, how sport unifies us all. Yeah, like especially when I think about the teams that I've played in, sometimes when I look at those guys, I'm like, if it was just a normal day, I don't think I'll ever talk to this person. But then on the field we're best friends, and it's -- it's quite shocking. Yeah, that that's what I appreciate most about the sport, the way it brings people together and how it unifies us. [00:30:47][44.3]

Elna Schutz: [00:30:47] Lungelo is aware of this, how sport unites, now. But so was the man at the center of the story. In 2000, Nelson Mandela spoke about the power of sport in a speech at the Laureus World Sports Awards. [00:31:01][13.9]

Nelson Mandela: [00:31:02] Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination. [00:31:24][21.9]

Elna Schutz: [00:31:26] For the people of South Africa, the 1995 Rugby World Cup was more than just a sporting event. The moment mattered for my country, and in some ways it changed us. [00:31:38][11.9]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:31:44] That's it for this episode of The Long Game. I'm your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. The Long Game is a co-production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. This episode was produced by Elna Schutz and Karen Given, with help from Dan Ephron, Rob Sachs, Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah, and Jigar Mehta. Next week on the podcast, in 2003, Honey Thaljieh co-founded the first ever Palestinian women's national football team. But representing Palestine in international competition was not going to be easy. [00:32:18][33.8]

Honey Thaljieh: [00:32:19] To tell you how this affected our results, our achievement, of course it did, because how can we meet in one place on one stadium when girls from Ramallah and Jerusalem and Jericho and Bethlehem can't meet in one place without being delayed at checkpoints and borders? But also like the infrastructure, you can't even build a normal football pitch, because then you need to have the authorization from the Israeli authorities. You can't build on areas, because it's split between Area B and A and C: A for the Palestinians, B it's mixed, and C for the Israel -- it is so complicated at all level. Like, it's even like hard to to like for people to understand it. [00:33:01][41.8]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:33:01] That's next week, on The Long Game. Make sure to follow us on Apple or your favorite podcast app, and please leave us a review to learn more. Subscribe to Foreign Policy, a global magazine of news and ideas, or visit Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation. [00:33:01][0.0]

The 1995 Rugby World Cup marked the end of apartheid and South Africa’s return to the international sports stage. The home team—known as the Springboks—weren’t expected to go far. Instead, they won it all. And if that sounds to you like the kind of thing Hollywood would make a movie about, you’re right. It’s the story at the center of Invictus, the 2009 film directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. The movie ends with Nelson Mandela being driven away from the stadium in Johannesburg, his car surrounded by overjoyed fans. But the true impact of that day—and that game—is still felt in South Africa today.

Episode 6

How a Palestinian Female Soccer Player Started a Movement

+ReadClose transcript

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:00:02] In 2003, Honey Thaljieh co-founded the first ever Palestinian Women's National Football Team. That's "soccer" to us Americans. From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates, this is The Long Game, a podcast about the power of sports to change the world. I'm your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. Honey Thaljieh isn't just a gifted athlete. She's a leader, a rebel, a breaker of barriers. Now retired from competition, Honey works as a manager of corporate communications for FIFA. She recently told her story to reporter Ken Shulman. [00:00:40][37.9]

Honey Thaljieh: [00:00:44] So my name is Honey Thaljieh. I was born in Bethlehem, Palestine. Well, I have a big family, so we are five: two brothers, two sisters—I'm in the middle—together with my parents. We grew up in a very small house, in a very old house, actually, in the narrow streets of Bethlehem, close to the church where it's believed Jesus was born. [00:01:08][24.7]

Ken Shulman: [00:01:11] Now you, you grew up in the 80s in Bethlehem. I know this is a very broad question, but what was it like in Bethlehem at the time politically with the occupation? [00:01:19][8.3]

Honey Thaljieh: [00:01:20] Well, I grew up in, I would say, in a war zone, right? Like my childhood was so completely different than other kids growing up in different environments around the world. And I know that my story is the same story as probably many kids growing up in difficult circumstances, conditions, political barriers, etc. So yes, I grew up in the 90s where the first war hit already in 1988, and then it continued. It never stopped. Every time we think that I grew older, something would change, the situation would be better, the future will arise, but unfortunately, from one war to another, from another tragedy to another catastrophe. All my childhood was spent in fear, injustice, inequality, and insecurity, because I grew up knowing that tomorrow might never come because of the situation. So it's really outstanding. It's horrible. I never wish that any child will grow up in such a childhood, because sometimes it's just traumatized you all your life. Or sometimes it makes you stronger and give you the opportunities to fight and try to change your life and wish for a better future for others. [00:02:40][79.2]

Ken Shulman: [00:02:41] Can you recall one of the more specific incidents that were truly traumatizing, terrifying when you just realized that this was not a childhood that anyone would want? [00:02:50][9.4]

Honey Thaljieh: [00:02:51] I mean, absolutely. Raiding our house was—was an issue, you know, in the first and second intifada, I was still a teenager and before that as a child, when soldiers and hundreds of soldiers raid your house and ask you to be out for no reason. I was sleeping, actually. And then my sister came and said, "Honey, the soldiers are in. Just get up." And I thought I was having a nightmare. So like, I couldn't even turn. I couldn't even bother to get out, because I thought it's just a nightmare. And then the voices has increased and the soldier was trying to push to see who is in sleeping, of course, because they were looking everywhere and trying to find anything that—I don't know what's in their heads. But anyway, so it's terrifying. It's—it's still like it comes with nightmares from time to time. It's a trauma that we lived through and have been through all our life. [00:03:49][57.6]

Ken Shulman: [00:03:50] At what point did you discover football? [00:03:51][1.2]

Honey Thaljieh: [00:03:53] So football—football was the actually the glimpse of hope that for one reason—from the universe or from heaven or from God—that I was talented and in this beautiful game. So we just basically had nothing to do as children. You know, we grew up with very limited resources. My parents were very, uh, coming from a very modest family. Their main mission was that they managed to get us fees to go to school. That is the one number one mission. The rest was not affordable. The only option was like just seeing the kids, my neighbors, the boys playing football in the street, in my neighborhood. And then I thought, why should I not join? And there, when I started joining them, I discovered my love to this game, and I found out that I was really good and I was talented, literally, like with my moves, with my running, with my skills, with tackling the ball. Yes, at that time, we didn't have a proper ball. It was mainly newspapers wrapped into each other, because the situation was not the best. And I found my freedom there. I found my, my dignity. I found myself, and I found that this is my world. [00:05:11][78.3]

Ken Shulman: [00:05:11] Do you remember the first time you tried to play with the boys in the street? [00:05:15][4.4]

Honey Thaljieh: [00:05:16] Of course, the first time I wanted to kick around with them, it was by chance, because I was passing by and then the ball comes to me and then I started dribbling with it, because I saw how people play football on TV. I grew up watching football on our black-and-white TV at that time with my father and my siblings. So I knew how it feels, so I started dribbling with the ball. And then the boys were like, "Oh my God," you know, like, "How come?" Because I'm sure at that time they never seen a girl playing football or dribbling with the ball. So at the beginning they were shocked, but at the same time, they were kind of happy. But they didn't want to show it that, oh, she could join us in playing in the streets. So it was a mixed feeling of their reactions, which I didn't see it until today, whether I'm a woman on the pitch or off the pitch. [00:06:13][56.6]

Ken Shulman: [00:06:14] How did your parents react? You, as a little girl—I know I'm sure they're incredibly proud of you now—but was there some resistance from your parents? [00:06:20][5.9]

Honey Thaljieh: [00:06:20] Well, you know, of course. I mean, when you start something that it is not common, it's always a challenge to accept something new, to accept someone stepping out of the comfort zone, trying to embrace something different in a society where it's believed what girls should do and what should not do. My mom has always been proud, and so she was supporting me at all level. She's my role model in that, because she understood that the society and the challenges and all that. But she—she knew that I developed a great passion for this game and I was good at it, because she was watching me at school and she was following me and encouraging me secretly actually, that my dad doesn't get angry. I wasn't allowed to go to the street from my parents and maybe from my dad. And of course, the challenge started when I said, but look, we are two girls and two boys in our family. When my, my brothers are in the street, he never said anything. And when I was in the street, it was like, "You should be home," and all this stuff. I'm like, "How can you justify that my brothers can play in the street while I am not allowed? What is—what is the reason?" I was believing that we were born equal, you know? And that's where my kind of revolution started and where I go and where I am since I'm little, grew up, I think as a rebel who needs answers for things that it is not convincing. And he never had a convincing answer, of course, like he would tell me, "Yeah, but girls shouldn't do that." Why not? Yeah, it's the culture. It's the mentality. Yeah, but so what? You know this word haram goes along all the way from the moment you are born until you die. This is haram. This is shame. You shouldn't do this. You know whether if you laugh loud or you sit differently or you dress differently or—or you are with the boys or you, know you, you show confidence. It's always the society that puts you into boxes and limits you the way that they want. [00:08:27][127.1]

Ken Shulman: [00:08:29] Did your father eventually come around, and how did he come around? [00:08:31][2.7]

Honey Thaljieh: [00:08:32] Of course, when he switched, my dad, it was one of the biggest event that we launched: the first league in Palestine in 2008, when the President of Palestine was there and the president of FIFA, at that time, and I was the captain of the Women's National Team. So and then it was this event in all of the newspapers. Of course, my dad took the newspaper and he was like, "Did you see my daughter? She's with the presidents of this." And, you know, so now he always keeps telling me, "Honey, please change the story." I'm like, "Well, I am here today thanks to you." You know, so I take this as an opportunity that without all these challenges, probably I am not the person who I am today, right? Because I was put under pressure, I was asked to not do things, and I was punished sometimes. But that's who made me who I am. So I think he became proud seeing that I am portrayed in TVs and magazines and newspaper, raising up the voice, fighting for other girls, fighting for humanity, fighting for rights, fighting—. So for me, football was the way, actually, to fight for a lot of issues. [00:09:48][76.4]

Ken Shulman: [00:09:49] Football was her way, a way that made her father proud, a way that gave her purpose that took her to Europe and the U.S., where she saw young people far from that tragic backdrop of war playing soccer on manicured grass fields smooth enough to shoot pool on. In 2003, she helped found the Palestinian Women's National Football Team. She was named its first captain. Her world was changing. Anything seemed possible. But representing Palestine on the pitch wasn't easy. [00:10:16][26.9]

Honey Thaljieh: [00:10:16] To tell you how this affected our results, our achievement, of course it did. Because how can we meet in one place on one stadium when girls from Ramallah and Jerusalem and Jericho and Bethlehem can't meet in one place without being delayed at checkpoints and borders? And how can we meet also the girls from Gaza? There's huge separation between the two regions, while it's only a maximum two hour's drive from from the West Bank to Gaza. So of course, like it doesn't give you the best talent of the people, because you can't select, you don't see the talent that exists in different places, in different cities. But also like the infrastructure. You can't even build a normal football pitch, because then you need to have the authorization from the Israeli authorities. You can't build on areas, because it's split between Area B and A and C: A for the Palestinians, B it's mixed and C for the Israelis—it's so complicated at all level. Like it's even like hard to do like for people to understand it. You know, like my sister lives in Jerusalem, and I'm not allowed to go and see her whenever I want, because I need a special permit from the Israeli government. And that is insane, because we just live 15 kilometers away from each other and whenever she needs to see us or need to see her, we need a specific reason to write and to apply. And that is really not human, even. And that affects all the sports, definitely, from infrastructure to free of movement to traveling to participate in tournaments and events. So we had to travel from Jordan all the time. Some, some of my teammates, they didn't even make it to participate in championships, because they were stopped and was asked to come back to return back. So we have to live up with all these challenges every single day in our life. [00:12:15][118.4]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:12:18] You're listening to The Long Game, from Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. I'm your host Ibtihaj Muhammad. Now back to our conversation with the co-founder of the Palestinian Women's National Football Team, Honey Thaljieh. [00:12:42][24.2]

Ken Shulman: [00:12:42] As captain of the—of the National Team, and as captain of other teams, were there times when your teammates just lost hope and you had to find a way to motivate them? [00:12:52][10.1]

Honey Thaljieh: [00:12:52] Of course. [00:12:53][0.2]

Ken Shulman: [00:12:53] That they would come to you and say, "What's the point?" And what was the point? [00:12:56][3.1]

Honey Thaljieh: [00:12:57] Of course. Of course, there's a lot of time, you know, we lost hope. We are also vulnerable human being, because of course, football helped to get us out from all these difficulties. But still, we—we come back home and there is much stuff, much bigger. That is the girl who can't have bread for dinner, for example, on their table. Or there's a girl can go to school, because the parents can't afford paying her for school. Or we have to walk distance, because there's no transportation or money to afford to do to get back home after a football training. And, and these difficulties, of course, make them lose hope, because also we didn't have enough equipment, support, financial means. So we say, "Why we are doing it?" But of course, our hope was that, no, we want to continue doing it, because this is how we deliver our message. This is how we show the world a different narrative, a different story about the Palestinian people, about the struggle we live. This is our voices for the outside world to show that we love life and we want to fight for it in a beautiful way, in a fair play in football, which is a just game, which is bringing people together, which is for all—regardless of your nationality, gender, background, whatever differences—that football brought us together. So it brought us to cry together, to laugh together, to smile together, to feel with each other. And that was our hope. When we come together, that was our happiness. Indeed, that was—we felt that we own the world. The world is ours, and in football, we believe that we are free, regardless of all the circumstances that surrounded us from every corner on every level. [00:14:47][109.8]

Ken Shulman: [00:14:49] But how did it come to your mind that sport was a way to express a narrative? [00:14:53][4.0]

Honey Thaljieh: [00:14:54] People sometimes ask me, "How many languages do you speak?" I said, English, Arabic and football. Yes, now a little bit German, but a football is definitely a language. When we go anywhere around the world and you say, "I come from football," people like are impressed and then they start—you start having a conversation. You'll make a lot of friends. Football, for me, it's my life and it has always been. And it's my community, it's my surrounding, it's my leisure time, it's my free time, it's my work, it's my—you know, so I breathe football, literally, because in sports, I felt like it gave me so many things. It built up my confidence. It made me fight a whole of a society and a whole of norms and traditions. It empowered me as a person, as a young girl, that I have a cause and through the sports, through the football, I can fight this cause. Because I said, football is justice, you know, football is a just game. So I thought with this game, I can build up on so many things and fight for others, as well, because it happened to me and I managed and I went through all the circumstances through all the odds and the impossibilities. I found it—I found a way where it's possible. And and then I started to believe that no, for me, it's not about just winning or losing. It's about much more than this. Yes, we didn't win any tournaments, I must say. We were amateur level. We were losing most of the time, actually, because we didn't have the capacity, the right infrastructure, equipment, coaches at that time, everything. Like it was very amateur, but we still participated in tournaments and events. But for us, it was putting Palestine on the map where I knew politically we are still not on the map, sadly speaking. I mean, the UN recognized Palestine as a state just recently with even like an observer state, not a fully state. So what politics couldn't do, football managed to do. And that's for me was the way to go forward. Football is our way. Football is, it's an instrument to fight all these challenges practices. Yes, of course, it's not going to change the world and make me have a free Palestine, which I wish one day, but it's definitely empowered—but it definitely empowered me and empowered so many girls, so many youngsters, to have a better future and to move forward. [00:17:29][154.5]

Ken Shulman: [00:17:29] In 2005, the team competed in the West Asian Football Federation Women's Championships in Jordan. Four years later, in 2009, Honey went back to Jordan, this time for a FIFA training course, and her world changed again. [00:17:44][14.4]

Honey Thaljieh: [00:17:45] While I was training, like my knee flipped and I heard the tick and and that was really like I was not aware of of the injuries at the time, because what would do I know about it? But then I thought, that's just a click. But I tell you, as we say in Arabic, I saw the stars in the day, you know. Then I thought, it's OK, so I started working on it, because three weeks after the Palestinian FA was organizing the biggest ever football match for women in a stadium for the first time on 11 sides, on the face of Hosseini Stadium, with 15,000 spectators, with FIFA presence, with world leaders. And I got injured just three weeks before that match, and this match was the match that I was waiting for since I started playing football. So for me, it was really one of the saddest moments in my life, because as I mentioned, football was everything for me. But it also taught me so many things. It taught me that, OK, we don't stop here. Now what's next? [00:18:56][71.6]

Ken Shulman: [00:18:57] So what was next? Honey had already inspired thousands of girls all over the world. She'd brought pride and dignity to her people. How do you follow that act? For Honey, the next act was a master's degree through FIFA that brought her and her message to England, Italy, and Switzerland and prepared her for the next chapter of her journey. [00:19:19][22.0]

Honey Thaljieh: [00:19:20] Changing perceptions, changing mindsets, telling them who we really are as Palestinians, because a lot of media portray us in a dark way that, you know, they don't cover the real truth about the Palestinian people and the potentials we have, the talent we have, the education we have, the personalities we have. So then I thought after the injury, that is also my goal, to carry this mission and to change the lives of girls not only in Palestine but beyond. [00:19:52][32.5]

Ken Shulman: [00:19:53] And Honey continues to pursue that goal with determination, with hope, and, as always, with a smile, even when she doesn't feel like smiling. [00:20:01][7.2]

Honey Thaljieh: [00:20:02] Of course. Definitely the political situation was overwhelming and still overwhelming for all athletes and people living still under occupation. You know, Palestine still under occupation since 1948, and things are not even improving or even developing. So we are losing hope step by step. Every time we think the Prime Minister change, things will change, you know, we are fed up. People want peace, people want justice, people want to go to work peacefully. We want a health environment. We want a free movement, which we don't have, and that's where it comes to how the political environment affected me as an athlete, definitely, because everywhere we go, there is a checkpoint. There is a wall that is a high, eight meters concrete wall. Like, if I go back to Bethlehem, I need two days traveling back to Bethlehem from Zurich while I can do it on three hours and a half from Zurich to Tel Aviv. But because I'm Palestinian, I don't have the right to. Because I live under occupation, I'm from the West Bank, I have a green I.D. The differences between the IDs, the plates of the cars—I have a car in Bethlehem. I cannot drive more than five kilometers with the car, because after that, there is a wall, there is a checkpoint. So you just go within a circle like a prison open from up. And that's what we are facing every day in our life. And it didn't change. I think in my opinion, it became worse, because the walls didn't even exist before 2003. [00:21:39][97.0]

Ken Shulman: [00:21:40] I'm thinking that when you were seven walking home and you first stopped to play with those boys, you didn't have any of this in mind. This evolved over time, and it's really very beautiful. [00:21:48][7.7]

Honey Thaljieh: [00:21:50] I knew growing up in a circumstances where you can be really miserable and frustrated and depressed, but I knew that also we need to understand that life is too short and we need to embrace every opportunity and be happy of what we have. And if we are not, we need to find a way to change it. So I consider myself as an activist for these topics, because I have been through them, literally. Like if you talk about patriarchy, I grew up in a patriarchal society. If you talk about football that it is mainly dominated sport, I played football all my life. If you talk about women in a macho society, in a boys club, I am a woman who is working in football and who has all been my life in football. So if you talk about human rights, whether it's in football or in societies, I have been through all the human rights issues that I had to grow up with every day in my life. My fight is for freedom, for justice, for equality, at all levels, whether it's for Palestinians or for people all around the world. Because I know what does it mean to go through all this. I have been through this. So if I have the power, just with the little power if I have it, I am ready to use all the capacity I have to influence, change, and inspire others for change. And football is my way. [00:23:15][85.3]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:23:23] That's it for this episode of The Long Game. I'm your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. The Long Game is a co-production of Foreign policy and Doha Debates. This episode was produced by Ken Shulman and Karen Given, with help from Dan Ephron, Rob Sachs Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah, and Jigger Mehta. Make sure to follow us on Apple or your favorite podcast app, and please leave us a review. To learn more, subscribe to Foreign Policy, a global magazine of news and ideas, or visit Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation. Next week on the podcast, Scout Bassett is a Paralympian, a five time world medalist, and most importantly, she's my good friend. And she has a message for other girls and young women living with disabilities. [00:24:12][49.3]

Scout Bassett: [00:24:13] A woman with a disability is beautiful, and she's not evil and she's not scary and a villain, and that she can be powerful and strong and you know all the things that she wants to be, because that's how I see myself. But—but I say that, because I didn't always feel that way about myself. [00:24:31][17.4]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:24:32] That's in two weeks, after the winter holiday, on The Long Game. [00:24:32][0.0]

Honey Thaljieh grew up in a battle zone. One day, on the streets of Israeli-occupied Bethlehem, she passed a group of boys playing soccer. By chance, they passed her the ball. Soon, Thaljieh discovered that she was a gifted athlete. But more than that, soccer became Thalijeh’s path to freedom and dignity. It took her to Europe and the United States, where she saw young people playing on manicured fields and living in peaceful conditions. In 2003, Thaljieh helped found the Palestinian Women’s National Football Team. She was named its first captain. Now retired from competition, Thaljieh works as a manager of corporate communications for FIFA.

Episode 7

The Unstoppable Spirit of Paralympian Scout Bassett

+ReadClose transcript

Unidentified Speaker: [00:00:00] OK, this is Scout Bassett interview rolling and recording. [00:00:02][2.1]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:00:06] I wanted to interview Scout Bassett for this podcast, because I am just in awe of everything that she has overcome, not just as an athlete but also as a person. Scout is such a force, and every time I have the opportunity to hear her speak, I'm always blown away by her tenacity, her resilience. But you know, honestly, just her storytelling. She takes you to those really early moments in the orphanage as a young child and having experienced such trauma in those really formative years of her life. She is such a strong person, but that strength is something that we can all teach ourselves to have to show up as, you know, your own superhero. From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates, this is The Long Game, a podcast about the power of sports to change the world. I'm your host Ibtihaj Muhammad. Scout Bassett is a Paralympian, a five-time world medalist, and most importantly, she's my good friend. Hi, Scout. [00:01:23][76.5]

Scout Bassett: [00:01:24] Hi, Ibti. It's so good to see you. [00:01:26][1.9]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:01:27] Good to see you too. You were born in China and didn't come to the United States until you were almost eight years old. Please tell the story of how you ended up in Harbor Springs, Michigan. [00:01:37][10.2]

Scout Bassett: [00:01:39] So as you said, I was born in Nanjing, China, which is about an hour and 15 minutes northwest of Shanghai. A city of about eight million people, so hardly a small town. That's where I lost my leg in a fire, and at a year and a half old, I was left on the streets of Nanjing, found, taken to a local police station in Nanjing, and then placed in the Nanjing orphanage. My only goal was just to survive another day, another meal, another—if there was another meal. There was absolutely nothing that gave me—that gave us any hope of a better life, of a future, of something else to look forward to. We didn't have access to television, books, TV, radio, music, nothing. So we lived these very isolated lives where we didn't see children growing up somewhere else doing other things or like, it sounds crazy but even if you asked me at that time, "Did you have any dreams?", I would say, "No." But I was so blessed that at almost eight years old, I was adopted by a couple from northern Michigan and brought to America, weighing all of 22 pounds and not speaking a word of English. So that's how I got here. [00:03:14][95.1]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:03:15] One thing I love about you, Scout, is just your positivity, even in the face of adversity. What was it like when you first arrived in the United States? I'd imagine it wasn't an easy transition, right? [00:03:27][11.8]

Scout Bassett: [00:03:29] Absolutely. I don't know why I'm like crying talking to you because I've known you so closely, but when I was adopted, lots of people think, "Oh, you must be so thrilled that here you are being, like, saved or rescued and brought to a country like America. Like, that's the dream, right?" And for me, I didn't even know what that was. I didn't know there was another life outside the orphanage. I never went outside, like, never left the premise of that orphanage, the walls of that place. So just the idea of trying to fathom going to America, having parents, a family was just beyond what I could even process. And I think people forget that when you've grown up in a certain environment, you are going through a process of being conditioned to think that that's normal. The other kids, the other orphans, are really your family, and you're having this shared experience of going through all this trauma together, and the idea of leaving behind the only thing I'd ever known, these other kids, it was devastating for me. And outside of the one time that my parents came to see me 10 months before they actually adopted me, I had never seen non-Chinese people, never even on TV or pictures or anything like that. So it was really terrifying, I think far more terrifying than what most people can even process. And it's not like they sat you down, the caretakers, and said, "Here's what's happening to you. This is about to happen. This is the process." There was none of that. It was one day this is all I'd ever known, and the next day, leaving the walls of that place for the first time, getting in a car, a plane, a train—not that any explanation of that would have really made sense, but it was really traumatic in itself. [00:05:39][130.6]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:05:43] I mean, I can only imagine, right, the trauma that you've experienced in your life. Scout, for a lot of athletes, sport becomes an outlet, an escape from trauma. Can you talk to me a little bit about your first experience in sports and how you got involved? [00:06:02][19.4]

Scout Bassett: [00:06:04] So let me paint this picture for you. I come to a small town of 1,600 people. I can count on one hand the number of minorities that lived in this small town. And I have a disability. I don't speak the language. So, I quickly realize I'm the foreigner and the other. And obviously this made it very difficult to socialize, to make friends. There's a language barrier, there's a cultural barrier. But I remember in second grade going to school and hearing the other kids talk about city league youth soccer and softball. I think it's safe to say neither my parents even really have an athletic gene in their DNA. We didn't even watch sports on TV, so I have even no idea what soccer and softball is, but I just remember them coming to school and talking about how much fun they had. So I go home and tell my parents I want to do soccer. And they were like, "Mmm OK, sure." And so I signed up for a sport every season of every year: soccer, softball, basketball, I mean, anything. And I didn't hardly ever play, like I came and worked and practice just as hard as everybody else. But when it came to the games or tournaments, I rarely ever got to play. In fact, there were many seasons where everybody else played but me, right? And this is at a time where it's like everybody's supposed to play and "You get a ribbon and you get a ribbon," and you know, except, like, that wasn't the case. And it's funny because, even though even in the orphanage I had a disability, I was unique in that way, it wasn't really until I grew up here that I realized how different my journey was going to be and difficult in many ways, because in many ways it was sports that magnified that I didn't belong. But part of me felt like, oh, if I didn't show up for a sport, they would think, "Oh, finally, like that girl with the missing leg, we don't have to deal with her anymore." And I think just the stubborn, like prideful part of me just did not want to give them that satisfaction, because you have to have a tremendous amount of strength, perseverance, of determination to show up, to exist in environments where you know that you're not wanted. And that's another lesson, right of just the importance of sometimes just showing up in life and what that can mean. [00:08:42][157.6]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:08:43] So important, those words, because that—that can apply to anyone. And it should apply to all of us, right? You don't have to feel welcome, even though we all should. [00:08:54][11.1]

Scout Bassett: [00:08:54] Yes. [00:08:54][0.0]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:08:55] Sometimes it, you know, things don't pan out that way. But I love your resilience in that moment to show up. And I mean, some may call it pride, but I call it, you know, you being resilient and you understanding how important spaces and equity is even when it comes to sport. But I'm hoping that you get to tell the story of your first race, because it's not something you really planned on doing. [00:09:21][26.3]

Scout Bassett: [00:09:22] No. In fact, I never had aspirations to do sports at an elite level. If I wasn't being included at this level, how am I going to be included at the next level? But I was 14 years old and this gentleman who has made my prosthetics since I was 12 years old—I see him all the way in Orlando, Florida—he told me, "Scout, I think you can run." And I remember looking at him like, "You're crazy," because I had never been able to run. I was struggling to do sports on my everyday walking prosthetic, which at this time was not high tech at all. And he's like, "No, no, there's these new running legs and feet." And, and he told me about this foundation called the Challenge Athletes Foundation that provides running prosthetics. I applied for a grant to get this running prosthetic, and he told me, "We're going to sign you up for this Paralympic-style track and field meet. Mind you, this is all been in one week, a first time running to this competition. The day of the race, we get there. This is at Disney's Wide World of Sports. We're not in, in small town, Michigan anymore. He had bought me this, like. little running outfit, right? Shorts, a little tank top. And I just had this like total meltdown, panic attack, like the whole like total snot, everything running down my face. And I was like, "I'm not doing this." And he said, "If I have to tell the race director to hold up this race, I will. Like, we are not leaving until you run this race." I was not afraid of actually running, I was afraid of being seen. Because up until I was 14, I had worn a cosmetic cover over my walking prosthetic. I don't know who I was born, because everybody knew I was the girl with the one leg, so. But there was some sort of security in sort of hiding behind that. And when you wear a running prosthetic in these shorts, there was no way to hide that. And that's what I was afraid of, is stepping out onto this track and the stands are filled and having to be seen for the first time with my prosthetic, all of it, uncovered. So I run the 60, and I came in last place by—a lot. But I had forgotten about all the things that I was afraid of. Like I thought I would run and people would be laughing or they would be staring or like, you know, giving me the pity clap. And maybe they were. But I didn't think about that. I just thought about the feeling of being able to run for the first time. And it was such an important,, transformational moment in my life, because from that point on, I decided that I would never be ashamed of what I look like, of where I come from, of my story, and most importantly, of the things that we cannot change about ourselves. All the chains that had held me down as a young girl when I ran, I felt like they were just lifted. And that's why I decided from that moment on, I would always run, but never thought I would do it at a a competitive level. [00:12:38][196.3]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:12:43] You're listening to The Long Game from Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. I'm your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. And now back to my conversation with Paralympian Scout Bassett. It's really clear that you have a level of determination that it seems like you can only buy in stores. I mean it, it's honestly, it's really remarkable how you are able to take these moments and turn them into transformational moments for yourself and, honestly, for others, especially for me as a friend, even just to hear your words. But I think a lot of people are still confused about what the Paralympics are and what an achievement it is to compete. Can you tell me, what did it take for you to get good enough to qualify for your first Paralympic team? [00:13:44][60.9]

Scout Bassett: [00:13:45] I was recruited by U.S. Paralympics when I was a sophomore at UCLA and decided to go for the Paralympics in 2012. I went to those trials and I got in last place in all the events. It wasn't like by a little, it was by a lot. And I remember being heartbroken and thinking to myself like, "Well, maybe I don't belong and maybe I'm not good enough," and sort of all the doubts and insecurities that you feel as, you know, a young girl. It's like, well, maybe it's just validated by, by this experience, right, by this result. And then I, one of the things that kind of happened around that same time is I was starting to mentor some other young kids with disabilities, and so many of them and their parents had written me and and said, "Oh, you're going to try again, right?" And I remember being like, "No way." Like, I'm so humiliated, right? But then I thought about how when I grew up, I didn't have older role models, women, even men, to look up to that were athletes with disabilities. You didn't see them on TV, they weren't on a Nike ad. And so I just remember thinking, I didn't want these kids to see somebody that they had looked up to fail and never try again. And the year before the Paralympics in 2015, I decided, alright, I have to go all-in, and I have to do whatever it takes to make this team. And so I found a coach at the Olympic Training Center in San Diego who was willing to coach me, and he said, "I will take you to the Paralympics. You just have to find a way to get here to practice every day." Well, at the time, I was too prideful to tell him that I didn't have a place to live, I didn't have money to, like, find a place to live. And so I, between my car and on my friends' couches and spare rooms, I did that leading up to the Rio Paralympic Games. And I went from, I think I was like 28th in the world to top five in six months. And that's how I made my first Paralympic team. It was wild. [00:16:08][142.8]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:16:10] Wild, to say the least. I always tell people, like, hardest thing I've ever done is just qualifying, right? And yeah, I mean, so take me to that moment competing at the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. What was it like to actually be there? [00:16:25][15.6]

Scout Bassett: [00:16:26] Well, I wish I had known you then, because we could have hung out, but I remember just being exhausted because of, you know, everything takes so long: to get food, to go to practice, to see the trainer. But the minute that the 100 meters came, they take you on the longest walk of your life around the track to the starting line. And I remember just tears streaming down my face, like tears of such joy. Like, you know, you think about your journey and the things that you have walked through and lived through in your life and, and never in a million years could you ever script that you would go from being left on the streets and growing up in an orphanage to competing at the Paralympic Games. It was just like a super emotional moment and hard to go from that to like, OK, now I need to actually kick some ass here [Laughs] [00:17:24][57.5]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:17:25] Yeah [Laughs] [00:17:26][0.5]

Scout Bassett: [00:17:29] Might have been a bit much for that moment. [00:17:30][1.2]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:17:31] Well, I don't think anything prepares you for that moment of competing, you know, at the games, You can either have an experience like you had where, you know, it makes you emotional. For me, I felt like a bit deer in the headlights and kind of had to find, you know, even my voice, as you know, like in my sport, voice is so important, you know, just to get yourself going. But this past summer, you participated in the games as an analyst for NBC. NBC has aired a record number of hours from the Paralympic Games in Tokyo, but that still doesn't come close to the number of hours the network airs from the Olympics. Why do you think it's important for fans at home to be able to watch these events? [00:18:14][43.6]

Scout Bassett: [00:18:17] We all go through challenges and struggles, adversity, and I find that in each one of the stories and the athletes, you can find a piece of yourself in them. But it's also really compelling to see a race and a competition and see how close and competitive and talented. And as we get better about the storytelling aspect and getting these athletes out, elevating them, lifting them up where you know, you watch and you, you sort of feel a connection to somebody. I think that's just going to grow the movement and the sport forward. But it can also teach us, most importantly, a valuable lesson of what it means to talk about disability, what that looks like, especially for, for kids, right? As you're sitting down with your family and kids are curious and they want to know, well, why does she look like that or why does she have that prosthetic or why does she run that way? I think it's really important to engage young kids into these conversations so that when they see somebody like me at a supermarket, they're not fearful, they're not screaming, but they will have seen it before, and think like, "Oh, that's really cool." And if they want to ask questions, then to do so as opposed to being afraid. [00:19:34][77.7]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:19:35] And it's important, you know, you speak about children, it's important for adults, too, right, for us to understand how to interact, you know, with one another, what's appropriate and what's not appropriate. Scout, last July, you were on the cover of Self Magazine. My favorite cover of all time. You talked a lot about wanting to change the way people see amputees, especially how female amputees see themselves. What do you want people to see when they look at you? [00:20:11][35.7]

Scout Bassett: [00:20:12] Oh, thank you so much for asking that. One of the things I noticed about our culture was that men with disabilities were being celebrated as heroic, honorable, and when we see characters in like The Theory of Everything or Glee, all these characters were men. And I remember being, like, so disappointed by that. Like how little we see women with disabilities in fashion and beauty, those industries that are so critical of the human body, right, and what that looks like. And so, you know, part of doing that cover and an ESPN body was to really send the message that a woman with a disability is beautiful and that she can be powerful and strong. That's how I see myself. And that's how I feel about myself. But I say that because I didn't always feel that way about myself. [00:21:15][63.0]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:21:15] Mm-Hmm. [00:21:15][0.0]

Scout Bassett: [00:21:16] In fact, I always say and truly believe that while I don't want to be defined by my disability and I would never like want that as to be my main identifier, I can now see, you know, my prosthetic, the loss of my limb, as really a form of my power. And I say that because of of what it's helped me to become and and just what I've been able to do because of it. And that's really, I hope, what we're telling in the stories that we're telling. [00:21:46][29.9]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:21:51] Over the past year, there's been a lot of talk about athletes and mental health with Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka really leading the conversation. I've spoken about my own struggles in my memoir, Proud. And you've talked about the challenges that you faced after visiting the orphanage where you grew up. What was that experience like for you and what advice do you have for others who are struggling with dark thoughts? [00:22:16][25.6]

Scout Bassett: [00:22:18] Yes. So in 2016, only five days after competing in Rio, I had the opportunity to go back to the orphanage that I grew up in. I don't think anything in life can prepare you for that kind of experience. Going back, for me, really just ripped open all of those wounds. You know, the smell, the sense, the people just brought it all back for me and and really like how broken I was because of it. But, you know, I didn't really think of myself being broken, because here I am like a Paralympian and I'm succeeding and I have done more than I ever could have dreamed of. But inside there was so much scar tissue that had never really healed. But afterwards I came back, and I like had to take everything that happened and like process. It got so bad that I had to, like, actually seek medical help and go on medication, because I did not know how to get myself out of this place. [00:23:23][64.5]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:23:23] Mm-Hmm. [00:23:23][0.0]

Scout Bassett: [00:23:24] And I'm so thankful that, you know, in talking with a friend about the feelings and thoughts and the emotions I was having, she was the one that really encouraged me to talk to somebody, to seek help, and for me to realize that it's OK A) not to be OK and B) it's perfectly OK to seek whatever help that you need to process trauma, grief, loss, pain, whatever it might be, or even if it's not any of those things, but you're just in a dark place. It's OK to do whatever you need to to get the help that you need. And it was a two year journey for me of going through that. That was really painful. And I can remember times where I didn't think I was going to make it to the other side. And I'm so thankful that through a lot of help, a lot of work, a lot of support and love that I was able to get to the other side of it and see that, well, it's not like those things ever fully leave you. That wholeness is achievable in spite of of whatever trauma you have experienced. And I'm really thankful for that. [00:24:36][72.3]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:24:37] You brought up so many great points, Scout. I know that for me, when I lost my sister a few years ago, [00:24:44][7.6]

Scout Bassett: [00:24:45] Yes. [00:24:45][0.0]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:24:45] I thought that being in that state of grief was not something I would ever be able to like crawl out of. And, you know, someone said something to me, and this was the day she passed away, actually, that someone was my Uber driver, believe it or not. But he said to me that grief is like the ocean, and it comes in waves, you know, but it's always there. And so even though, yeah, it may feel really painful right now, you know, it won't always feel like this. But it can surprise you. [00:25:14][29.3]

Scout Bassett: [00:25:15] Yeah. [00:25:15][0.0]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:25:15] Right? You can feel overwhelmed by it, but know that you know you do have control and that you can choose to seek help, you can choose to talk about it. And that's why it's so important for, you know, people like you to tell your story, because for a lot of us in our communities that we exist in, speaking about mental health is taboo. [00:25:36][21.5]

Scout Bassett: [00:25:38] Or they see people like you that have achieved so much or are so successful, "Well, what could she possibly ever be feeling low about? Look at her life," right? [00:25:49][11.4]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:25:49] Yeah. [00:25:49][0.0]

Scout Bassett: [00:25:49] Like how many people walk around with those things? And before you know it, 10, 20 years has gone by and you've been unconsciously parked at that place of grief, of loss, of pain, of trauma. And that's how I was, and I used all the success to mask it because I thought, "Well, because I've made it, like, I'm fine now." Right? And that really was the furthest from the truth. [00:26:19][29.6]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:26:20] It's so important that we take care of ourselves and show up for ourselves, and a huge piece of that puzzle is just being willing to talk about it. So for you, you started with the friend. I started with my Uber driver. But we can all get there in a time that, you know, works for us. One thing that I find so beautiful about you, Scout, and the work that you do is that you mentor young girls. What do you want them to learn from your experience? [00:26:49][28.8]

Scout Bassett: [00:26:52] I want these young girls to always know and to believe that exactly who and how they are is enough, because I remember growing up feeling like all the things that made me so different— my experiences, what I look like, my ethnicity—were the things that made me feel like I didn't belong and that I wasn't enough. And I want them to know that the things that they cannot change about themselves, the events and circumstances that were far beyond their control, those are things that they can embrace and they can really use and harness as their strength and as their power. But most importantly, to never let anybody to limit or to define who they are or what they can be or what they can do, to keep fighting for whatever dreams or goals or aspirations that they have. [00:27:52][59.5]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:27:55] I wish I had those words as a young person. [00:27:57][2.3]

Scout Bassett: [00:27:58] Me too. Me too. [00:27:59][0.9]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:27:59] What's next for you, Scout? [00:28:00][1.1]

Scout Bassett: [00:28:01] Well, I've actually made a big change in my life in going to a new coach and a new program and a new training environment, and that's been really good for me. As you know, I did not make Tokyo 2020 and just was really devastated by that. I had a bit of a rough year leading up to that, as many people did. And you know, I think in many ways it would have been easy to say, "You know what? I'm done, I'm good," and I just felt like that wasn't it for me. And so I'm making a change with hopes and goals that we will be at Paris 2024. [00:28:45][43.5]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:28:52] Scout, I don't know if you know this, but you are an icon. And this will be, you know, a story for the book. You are inspiring so many people around the world, but particularly, you know, young kids out there who live with the same disability. Scout, thank you so much for spending some time with us today. [00:29:14][21.3]

Scout Bassett: [00:29:14] It's always so great to see you and chat with you. I'm going to make you feel a little embarassed, so sorry about this, but I'm just so thankful for you. And really, the ways that you have inspired me, moved me, most importantly, watching you use your voice for change and for good has really empowered me to do the same. So thank you so much. I really appreciate your time. Thank you for having me on as a guest. [00:29:41][26.4]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:29:45] That's it for this episode of The Long Game. I'm your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. The Long Game is a co-production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. This episode was produced by Karen Given, with help from Dan Ephron, Rob Sachs, Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah, and Jigar Mehta. Make sure to follow us on Apple or your favorite podcast app, and please leave us a review. To learn more, subscribe to Foreign Policy, a global magazine of news and ideas, or visit Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation. Next week on the podcast, Asif Bodi and Abubakar Bhula are lifelong Liverpool fans. They're also Muslim. In March of 2015, the two men found a quiet place in the stadium to pray. Soon after, a photo appeared on Twitter along with the caption, "Muslims praying at halftime of the match yesterday. #Disgrace." [00:30:42][57.5]

Asif Bodi: [00:30:44] What makes you think it's disgraceful? You've got to be a bit more explanatory, haven't you? You've got to say why. [00:30:48][3.9]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:30:49] Two years later, Liverpool signed Mohamed Salah to their squad and everything changed. That's next time, on The Long Game. [00:30:49][0.0]

When it comes to dealing with adversity, Scout Bassett has had more than her fair share. Born in Nanjing, China, she was abandoned after losing her leg in a fire when she was around 18 months old. At age 7, she was adopted by a family in the United States and had to adjust to a new language and new culture. From a young age, Bassett was passionate about sports and eventually learned to run using a prosthetic running leg. Bassett tells her story to host Ibtihaj Muhammad about how she made it to the Paralympic Games and in the process became an icon for perseverance and determination.

Episode 8

How Mohamed Salah Changed Attitudes… and Other Athletes Can, Too

+ReadClose transcript

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:00:00] In 2019, Chelsea fans posted a video on social media. [00:00:03][3.0]

Chelsea Fans: [00:00:08] [Singing] [00:00:08][0.0]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:00:11] Mohamed Salah plays for Liverpool. He is a Muslim playing in a league that has a reputation for racism and Islamophobia. But a few days after that video was posted, when Liverpool played Chelsea at home, he put his faith and talent on full display. [00:00:26][15.3]

News Clip: [00:00:33] Absolutely sensational from Mohamed Salah! [00:00:33][0.0]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:00:36] After taking a minute to hug his teammates, he dropped to his knees, touching his head to the pitch, and began to pray. [00:00:42][6.5]

Salma Mousa: [00:00:44] It's uncommon these days to see representations of Muslims or of Islam that have that much widespread support. You do obviously have notable exceptions. You have your, like, Muhammad Ali's and Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Mo Farah in the UK, who's a runner. But in the Premier League and in soccer, I'd say this was still relatively new. [00:01:03][18.9]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:01:06] From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates, this is The Long Game, a podcast about the power of sports to change the world. I'm your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. Mohamed Salah doesn't give a lot of interviews about his faith, but he does put his faith on display, very publicly and very consistently. Here's reporter Niko Emack. [00:01:30][23.7]

Nico Emack: [00:01:31] For lawyers Asif Bodi and Abubakar Bhula, growing up in Preston, England, watching, cheering and supporting Liverpool, has become a lifelong tradition. [00:01:39][8.0]

Abubakar Bhula: [00:01:40] Probably when I was in primary school, maybe about seven or eight years old ... [00:01:44][4.5]

Nico Emack: [00:01:44] That's Abubakar. [00:01:45][0.7]

Abubakar Bhula: [00:01:46] Liverpool were sort of top of the league at the time, winning everything in sight. So it was quite easy to support them at that time. [00:01:53][6.8]

Asif Bodi: [00:01:53] When I was 18—this is quite a funny story— [00:01:55][2.0]

Nico Emack: [00:01:55] That's Asif. [00:01:56][1.2]

Asif Bodi: [00:01:57] —I had a Saturday job in a department store, and all the games in those days were just on Saturday afternoon at three o'clock. So there wasn't any games on any other evenings or any other days like Sundays, as there are now. So what we did? I had a friend there, an English friend who was also a Liverpool supporter. So we—we used to share the ticket, and we used to tell our employers that we were sick on alternate Saturday's, and it took them three years to find out that we weren't telling the truth. And when they did find out, we obviously left before they could fire us. So it's quite funny that. [00:02:34][37.8]

Nico Emack: [00:02:35] It wasn't until he was around 20 years old that Abubakar was able to attend his first game at Anfield. But after an unforgettable experience of seeing his favorite players in the flesh, it didn't take long for him to become a season ticket holder. Years later, Asif and Abubakar would meet at their local mosque, begin practicing law together, and embark on a friendship founded in their love for Liverpool Football Club. The two men would regularly attend games together. Sometimes Asif would bring his son. For true fans like them, there was nothing better than soaking in the atmosphere of a game. In the Muslim faith, there are five daily prayers, and depending on what time of the year it is, the window to pray can be very small. [00:03:17][41.8]

Asif Bodi: [00:03:18] I mean, there are certain prayers that you can you can pray within a big window, if you like. So, for example, at the moment, we can pray the mid-afternoon prayer between 1:15 and 5:00 p.m.. But there are certain prayers, like the early evening prayer, which you have to pray within 15 minutes or half an hour of the time. [00:03:36][18.1]

Nico Emack: [00:03:37] If they were attending a game during one of these windows, all it would require is some extra planning. [00:03:41][4.0]

Asif Bodi: [00:03:41] Well, usually what would happen was what we—we have a friend who lives near the stadium, so we would usually go on the upper floor of his store and pray there. There's actually another friend who lives a stone's throw away from the ground. [00:03:55][13.3]

Nico Emack: [00:03:55] Asif never really worried about it. After all, he says, he's always felt like Liverpool and Merseyside were more tolerant than other parts of the UK. [00:04:03][7.4]

Asif Bodi: [00:04:03] It was one of the first places where Islam was introduced to the UK, as well as the site of one of the oldest mosques in the UK, as well. [00:04:12][8.3]

Nico Emack: [00:04:13] Asif remembers once going to a Champions League game with a friend. And it was difficult to find a place to pray. [00:04:17][4.7]

Asif Bodi: [00:04:18] We found a little a block of apartments and they had a courtyard, so we went inside the courtyard and started praying there. And one gentleman, a middle aged gentleman, came out of his house and said, "What are you doing, guys? What are you doing praying outside?" And he invited us into his house to pray. And that was wonderful. [00:04:34][15.7]

Nico Emack: [00:04:34] But in March of 2015, two years before Salah would sign for Liverpool, Asif and Abubakar traveled to Anfield to watch their side in FA Cup quarter final. Prayer time fell just after kickoff. [00:04:46][11.9]

Asif Bodi: [00:04:47] So it wasn't possible to pray before we entered the ground, so we waited until half time. [00:04:52][5.1]

Abubakar Bhula: [00:04:53] We didn't actually pray in the seats. We tried to find a quiet place, and we asked one of the stewards and he said, "Just pray, pray under the stairwell." So we went there, and I knew we weren't obstructing anybody or causing a commotion, and we just quietly went around our business. It takes about five minutes. [00:05:11][18.4]

Asif Bodi: [00:05:12] My son was with me. He was probably 10 years old at the time. [00:05:15][3.3]

Nico Emack: [00:05:16] But when they finished praying ... [00:05:17][1.0]

Asif Bodi: [00:05:17] My son said, "Oh, some bloke at the top was taking pictures." And we thought nothing of it. We thought maybe he's just taking a picture for his own memory or whatever just to, you know, show other people. But then we discovered afterwards they'd been uploaded to Twitter or one of the other social media accounts. [00:05:34][17.3]

Nico Emack: [00:05:36] The tweet read: "Muslims praying at halftime at the match yesterday. #Disgrace." [00:05:39][3.0]

Abubakar Bhula: [00:05:41] Just a very small, grainy picture of two people in the stairwell in prostration. So, you know nobody would be able to so recognize us. But later, when the club got involved, I think, and when the media got involved, that's when our names came up. [00:05:54][13.4]

Asif Bodi: [00:05:55] After that, it just snowballed and you know, it got into the mainstream media. [00:05:58][3.5]

Nico Emack: [00:05:59] Their experience was written about in the Guardian and the BBC. [00:06:02][2.8]

Abubakar Bhula: [00:06:03] And I suppose I felt a bit like a celebrity, to be honest. It was, you know, like five minutes of fame, as it were. And in a sense, I just felt, probably more than anything, just proud that, you know, I wasn't—not proud of the fame, as such, but just proud of the fact that, you know, we weren't letting bigots or anybody stop us from from doing our duty. So, you know, obviously that's our belief that we have to pray five times a day and come hell or high water, regardless of circumstances, wherever we are, we have to say our prayers. [00:06:35][32.0]

Nico Emack: [00:06:36] Asif doesn't use social media, so when the photo is making its rounds, he didn't have much of a reaction. [00:06:40][4.3]

Asif Bodi: [00:06:41] I don't have time for Twitter or Instagram or all these things, and I'm too opinionated and probably got myself into trouble if I run these sites anyway. But when this person uploaded this onto Twitter, a photo with the comment "disgraceful," I'm thinking well, you know, can you elaborate on that? What makes you think it's disgraceful? It's OK having one line, a one line comment, but you've got to be a bit more explanatory, haven't you? You've got to say why. [00:07:07][25.4]

Nico Emack: [00:07:07] Like Asif's friends and colleagues, fans from around the world stepped up to defend the two lawyers. Liverpool Football Club worked quickly with the Merseyside Police Department to investigate the incident, and the social discourse that followed paved the way for Premier League teams to build multi-faith prayer rooms in their stadiums. Naturally, Liverpool was one of the first. And just two years after the incident at Anfield, Liverpool signed Mohamed Salah, one of the world's best strikers and above all, a Muslim man who celebrated his goals by praying to God. Asif and Abubakar weren't the only ones who noticed. [00:07:43][35.4]

Asif Bodi: [00:07:43] It was very nice because, you know, people would message me every time he scored and said, "Look, he's doing the same as you did." [00:07:51][7.3]

Abubakar Bhula: [00:07:51] It's a prostration of gratitude. The prostration of gratitude a Muslim can do at anytime when, for example, something good happens. So obviously every time he scores, he's happy about it. So, so, so he prostrates in gratitude to the Lord. So when he does, it's—it's great. It gives you an affinity to him because, obviously, he's a Muslim as well. [00:08:15][24.3]

Nico Emack: [00:08:16] And the fans loved him for it. All of this caught the attention of Salma Mousa and some of her colleagues. Salma was an Egyptian-Canadian political scientist. She's currently an assistant professor at Yale, but at the time she was getting her Ph.D. at Stanford University. [00:08:30][14.4]

Salma Mousa: [00:08:31] It really started when we started reading news headlines about how Salah is changing people's attitudes, and at the same time, we were watching the games and we see him praying and, you know, prostrating—he puts his head toward the ground. And even though you have so many Muslim players at the elite level, you don't really see them doing that. They're not so visibly Muslim, I would say. So for example, Paul Pogba, a lot of people might not even know he's Muslim. So to see that kind of very visible practice and then we see—I think the turning point was when we saw the video of the Liverpool supporters— [00:09:02][30.8]

Liverpool Fans: [00:09:02] [Singing] [00:09:02][0.0]

Salma Mousa: [00:09:10] —and they're singing, "If he scores another few, then I'll be Muslim, too. And sitting in the mosque, that's where I want to be." [00:09:14][4.6]

Liverpool Fans: [00:09:18] [Singing] [00:09:18][0.0]

Salma Mousa: [00:09:22] That's where I was like, OK, we need to study this, we need to actually test if this is really changing attitudes, because this is not the kind of chant that you hear every day. [00:09:28][6.5]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:09:30] You're listening to The Long Game, from Foreign policy and Doha Debates. And now back to our story about faith, Liverpool, and Mohamed Salah. [00:09:48][18.2]

Nico Emack: [00:09:49] When it comes to football, Salma knows what she's talking about. She fell in love with the game while spending her summers in Egypt as a kid. [00:09:55][6.5]

Salma Mousa: [00:09:56] My only like real die-hard teams used to be the Egyptian national team and somewhat Zamalek, which is one of the big teams in Cairo. My family is just a big supporter of that team, and we have been for generations. Then, to be honest, following Salah kind of got me a little more interested in European football. I was kind of just a neutral watching, and then I found myself watching Basel and then watching Chelsea and then watching Syria— [00:10:20][23.6]

Nico Emack: [00:10:21] All places Salah used to play. [00:10:22][1.1]

Salma Mousa: [00:10:23] —and so everyone asked me, "Are you going to still be a Liverpool fan when Salah leaves?" And so that is going to be the true test of my Liverpool fandom. [00:10:28][5.4]

Nico Emack: [00:10:29] For Salma, Salah's arrival at Liverpool was the perfect chance to study the two things she loves most: politics and football. And at Stanford, she found other people who shared her passions. [00:10:39][10.3]

Salma Mousa: [00:10:40] So my other coauthors are Ala Alrababah—he's Jordanian, and he's just a mega soccer, you know, he's just a freak. He's just obsessed. [00:10:48][7.8]

Nico Emack: [00:10:48] Will Marble, another political scientist, was the third member to join the team. [00:10:53][4.1]

Salma Mousa: [00:10:54] And he's really interested in anything to do with sports, like he's a big Sixers fan, Eagles fan, so you can guess where he's from. [00:11:01][7.0]

Nico Emack: [00:11:01] And finally, the group welcomed Alexandra Siegel. She was doing a research fellowship at Stanford at the same time as Salma. [00:11:08][6.4]

Salma Mousa: [00:11:08] She's one of the best in the world at scraping and analyzing things like tweets, Reddit posts, YouTube comments. She's figured it out totally. She also has a background studying the Middle East and speaking Arabic, and so she was really interested in this idea. So it was kind of a, if I can say, it was kind of a dream team that happened to be at Stanford at the same time. [00:11:25][17.3]

Nico Emack: [00:11:26] Before beginning their study, Salma and her team needed a research question: Does exposure to celebrities from a stigmatized group reduce prejudice towards that entire outgroup? The team analyzed social media posts and combed through police reports. In the end, they surveyed 8,600 people and analyzed close to 15 million tweets in the UK. Their findings are quite inspiring. According to the study, over the last two years, there were 18.9% fewer hate crimes than predicted and a 53% fall in anti-Muslim tweets among Liverpool fans. "Overall, we interpret these results to support the hypothesis that Salah's arrival at Liverpool FC caused a decrease in extreme acts of bigotry." End quote. Mohamed Salah is a tireless advocate for his community and his faith, but the word "activist" is rarely mentioned in unison with his name. And unfortunately, that word has been used to discredit athletes around the world, just ask Colin Kaepernick, Naomi Osaka, and Marcus Rashford. And, at times, it seems like Salah is aware of this. [00:12:35][68.7]

Salma Mousa: [00:12:35] You can't get around the fact that the guy is Muslim, you know? His wife wears a headscarf, he prays, his name is Mohamed. [00:12:40][4.9]

Nico Emack: [00:12:41] But, for the most part, Salah doesn't talk about his faith. So when the fans serenade him after a game, he quickly acknowledges it before going back to talking about goals and team. [00:12:51][10.0]

News Clip: [00:12:56] [Fans Singing] The fans enjoyed it as much as you. It's a big, it's a big statement, isn't it, for Liverpool? [00:13:00][4.1]

News Clip contd. feat. Mohamed Salah: [00:13:01] Yeah, it's a good song. I like it. But you know, and then I said many times, well I play for the team. I try to score each game for, to help the team to get the point to win a games. That's the most important thing for me. [00:13:12][11.0]

Nico Emack: [00:13:12] But it should go without saying not every Muslim player around the world can change attitudes just by going about their business. [00:13:19][6.7]

Salma Mousa: [00:13:20] So Salah is amazing at what he does. He's amazing for the national team, for Liverpool. He's he's brought Liverpool to these new heights that they haven't seen in decades. He's a nice guy. He generally doesn't take any kind of political stances, like he's not a polarizing figure whatsoever. So you have this kind of model minority image, right? So he's nearly perfect. And so the question for us is: Does this mean that minority players have to be nearly perfect to change attitudes? When they mess up, is there going to be a huge backlash? What happens when they stop scoring? [00:13:53][33.3]

Nico Emack: [00:13:54] We saw this on full display during the European Championship this summer. After playing two periods of extra time, the final game between England and Italy was decided by PK's. England's fate now rested on the shoulders of three black players, all under the age of 23. [00:14:10][15.8]

News Clip: [00:14:10] The teenager Bukayo Saka, one of the youngest players ever to play in the European Championship. He's gotta score here to keep England alive ... and he doesn't! And Italy are champions of Europe! [00:14:25][14.5]

Nico Emack: [00:14:26] Salma was watching the game unfold on her television. [00:14:28][2.1]

Salma Mousa: [00:14:29] And when I saw those three young black players all in a row missing, right afterwards I spoke with my coauthors and I'm like, "This is so predictable. We know exactly what's going to happen now." [00:14:38][9.0]

News Clip: [00:14:38] The three black players who missed a penalty shot in the final, each the target of racist abuse online. [00:14:43][5.1]

News Clip: [00:14:46] Hateful images and racial slurs targeting their social media profiles with other slurs, some fans telling Saka to go back to Nigeria. He was born in London. [00:14:57][10.6]

Salma Mousa: [00:14:58] So that's the question for us now that we're—that we're investigating: How important is success? And we think it's probably very important. You hear players like, I think, Eric Cantona and it Ozil and Lukaka, they've all said something along the lines of, you know, when the team is doing well or when I'm doing well, I'm Belgian, I'm German, like the team is French. And when we are not succeeding, all of a sudden it becomes, oh, the Congolese striker, oh, the Turkish immigrant, you know? And so that's—this is something the players have talked about for a long time, and we want to put some numbers to that. [00:15:30][32.8]

Nico Emack: [00:15:31] Salma says that as an academic, her goal has always been to use science to help people get along better. And she hopes that with this research, she's found a blueprint for similar studies about identity and prejudice. [00:15:43][12.1]

Salma Mousa: [00:15:44] The one that comes to mind is Giannis from the Bucks. [00:15:46][2.7]

Nico Emack: [00:15:47] As in Giannis Antetokounmpo, professional basketball player for the Milwaukee Bucks. During the 2020-2021 season, he led the Bucks to an NBA championship and was named Finals MVP. [00:15:58][11.3]

News Clip: [00:15:59] Crowder crowds Antetokounmpo, gets passed up, inside for the slam! Thirty nine points for Giannis! [00:16:07][7.6]

Salma Mousa: [00:16:08] There you have a kid who's African, who's a refugee, who's done this amazing thing, you know, carried this team. No offense, his other teammates are also amazing, but you know, he's kind of the talisman for that team. And for us, the natural question was, well, are people now going to change their attitudes about refugees? Are people going to be more welcoming of refugees and more supportive of refugee policy in the U.S.? And that's the kind of thing that we actually can answer with empirical data and we hope to answer in the future. But this needs one really important thing, which is that people have to know that he's a refugee, right? Just logically, they have to know that about him, and I don't think that many people know that about him. It's not that public. [00:16:47][39.1]

Nico Emack: [00:16:48] Issues of race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation are constantly politicized, which gives athletes an added layer of pressure to deal with. [00:16:56][8.6]

Salma Mousa: [00:16:57] And unfortunately, when someone takes on a social justice issue, it could be the case that they are, then, polarizing like half of the fan base. And so you're not going to see those effects. [00:17:06][8.3]

Nico Emack: [00:17:06] But by speaking up, athletes can use their platform to humanize a cause. [00:17:11][4.4]

Salma Mousa: [00:17:11] And that's a really big thing for us, because we don't want to take away from our study to be: Oh, celebrities should just shut up and dribble, and Salah only has this effect on Islamophobia, because he tends to not take on any political stances. [00:17:21][10.2]

Nico Emack: [00:17:23] But, just because he doesn't pen any op-ed's or lead protests in the street doesn't mean Salah's activism can't be felt at all levels of the game. [00:17:31][8.5]

Abubakar Bhula: [00:17:32] You see a lot of sort of people who are not Muslims, I mean, sometimes I'll go to see my nephew— [00:17:37][4.8]

Nico Emack: [00:17:37] That's Liverpool fan, Abubakar Bhula, again. [00:17:39][1.4]

Abubakar Bhula: [00:17:40] —he's a young lad playing football just in a small league in Preston, and he doesn't even support Liverpool. But if he scores a goal, he'll prostrate. Similarly, even people who don't follow Islam who are not Muslims, young kids playing on the park or whatever, you know, you'll see them just copying him, emulating him. So it's a good thing. [00:18:02][21.9]

Nico Emack: [00:18:03] Asif Bodi sees how things have changed for Liverpool's Muslim fans, especially while using the prayer room at Anfield. [00:18:09][6.2]

Asif Bodi: [00:18:10] Oh yes, we—we use it quite regularly. In fact, it's—it's been a victim of its own success, because it's way too small now. And, sometimes, the place is full. They have to have, you know, people queuing up outside. I've even seeing people praying on the grass outside because the room is not large enough. I've even seen people praying on the sidewalk and, most supporters, they just walk past without commenting at all. [00:18:31][21.9]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:18:34] That's it for this episode of The Long Game. I'm your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. The Long Game is a co-production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. This episode was produced by Nico Emack and Karen Given, with help from Darius Boamah, Dan Ephron, Rob Sachs, Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah, and Jigar Mehta. Make sure to follow us on Apple or your favorite podcast app, and please leave us a review. To learn more, subscribe to Foreign Policy, a global magazine of news and ideas, or visit Doha Debates. a production of Qatar Foundation. Next week on the podcast, as a young child, Ibrahim Al Hussein dreamed of representing Syria at the Olympics. His father was a swimming coach and Ibrahim was talented. But by the time he was 22 years old, those dreams had been shattered. [00:19:31][56.4]

Ibrahim Al Hussein: [00:19:32] When the situation in Syria erupted in 2011, my life changed entirely. No more training, and there was nothing left. After that, in 2012, the situation was even worse, and my parents went out of Deir ez-Zor, where we lived, to go to a safer place. But I couldn't go with them for one reason: the military would conscript me, and I'd be obliged to serve with them. And that's not what I wanted. [00:19:57][24.9]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:19:58] That's next week on The Long Game. [00:19:58][0.0]

Mohamed Salah is one of the best forwards in the English Premier League. He is a Muslim, playing in a league that has a reputation for racism and Islamophobia. But that hasn’t stopped Liverpool fans from rallying around their star. Salah doesn’t give a lot of interviews about his faith. You won’t see him leading a lot of protests or marches. But he does put his faith on display—very publicly and very consistently. And since he’s started playing in Liverpool, Islamophobia in the surrounding area has dropped significantly. Now, social scientists are wondering what Salah’s popularity can teach us about how athletes can change attitudes.

Episode 9

A Syrian Paralympian Who Competes for All Refugees

+ReadClose transcript

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:00:00] Qualifying for the 2016 U.S. Olympic team was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. It seemed so impossible for so long that I always felt like if I even spoke the word Olympics, that it would disappear. That's how fragile this dream felt. But for an athlete who was displaced, the Olympic dream can seem even further out of reach. [00:00:20][20.2]

Ibrahim Al Hussein: [00:00:22] [Speaking Arabic] [00:00:22][0.2]

Ibrahim Al Hussein - Translated: [00:00:25] When I came to Greece from Turkey by the sea, I wasn't afraid at all. Why wasn't I afraid? Because I didn't have anything to lose. I didn't have a life. I was a disabled man in a wheelchair. I couldn't walk. All of my dreams were shattered, and all the doors were closed. So I wasn't afraid, not even of dying at the sea. It was normal for me. I was already dead. But when I arrived to Greece and I was treated, I got back to my dreams and hopes. My life has changed. [00:00:59][33.9]

Ibrahim Al Hussein: [00:00:59] [Speaking Arabic] [00:00:59][0.0]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:01:03] From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates, this is The Long Game, a podcast about the power of sports to change the world. I'm your host. Ibtihaj Muhammad. Ibrahim Al Hussein grew up watching the Olympics on TV. He was a swimmer, and he dreamed of someday being one of the athletes up on the podium. But by the time he was 22 years old, the age when many swimmers are in their prime, he was forced to flee his homeland as one of the 5.6 million people who have left Syria since the start of the civil war. Reporter David Enders has our story. [00:01:42][39.3]

David Enders: [00:01:45] Ibrahim Al Hussein grew up in eastern Syria in the province of Deir Ez-Zor. The city is bisected by the Euphrates River as it flows toward Iraq, linking cities thousands of years old along its winding, reedy path through the desert. [00:01:59][13.9]

Ibrahim Al Hussein: [00:02:00] [Speaking Arabic] [00:02:00][0.2]

Ibrahim Al Hussein - Translated: [00:02:03] My father is a swimming coach, so I started my swimming career when I was five years old. I had a beautiful childhood, until the situation in Syria erupted. [00:02:11][7.7]

News Clip: [00:02:13] For the third week in a row, the Friday day of prayer in Syria saw new protests, violence, and killing. [00:02:20][6.5]

News Clip: [00:02:20] Anti-government protesters have taken to the streets in Syria. On the capital, protesters chanted against President Bashar Assad. [00:02:28][8.1]

News Clip: [00:02:32] Syrian troops killed 20 people in a tank assault on the eastern city of Deir Ez-Zor. [00:02:36][4.0]

David Enders: [00:02:37] Deir Ez-Zor became a contested city, bisected now not just by the river, but by warring factions. In 2013, Ibrahim himself became one of the millions injured by the fighting. He had been hanging out with a friend at his house when disaster struck. [00:02:53][16.1]

Ibrahim Al Hussein: [00:02:53] [Speaking Arabic] [00:02:53][0.0]

Ibrahim Al Hussein - Translated: [00:02:57] My friend was going back to his house, and he was injured by shelling. He started screaming, "Help me, help Ibrahim!" So I went rushing to help my friend. I didn't even hesitate for one minute, even though I thought that I would die next to my friend. I was carrying him, and seconds later, another shell came and hit us. My right leg was amputated, and my left leg was injured. [00:03:22][25.0]

David Enders: [00:03:23] The war meant that treatment for Ibrahim's injuries was limited, and options for physical therapy and rehabilitation even more so. Seeking better care meant joining the flood of refugees moving overland out of Syria toward Europe, a journey perilous and daunting, even for those in perfect health. [00:03:39][16.7]

Ibrahim Al Hussein: [00:03:40] [Speaking Arabic] [00:03:40][0.0]

Ibrahim Al Hussein - Translated: [00:03:45] My first destination was Turkey. I stayed there for a year and two months for treatment. I got treated, of course, but it was not good treatment, so I had no choice other than going to Europe. I thought about the possibility of returning to sports with Paralympians from another country. So first, I went to Greece. And, of course, I didn't have money, but someone helped me and paid for the smuggler—the human smuggler, as they say. I arrived to Greece on February 27, 2014. I was in a wheelchair. I couldn't walk. I crossed the sea, and it was the group I was with that helped me. I didn't know any of them. They were from Syria, Iraq, Palestine. We all speak the same language. [00:04:30][44.7]

Ibrahim Al Hussein: [00:04:30] [Speaking Arabic] [00:04:30][0.0]

Ibrahim Al Hussein - Translated: [00:04:41] When I came to Greece from Turkey by the sea, I wasn't afraid at all. Why wasn't I afraid? Because I didn't have anything to lose. I didn't have a life. I was a disabled man in a wheelchair. I couldn't walk. All of my dreams were shattered, and all the doors were closed. So I wasn't afraid, not even of dying at sea. It was normal for me. I was already dead. [00:05:06][24.9]

Ibrahim Al Hussein: [00:05:07] [Speaking Arabic] [00:05:07][0.0]

Ibrahim Al Hussein - Translated: [00:05:12] When I arrived, I stayed in the camp on Samos Island for 16 days. And they gave us guards to get out of the camp, and these guards allowed us to stay in Greece for six months only. After that, the only solution was to apply for asylum or leave the country. There is no other choice [00:05:29][16.6]

David Enders: [00:05:31] To apply for asylum, Ibrahim needed money to get to Athens, but he didn't have money for the boat. Other refugees in the camp collected money for his ticket. [00:05:40][8.9]

Ibrahim Al Hussein: [00:05:41] [Speaking Arabic] [00:05:41][0.0]

Ibrahim Al Hussein - Translated: [00:05:43] And so I arrived to Athens without knowing anything about it. I only knew it from the Olympic and Paralympic Games on TV in 2004, and I wished I had been there at that time. It was my dream to be in the Olympics and the main goal. So I arrived in 2014, and I stayed for 16 days on the streets without a home. There were no refugee camps by that time in Athens. [00:06:09][26.3]

Ibrahim Al Hussein: [00:06:10] [Speaking Arabic] [00:06:10][0.0]

Ibrahim Al Hussein - Translated: [00:06:20] By coincidence, I met a Syrian guy, and he asked me where I was from. And when I told him my story, he told me that he had a Greek friend that had the same medical condition I do. He called his friend who contacted a doctor to see what he can help us with. The next morning, we went to the medical center. The man responsible for that center was named [?] And when he knew my story, he offered me a free artificial leg. He stopped his work in order to finish it for me, and in one week it was done. And I wore it immediately. So my first step after that was looking for a job. And I found one in a bus stop. And since my English wasn't good and I didn't speak Greek, my job was cleaning the toilets. So I cleaned the toilets, and I applied for asylum. Then I started searching for sports clubs, but all of them rejected me. The first one to accept me wasn't a swimming club, but a basketball club. And in that time I wasn't a basketball player. But because of the passion I had for sports, I joined the basketball club. And after that, I loved sports even more, and I wanted to continue, and I was still searching for a swimming club. I was looking for a swimming club from March 2014 until October 2015, when one of the swimming clubs accepted me. I was very happy, because it was the club where the Olympics took place and it was where I dreamt to be in 2004. So that gave me huge motivation. [00:08:01][101.4]

Ibrahim Al Hussein: [00:08:08] [Speaking Arabic] [00:08:08][0.6]

Ibrahim Al Hussein - Translated: [00:08:09] Of course, it wasn't easy to learn Greek. But my determination and my love of the country and the people and Greek friends in sports and at my job made me learn the language. I didn't go to school. I learned the language from my friends. I always had a copybook and a pen, and any word I don't understand, I wrote it down and a friend explained to me what this meant. I never went to school to learn Greek. I didn't have time. I had sports and a job, so I didn't have time to go to school and learn. So my love for the country and the people motivated me to learn this language. And the Greek language is considered one of the hardest languages in the world. [00:08:47][38.5]

Ibrahim Al Hussein: [00:08:53] [Speaking Arabic] [00:08:53][0.0]

Ibrahim Al Hussein - Translated: [00:08:55] I started training, and after four or five months, there was the Athens swimming championship for people with special needs. So I participated in it, and I won first place. After one month, I participated in the two competitions of the Greek Championship. I competed and won first place in one and second place in the other. My situation was very difficult between swimming, basketball, and working 12 hours on the night shift in the bus stop. I used to cry, because I would be exhausted. But I had a dream and I had a goal to reach, whatever the cost was. So in April 2016, UNHCR and the Greek Athletic Federation contacted me to inform me that I have been chosen to be in the Olympics campaign. So I was shocked. I didn't believe it's finally happening. So I said to the press that, unfortunately, I cannot participate in the international competitions since I'm a refugee. After that, the International Paralympic Committee heard my message and they called me. They told me that they formed the Paralympic refugee team, and you will be the first player in that team. I didn't believe the news. The first competition for refugees is going to be in Rio. I was very happy. I couldn't believe it's actually happening. For me, that was the best thing that ever happened to me. [00:10:23][87.9]

Ibrahim Al Hussein: [00:10:23] [Speaking Arabic] [00:10:23][0.2]

David Enders: [00:10:27] It got even better. Ibrahim was one of two Paralympians to compete in Rio and was invited to carry the torch as part of the relay team. The team was formed by the IOC in response to the number of stateless athletes looking for avenues to compete at the Olympics, a number that continues to grow. [00:10:44][17.8]

News Clip: [00:10:46] The Parade of Nations begins with Syrian-born leg-amputee swimmer Ibrahim Al Hussein as the flag bearer for the Independent Paralympic Athletes Refugee Nation, if you will. And given a rousing welcome to enter the stadium first. [00:11:02][15.8]

Ibrahim Al Hussein: [00:11:08] [Speaking Arabic] [00:11:08][0.0]

Ibrahim Al Hussein - Translated: [00:11:09] It's any athlete's dream to be in the Olympics or the Paralympic Games, especially if he is on the refugee team. The refugee team is different, because of the immigration crisis and everyone knows about this crisis. Each and every one of the refugees misses their mother country. [00:11:24][15.7]

David Enders: [00:11:26] Ibrahim also qualified for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo and was training rigorously when I spoke to him in July. But he was also looking beyond the games. [00:11:34][8.7]

Ibrahim Al Hussein: [00:11:35] [Speaking Arabic] [00:11:35][0.0]

Ibrahim Al Hussein - Translated: [00:11:39] I will do everything I can to launch a refugee basketball team that has many nationalities to be in the World Championships and Paralympic Championships, and to let all the press and all the people to know that this is the refugee team. And despite their tragedies and their disabilities, they formed a team and they are competing. After I come back from Tokyo, I will concentrate on that officially. The dream is to go to Paris Olympics in 2024. [00:12:08][29.4]

David Enders: [00:12:10] Like millions of Syrians in exile, Ibrahim longs for a home to which he cannot return. [00:12:15][4.9]

Ibrahim Al Hussein: [00:12:17] [Speaking Arabic] [00:12:18][0.9]

Ibrahim Al Hussein - Translated: [00:12:25] Now, my family is no longer in Deir Ez-Zor. But I try not to look back, because I just want to look forward. But of course, I miss it there and I miss my country, even if it is destroyed. I try my best to avoid watching the videos and the pictures of what's happening ther, in order not to increase the pain inside me. I have a road in front of me, and I cannot change anything. What was destroyed is destroyed. I consider Greece as my second home country. It's the country that kept me and provided me with everything I needed in the most difficult times of my life. The thing I want to tell people, of course, about the refugees: refugees have strength and determination in all fields, and I'm not just talking about Syrians, I'm talking about all refugees. They have the power, and they have the determination towards success, not only in sports, but in all other fields—in education, medicine, engineering—they have the strength, but all they need is the opportunity. So I hope from all the countries to open and give them the opportunity, and I'm sure they will prove themselves in any field. And that's my message to the world. [00:13:42][77.0]

Ibrahim Al Hussein: [00:13:42] [Speaking Arabic] [00:13:42][0.3]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:13:47] You're listening to The Long Game from Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. I'm your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. I'm joined by reporter David Enders. David, you were planning to interview Ibrahim again after the Tokyo Olympics. What happened? [00:14:04][16.9]

David Enders: [00:14:05] Well, unfortunately, Ibrahim's not been feeling well. And that was actually the case before he went to Tokyo. He has a lung injury, and he said that, actually, while he was competing in Tokyo, he was basically doing so with one functional lung, which is kind of incredible to think about. Just another added challenge for him as he seeks to compete at this level. It did seem like he was feeling a little bit down. And when you talk to people who work with refugees regularly, they'll tell you that mental health is a serious and often unaddressed issue. You're dealing with people who have experienced, generally, multiple traumas, often having to flee violence and leave their homes and then make often very perilous and dangerous journeys, like Ibrahim. And so, yeah, I did get the sense that Ibrahim was maybe struggling a bit with depression, and certainly also he's dealing with what might be a career-threatening injury, and he just wasn't up to talking again after he got back to Greece. [00:15:11][65.8]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:15:12] And what's Ibrahim doing now? [00:15:13][1.3]

David Enders: [00:15:14] So, at the moment, Ibrahim is undergoing treatment for his injury, and he's also continuing to coach a refugee Paralympic basketball team that he started. He's hoping that they'll be able to compete in the 2024 Olympics. [00:15:28][14.2]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:15:29] So crossing the Syrian border out to Turkey is not an easy proposition, and it's really incredible how Ibrahim has managed as an amputee. Talk about the physical difficulties of leaving Syria during this time. [00:15:42][13.1]

David Enders: [00:15:43] Just the actual act of fleeing into a country without permission—illegally, maybe, however you want to phrase—it can be an extremely dangerous thing. I mean, we see on the U.S. border people being turned back violently recently. In the case of the Turkish border, that is in many places a heavily militarized border and requires crossing, in some cases, minefields. And I've done it in the company of refugees on a number of occasions. And as a physically fit person, it's extremely dangerous and difficult. And the idea of having to do it without being able to walk well or at all is just kind of incredible. And then to get oneself from Turkey to Greece by boat as Ibrahim did—we see on a regular basis migrants drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, because they're on boats that are not designed for the number of people they're holding. They're, you know, sent off with faulty motors by people smugglers—I have to say I found to be less than honest. [00:16:55][71.3]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:16:56] David, can you talk a little bit about the Refugee Olympic Team and who are the other athletes that are members of this team? [00:17:03][6.7]

David Enders: [00:17:04] So the Refugee Olympic Team started in 2016 and was created by the IOC as a response to the crisis we've been talking about. The refugee numbers have spiked in the last decade. And the initial team in 2016, my understanding is it was kind of built around a number of—about a half dozen runners from South Sudan who were living as refugees in Kenya. And then in the same time, there were other athletes, including Ibrahim, who were petitioning for an avenue to compete at this level, even though they could not represent the countries where they come from. One of the most recognizable is Yusra Mardini, who is also a swimmer from Syria and famously helped rescue a number of people on one of those boats crossing the Mediterranean from Turkey to Greece. And she and her sister, who were both swimmers, were able to actually tow, effectively, the boat a number of miles to Greece when the motor failed. [00:18:16][72.3]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:18:17] Yeah, I remember Yusra's story. We were both visa athletes at the 2016 Games, and what I remember about her story is just being in this, you know, seemingly impossible position with her family and other people trying to cross the Mediterranean and her leaving their life raft that she was in to swim her family and everyone else on the raft to safety. So there's a lot of trauma that exist among these athletes. But the Syrian refugee crisis was dominating news headlines a few years ago, but has received less attention recently. But that doesn't mean the crisis has ended, right? [00:18:59][42.2]

David Enders: [00:19:00] Right. The Syrian refugee crisis is, is very much continuing, as are other refugee crises: Afghanistan, Ethiopia, South Sudan. I live in Lebanon, and there are a million Syrian refugees here in a country with a population of about six million. You know, for the last 10 years, on a regular basis, I visit Syrian refugee camps, some that are, you know, within a couple miles of the Syrian—you can see Syria quite well from where these people are still living in tents after a decade. Right now, winter has begun. The fields are flooding and muddy, and these people literally rent space, you know, in potato fields. And the fact that they still don't feel safe going back and are living in those kinds of conditions just tells you how serious a problem this is. [00:19:56][56.0]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:19:57] In his story, Ibrahim mentioned meeting other refugees from Syria, Iraq. When we look around the world at displaced people more generally, how big is this crisis? [00:20:07][9.8]

David Enders: [00:20:09] The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees puts the number of refugees worldwide at 82.4 million, and that number has risen substantially. It's more than doubled in 10 years and is continuing to rise. [00:20:25][16.7]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:20:27] And why is Ibrahim's story so important? [00:20:29][1.7]

David Enders: [00:20:30] Well, it might sound trite, in a way, to say it, but Ibrahim's story is important, because it's important for a number of reasons. Just as a simple story of what people can overcome and achieve in the face of of massive adversity, it's a very inspiring story. But it's also important, as Ibrahim himself has pointed out, because he's not unique, unfortunately. So many millions of people are displaced around the world and have had similar experiences to Ibrahim's. And so really, it's important I think, you know as someone who covers the refugee crisis here in Lebanon, the Syrian refugee crisis, it's really important for these people to be humanized, because often they live in conditions that are dehumanizing or they are struggling with host populations who are not necessarily happy to have so many refugees in their country. So, so really, I think part of addressing the issue is helping people see that Ibrahim and other refugees are people just like all of us and have goals and aspirations that are the same as many of us might have. And so I think it's really important for that. [00:21:56][85.6]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:21:56] Well, thank you for the work that you're doing, helping all of us understand that there are actual lives behind that very, very, you know, large number: 80 million displaced people around the globe. I think hearing a story like Ibrahim's is really helpful. [00:22:11][14.2]

David Enders: [00:22:12] What you really understand is that this is something that is done in extreme desperation, to cross a border and risk being shot or stepping on a landmine or being arrested and being sent back. It speaks to why people have to leave. Talking to people like Ibrahim drives home our shared humanity and the necessity to to treat people who are fleeing for various reasons as the people they are so that they can get the aid they need rather than being rejected and put back into danger. [00:22:47][35.2]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:22:53] That's it for this episode of The Long Game. I'm your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. The Long Game is a co-production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. This episode was produced by David Enders and Karen Given with help from Dan Ephron, Rob Sachs, Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah, and Jigar Mehta. Make sure to follow us on Apple or your favorite podcast app, and please leave us a review. To learn more, subscribe to Foreign Policy, a global magazine of news and ideas, or visit Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation. Next week on the podcast, as the U.S. and the Netherlands faced off in the 2019 Women's World Cup final in France, a chant erupted in the stands that had nothing to do with what was happening on the field. [00:23:46][52.9]

Fans Chanting: [00:23:46] Equal pay! Equal pay! Equal pay! [00:23:46][0.0]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:23:49] But in some countries, the fight for equal pay has really just begun. That's next time, on The Long Game. [00:23:49][0.0]

Ibrahim Al Hussein grew up watching the Olympics on TV. He was a swimmer. And he dreamed of someday being one of the athletes up on the podium. But that dream was put on hold when he lost his lower leg in a bomb blast and became one of the 5.6 million people who have left Syria since the start of the civil war. He still hasn’t been able to return to his home country, but in 2016, he became one of two athletes to compete in the Rio Summer Games as part of the Refugee Paralympic Team, which was formed by the International Olympic Committee in response to the number of stateless athletes looking for avenues to compete at the Olympics.

Episode 10

How a Chilean Women’s Soccer Player Scored for Gender Equality

+ReadClose transcript

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:00:03] Over the past few years, the U.S. women's national soccer team's fight for equal pay has captured the attention of the world, with former captain Megan Rapinoe taking her plea all the way to the White House. [00:00:15][12.1]

Megan Rapinoe: [00:00:15] I've been devalued. I've been disrespected and dismissed because I am a woman. And I've been told that I don't deserve any more than less because I am a woman. [00:00:27][11.7]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:00:28] But in some countries, the fight for equal pay has really just begun. [00:00:31][3.5]

Iona Rothfeld: [00:00:32] Whenever someone asks me, like, "What motivated this?", I think they expect me to say that it's, I don't know, passion or the sense of purpose, but it's—it's rage. Like rage moved me. They treat us like crap. They treat us like we don't matter, and they make us feel like invisible. Yeah, of course I have rage. [00:00:53][21.4]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:01:00] From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates, this is The Long Game, a podcast about the power of sports to change the world. I'm your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. Iona Rothfeld joined the Chilean women's national team at just 13 years old. Over the years, she started to get used to playing in men's hand-me-down jerseys and showering in locker rooms that didn't have hot water. But in 2016, at the age of 23, Iona founded the first union for women's soccer players in all of Latin America. Iona spoke with producer Paige Sutherland. [00:01:35][35.0]

Iona Rothfeld: [00:01:47] I don't remember a time where I wasn't playing soccer. My mom and all my family is really sporty. But soccer was my thing. Like, I didn't—like she gave me the ball with the hand, and I, like, naturally kick it with my feet. It was natural for me, and since then it has been like the one place that I feel more comfortable in the world, like everything—it's better when I'm on the field, like everything feels in place. It's what makes me happy. Like more than anything. I could feel like people look at me differently, like, "Why is she playing? Why—why she's the only girl playing?" And I didn't realize until I was told that I was the only girl playing. Because when you're a kid, you're just a kid. You know, you don't see gender. But yeah, I was like told from really little that that wasn't my place, and it was hard for me to realize like the place that make me feel more comfortable, someone was saying it wasn't my place. I remember wanting to be a boy, because it would be so much easier. I remember immediately feeling guilty for thinking or for wishing to be a boy. I thought my mom would be disappointed. My mom is like she has a really strong character. From that moment, I realized everything was going to be a battle. And it hasn't stop being a battle. The first like reality call that I had, I was playing like here in my school, My friends got to go to academy or to practice. They start getting better than me. I'm really competitive, and I told my mom, "I want to go to an academy. I want to like train, practice, and get better." And we couldn't find any academy that would accept girls. That was infuriating. Like, why? I'm better than my friends, and I'm not able to play. It's hard to be a women's soccer player in Chile, because of machismo. Like here and in South America in general, soccer is seen as something built for men and men only. [00:04:21][154.2]

Paige Sutherland: [00:04:23] That reminds me, I read this article where you were quoted saying there is this particular phrase that's commonly used in Chile—that you hate—that if you are playing well, as a girl, you are playing like, like a boy, right? [00:04:39][15.5]

Iona Rothfeld: [00:04:40] Yeah, yeah, I hated that, because please don't compare me to them. To be, like, good at any level, being a girl or a woman, it's twice or even more hard than for a guy. It's almost shameful that you're not good at soccer being a boy in Chile, but being a girl, like you have obstacles like everywhere. And yeah, I remember just watching women's soccer, seeing like amazing players on the field, and another guy sitting like next to me saying, "Oh, she's, she's, she's so good. She's like a man. " Come on, like, it's—why?. And it's said, like people say it all the time. We always, like, practice on the last field or had the worst locker room or have the uniforms that they weren't going to use anymore. I remember the way some coaches talked to us, they made us feel like we should be grateful for whatever little thing they gave us, because they didn't have like any obligation, because that wasn't our place. They didn't say, "This isn't your place," but they made us feel like that. Not only in Chile, in South America, soccer, it's deeply rooted in our culture, in our identity. And I don't know how that dialogues left women aside. It's part of who we are. I don't know why the men think soccer is something that belongs only to them, something that they created or that it's better played by men. So, yeah, when we try to,to gain that space, to gain that place on the field, they feel—even though they think of themselves so strong and masculine—they feel so threatened when they're sharing the field with a girl. It's almost funny, if it wasn't terrible. But yeah, that's how they feel, and they immediately tried to make up excuses. "No, you shouldn't play because you're, you're weak. You could get injured." Or, "This isn't like the place for you. Like, you should go to the kitchen. You should find a more feminine sport." What's feminine? What's masculine? We know all of that is a social construct. So what, what do you think about that? [00:07:14][154.1]

Paige Sutherland: [00:07:18] After high school, Iona went on to play soccer for one of the top universities in the country. Things weren't very different there, but the women's team still won a lot of games, including the national title—three times. But during one of those seasons, she got hurt and sprained ankle. She decided to get treated by one of the best sports doctors in town. [00:07:39][21.2]

Iona Rothfeld: [00:07:40] Yeah, I remember he told me, "Oh, this happened to you, because you were playing a sport that's not for girls." Like you picture yourself, like, answering those comments so good in your mind, but when—whenever that happens to you, like, I froze. Like, I couldn't believe what I was hearing, and I was in so much pain and I was so sad, because whenever I get injured, I get so depressed because I can't play anymore for a while and it's hard. So you're there feeling so vulnerable and you have to hear this from your doctor. I felt alone for a long time, but when I got called for the national team, I realized, like, we all shared the same story. Like, everyone in the national team at the time, we all, like, we're the only girls playing on our team. We all get mugged or we all get humiliated. Like, I felt I wasn't crazy and I wasn't by myself. I thought everything would stop when I got called to the national team. Like I was, yeah, this is—this is my time. It's the national team, like, here is what I'm watching on TV. I'm going to get, I don't know, famous. I'm going to represent my country. Maybe I can make a career out of this. I remember, like, getting for the first practice and that really, like, broke my heart. Like, we were sent to the last locker room. They didn't have, like, lights or the water didn't work. We didn't have hot water to, like, shower. The uniforms were—they were men's, and we were a little. Like, I was called up for the national team when I was 13. So the shirt got to my knees. It looks like a dress, and you couldn't play comfortably with that, you know? And what can you say? Like, I'm not going to be on the national team when that was my dream? So would you just like shut up and try to make it work. At the time, you don't have many choices. I never received, like, any money from playing soccer. Just when I was in the national team, if we got to travel outside Chile, we got paid, like, per day just to cover, I don't know, food or other things that you need over there. But I never got payment. When we qualified for the World Cup, we received like a price. But yeah, at that moment you say, "Yeah, 100 bucks, it's a lot." But then you compare that for what the price the men receive for qualifying for a World Cup, and it's like, yeah, not even the one percent. [00:10:31][171.0]

Paige Sutherland: [00:10:32] I mean, did it feel like a full time job that you just weren't getting paid for? [00:10:36][4.0]

Iona Rothfeld: [00:10:36] Yeah, for sure. You're not getting paid for, and you're, like, using your money to make it work. You have to spend for better food, for to go to to a doctor, to a nutritionist. It's a full time job. And even though it's a full job, you're never—like I was never only playing. I was always making it work with my job, with my studies, with my family. Like, you don't have, like, all the time in the world. And suddenly you realize, "Oh, I haven't talked to my friends in a while. I haven't talked to my family in a while." So, yeah, it's hard. Even though it has been hard and I've been discriminated, I've been lucky and I've been privileged to stay here. I have a lot of teammates that they weren't able to keep fighting for this. They have to get a job or they couldn't make it work. And that doesn't mean that I was better to make it work. I just—I was lucky. I was lucky enough that my family support me. I was lucky enough that we were economically good at some point, and I could, like, to pay for practice or pay for my trips or being able to take a gap year and play for the national team for the year. [00:11:54][77.7]

Paige Sutherland: [00:11:55] And that leads me to your organization that you, that you founded. What was going on with the women's national team that you thought something needed to be done? [00:12:04][9.2]

Iona Rothfeld: [00:12:05] I think it was 2014 for the [?] that were held here in Santiago. I remember that being like the last drop of a process of me waking up to a reality that I couldn't, like, get through anymore. I couldn't believe they treated us that way. We were preparing for this tournament. We had like the women's soccer team, which were us, which was the adult team. And for the men's team, they play the under-16. So they were boys. Even though we were supposed to have the priority there, it wasn't like that. They were staying in Juan Pinto Durán, which is like the national team complex where the first team practice on. They have like rooms and everything—it's like a hotel. And we were practicing at the same—like the field next to them. We got there by ourselves, like, walking or in the bus or in the subway. But they got here like as a team, because they were all staying in this complex. You need to rest between sessions. There's this complex has like, like classrooms. So we had to grab a mat and throw it on the classroom and, like, make all the chairs go back and try to rest there. Of course, that was the moment that the gardener started like cutting the grass. So it was so noisy that you couldn't sleep, you couldn't rest. That was outrageous, because you saw, like, the boys getting on the bus and go to the complex and sleep on their rooms. Then, they came back to practice well-rested and it was like, they're just boys. At least we should be at the same level, and we got to the final. We got the the silver medal. And you know, when you're at this level every day, the guns. So how much further we could get if we brought this on, they if they gave us the same conditions that they gave to the boys? And that's the moment that I said, we need to do something like here, the federation doesn't care, like the authorities doesn't care. No one is doing anything to develop women's soccer. [00:14:26][140.9]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:14:27] You're listening to The Long Game from Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. And now back to Iona Rothfeld and her story about women's soccer in Chile. [00:14:43][16.0]

Iona Rothfeld: [00:14:44] So I start speaking with my teammates. I'm telling this crazy idea of doing something. At the beginning, I didn't know what, but I knew that we needed to do something to at least raise our voices. So, yeah, I started like saying, "OK, let's, I don't know, create something that would call the authorities and tell them, 'Hey, start doing your job.'" We just wanted to raise our voices and to have someone that would defend us and try to make it work. [00:15:12][27.7]

Paige Sutherland: [00:15:13] And what did your teammates say when you first reached out and said you wanted to do something? [00:15:18][4.8]

Iona Rothfeld: [00:15:18] Everyone knew and thought that things could be better, but they didn't think it was worth the fight, because nothing was going to change because it was always being like that. Even before we, we enter the national team, that was just the reality. And everyone told us, "Stop wasting your time," "This is not going to change, "Be grateful for what you have. If you don't like it, you can go," "Being in the national team, it's an honor." Yes, of course, it doesn't mean that you should treat us this way. I question myself like every day, like, I don't know if I'm wasting my time or if this is going to work, but I knew I needed to try. At the beginning, it was just me knocking every door, talking to everyone, trying to get support, trying to get ideas, because I was kind of improvising. Like I knew some cases in Europe or some fights, but I didn't knew like how to make it work here. I had to study a lot like how the system worked. Yeah, I tried to reach people that could work with me or could guide me. That was for a year that I was working like almost by myself, and then I said, "OK, I need more people, more hands, more minds." I offered every player that I know to be part of this, and we did everything like legally to create this association that works like within the unions players, because e can't be a union because we are not professional. We don't have that. But we're working inside the union and they recognize us. They made, like, an assembly and recognized us as peers, and the FIFPRO, like international union recognized us, too. So every step gave us a little more strength. We found that on HUF in July 2016, our organization, it's gold in in Spanish association National, the world of the football film anymore. And Chile on hoof and Translation would be Women's Soccer Players National Association. We are like the first association of this kind in South America, so we are very proud of the work we do and we are trying to make a path for women's soccer to be professional. So the players are recognized US workers and women's soccer is recognized as a job. So we're trying to make more opportunities, visibility and better labor conditions for every player. Every women's player here. [00:18:14][176.0]

Paige Sutherland: [00:18:16] But back in 2016, the Chilean women's national team didn't qualify for the biggest tournament in the region: the Copa América. After that, the soccer federation decided to ignore the women's team. They didn't book any matches for almost two years. With no standings to be had, Chile's women's team was kicked off the FIFA rankings and disappeared from the world stage. [00:18:39][22.3]

Iona Rothfeld: [00:18:39] It got leaked that the U.S. invited us to a tournament over there, and we had, like, a lot of invitations to play. And just the federation rejected them, because they didn't want to spend money having us practicing if we didn't have like a big tournament coming. And it was like, how are we going to get better, how are we going to get into those tournaments if we don't practice? If you have us like not playing for two or three years? We just stop being there, stop existing. I mean, that's how it felt. So yeah, one of our first proposal was you need to reactivate the national team. [00:19:16][36.7]

Paige Sutherland: [00:19:17] But just bringing back the team wasn't going to be enough. Iona and her association looked at all the ways women's soccer in Chile could be better supported. [00:19:24][7.7]

Iona Rothfeld: [00:19:25] You need to have, like, the betterment of women's soccer inside the federation. We were, at that time, we were part of young football. And we were women's soccer, like we were adults. We didn't belong there. Tried to bring like a championship here, so we can have more visibility. Tried to make our soccer closer to the people—we need support. We had like one sheet with a lot of things, and we sent that to the federation, to the sports ministry, to the women's ministry. And we called them for a meeting. And we had the first meeting with a lot of authorities that they didn't even knew that women's soccer existed. And we told them everything that we lived, our reality, and they didn't know. Like the—in the federation, they didn't know how women's soccer worked. And we say this is the first problem. Like, you don't know what's our reality, so you're not working on us. [00:20:27][61.5]

Paige Sutherland: [00:20:27] Let me just repeat that. The women's soccer team was so ignored that those in charge didn't even know there were any problems. But to Iona's surprise, the soccer federation listened, and things started changing very quickly. They began scheduling games again for the women's national team. And in 2018, Chile didn't just qualify in the Copa América tournament, they hosted it. And they did really well. [00:20:55][27.5]

News Clip: [00:21:02] GOAL! [00:21:02][0.0]

Paige Sutherland: [00:21:05] Chile placed second overall, officially stamping their ticket to France. [00:21:09][4.3]

Iona Rothfeld: [00:21:14] And it was huge, because it was the first time that women that our national team participated in the World Cup. It was huge by itself, but it make a greater impact, because our men's team didn't qualify. So you have like, "OK, who's going to work up? The women are." Even though we have, like, less support than them, not even comparable. And that help us, like, build our cases and start the conversation that we needed to have. Like why we have less support than them, why we deserve less. If it wasn't for us, at least at that time, the national team wouldn't have been back that year, and we wouldn't have brought the Copa América, which led us to qualify for the World Cup. But yeah, I feel part of that achievement. I don't know. I think everyone is part of this. Every player that has been in the national team or tried to gain a little bit of space in the field, it's part of that achievement. [00:22:21][66.4]

Paige Sutherland: [00:22:29] Iona, sadly, wasn't on the national team anymore. Instead, she was pursuing her university degree in the states and focusing on her studies. So she wasn't going to play in France, but she was still going to be there. [00:22:42][12.8]

Iona Rothfeld: [00:22:43] It was the first time my team qualified, like I wasn't going to miss it for the world. I wasn't in the shape to be on the national team, but I started like a project with a friend of mine to go and kind of cover the World Cup because, of course, the media wasn't going to send all the journalists that they sent for the men's World Cup. It's not that important for them. We likely could go on cover all the World Cup. It was crazy. It was so emotional, I couldn't describe. I had so many emotions inside me that I felt I was going to explode, like I couldn't manage all that. I just—I said, "OK, I just need to enjoy everything." And at some point, I was sad. Every time I saw my teammates, I felt so proud of them. I have a lot of friends still in the national team, so I was proud of them seeing their achieving our dream, something that we discuss many, many times. I was sad, because I wasn't able to be there as a player to fulfill that dream. But I couldn't, I couldn't feel, like, prouder or happier for them. Seeing them having all that I wish I had when I was there, having the best staff member, having the best preparation—like Chile for the World Cup is the first time that they prepare us a professional team like they played with the best teams in the world. And when we got to the World Cup when I was under 17, we barely play international games to prepare. So yeah, it's, it was emotional. It wasn't— it was really emotional. I have a lot of things going on inside, but it was, in general, it was happiness—feeling part of that, feeling part of the achievement, feeling part of the fight. Being there, I realize that this is happening today and tomorrow, everyone was going to forget it. I started thinking to make like a documentary. And we made this short documentary about "The Voices of the World Cup," that's the name of it. And we started talking to everyone that we found there: fans, people that travel, people that work there, outside the stadiums in the clubhouses ... [00:25:12][149.6]

Iona Rothfeld: [00:25:14] [Speaking Spanish] [00:25:14][0.1]

Iona Rothfeld: [00:25:20] ... And it's not my voice. It's not the voice of one player. It's a lot of voices—of different voices—telling our story, our story that it's built on fighting, fighting for what we deserve, fighting for what's right. And I think that's, that's beautiful. You can see on that documentary, which is one of my favorite parts, a little girl, I think she's she was 10 or 11. We ask her why she wanted the U.S. to win, because she was from the U.S.. You expect from a girl to tell you, because it's my team. I don't know, because I love Alex Morgan. And she said that it was so important because they were fighting for equal pay and they were fighting for what was right. [00:26:08][47.7]

Girl in Documentary: [00:26:09] So it means a lot if they win, because it will change the world. [00:26:12][3.1]

Iona Rothfeld: [00:26:14] That is so hopeful. Like, if you have that mindset from a girl, like the future is going to be better, for sure. [00:26:22][8.0]

Paige Sutherland: [00:26:23] When the Chilean women's national team returned home, tings were different. The team now had their own designated locker rooms. They had jerseys for sale with their names on them. And they had a lot more funding. But that was only the national team. [00:26:37][13.6]

Iona Rothfeld: [00:26:37] Now, what is happening with the national tournament? What is happening with the team clubs here? They don't develop women's soccer. We do a lot of work, like social work. We have alliances with football teams that work with people that have, like, less opportunities. We go and speak with them. We try to make alliances on everything that can help players to develop better, have social support, have psychological support, have legal support. We didn't health insurance, either, like women's soccer didn't have health insurance. We were always raising money to pay for injuries or recoveries for our teammates, or—it's little steps, like little victories. But for us, there are huge ones like now we we have insurance, now we have our national team getting to work up, getting to the Olympic Games. Now we have TV broadcast, we have supporters. Every time that they talk about soccer, they still talk like 20 minutes about men's soccer, but at least they talk about five minutes about us. [00:27:44][67.4]

Paige Sutherland: [00:27:49] Iona graduated with her political science degree and moved back home to Santiago in 2020. She still works for ANJUFF and, in fact, uses her degree as its head political strategist. And of course, she still plays soccer. [00:28:02][13.3]

Iona Rothfeld: [00:28:03] I wake up and I go to sleep trying to think different ways to make it better. And I don't think many people know what they're doing or why. Why are they doing? They're just going through life. And I feel lucky to have a purpose, like I have a goal and I know I try to work toward that. I wanted to be a professional. That's my dream, that at some point I could stop working my ass off and focus on myself and trying to get back to a field or just play and be a soccer player and not an activist, director, all the things that I know I need to do right now because no one was doing it. I get emotional whenever I see little girls playing soccer, because it's not just one. There are teams. But it's like a little steps, little steps. We need to get our contracts. We need to be professional. We need to stop referring to us like second class soccer players. You know, that's that's the dream. [00:29:07][64.7]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:29:19] That's it for this episode of The Long Game. I'm your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. The Long Game is a co-production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. This episode was produced by Paige Sutherland and Karen Given, with help from Dan Ephron, Rob Sachs, Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah, and Jigar Mehta. Make sure to follow us on Apple or your favorite podcast app, and please leave us a review. To learn more, subscribe to Foreign Policy, a global magazine of news and ideas, or visit Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation. Next week on the podcast: In 2012, Annet Negesa qualified to represent Uganda in the 800 meter run at the London Olympics. But just weeks before the games, she got a call from her agent. A test had shown high levels of testosterone in her blood. She would not be allowed to compete, butAnnet's ban had nothing to do with performance enhancing drugs. [00:30:24][65.1]

Payoshni Mitra: [00:30:25] This is high testosterone, which is naturally occurring high testosterone. So there is nothing to hide about. There is nothing to be ashamed about it. This is how they're born. [00:30:37][11.6]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:30:38] That's next week on The Long Game. [00:30:38][0.0]

For as long as she can remember, Iona Rothfeld has loved playing soccer. But in Chile, soccer is considered a boys sport. When she was 13 years old, Rothfeld was named to the Chilean women’s national soccer team. She thought she had finally found a place where women’s soccer was respected. Instead, she was issued hand-me-down jerseys and told to shower in locker rooms that didn’t have hot water. In 2016, at the age of 23, Rothfeld founded the first union for women soccer players in Latin America. And things are finally starting to change in Chile.

Episode 11

Why Athlete Annet Negesa Is Telling Her Story

+ReadClose transcript

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:00:00] In 2011, Annet Negesa was one of the most promising young runners in Uganda. She was just 19 and already a three-time national champion in the 800 and 1500 meter run. [00:00:12][12.2]

News Clip: [00:00:13] Her emergence onto the world scene has given sports fans in Uganda hope that their country could have another female success story. [00:00:20][7.1]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:00:27] As the 2012 Olympics approached, Annet set a new Ugandan record in the 800. But before she could compete in London, Annet's career was derailed because of high testosterone levels. And if this sounds like a story about performance-enhancing drugs, it's definitely not. [00:00:44][16.9]

Payoshni Mitra: [00:00:45] This is high testosterone, which is naturally occurring high testosterone. This is how they are born. [00:00:51][5.9]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:00:52] Annet is not alone. Five female middle distance runners were banned from participating in the Tokyo Olympics for the same reason. Three of them had been Olympic medal winners in Rio. From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates, this is The Long Game, a podcast about the power of sports to change the world. I'm your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. Fear and shame have kept many athletes from speaking out about the guidelines affecting women with naturally high testosterone. But after seven years of silence and isolation, Annet Negesa found her voice. Sheeba Joseph has the story. [00:01:34][41.7]

Annet Negesa: [00:01:45] Running was just like my life. [00:01:46][1.4]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:01:47] This is Annet Negesa. She grew up in a small village in Uganda. She started running when she was in grade four. By the time she was in grade six, Annet was running against older kids, and she realized that not only did she love running, she was good at it. Really good. [00:02:03][15.9]

Annet Negesa: [00:02:04] By that time, I was so small, I was too tiny. And I was running with the big people. [00:02:10][5.8]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:02:11] People started taking notice. Annet received a scholarship to attend King of Kings Boarding School, which is a huge deal in Uganda, where four out of five girls don't get to attend high school at all. [00:02:22][11.0]

Annet Negesa: [00:02:22] So there was no need of telling me to go for training. I was telling myself to go for training, because I knew this is now my life. [00:02:32][10.4]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:02:33] When she was just 19 years old, a documentary film crew visited Annet at her school. [00:02:38][5.0]

News Clip: [00:02:39] The remarkable thing about Annet's success to date is that she's achieved it without a regular coach or structured training program. A huge natural talent, she's nearing the end of her education and is looking forward to committing completely to the sport. [00:02:53][14.1]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:02:55] Annet spoke through a translator. [00:02:56][0.7]

Annet's Translator: [00:02:58] Whatever happens, I know that I will be training every hour I can for the Olympics next year. Everything I'm doing now will help me be ready for London. I just hope I continue to get faster, so I can go to the Olympic Games as an athlete to fear. [00:03:13][14.3]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:03:15] In 2011, Annet was named Uganda's Athlete of the Year. And in May 2012, Annet won a bronze medal at a meet in the Netherlands. That result qualified her for the London Olympics. But only a few weeks before flying out to London, Annet received a phone call that changed everything. [00:03:33][18.0]

Annet Negesa: [00:03:34] My manager told me, "You know why you can't be allowed to go for that competition?" [00:03:39][4.7]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:03:40] Annet's manager told her that blood tests showed high levels of testosterone. Because of that, she wouldn't be allowed to compete at the London Olympics. Annet was devastated—and confused. She wasn't being accused of taking performance enhancing drugs. She was being told that the natural levels of testosterone in her blood were too high. Since the 1940s, women have had to prove that they were women just so they could compete. First, they were asked to provide identity cards called "certificates of femininity." Later, women were subjected to nude parades, where a panel of mainly white male judges would decide whether they belonged in the women's category. [00:04:28][47.2]

Katrina Karkazis: [00:04:28] As you can imagine, there was a great deal of objection to this, right? Degrading, dehumanizing to women, objectifying. [00:04:34][5.8]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:04:36] That's Katrina Karkazis. She's a bioethicist and cultural anthropologist at Amherst College. [00:04:42][6.1]

Katrina Karkazis: [00:04:43] And so they quickly got rid of that, moved to the karyotyping where you test for someone's chromosomes, then moved to genetic testing. [00:04:50][7.7]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:04:51] But no matter what tests they use, there was always a problem. [00:04:55][3.4]

Katrina Karkazis: [00:04:55] The problem is not with the tests themselves. They accurately test for whatever it is that one is testing for. The problem was the underlying idea that any singular physiological trait was enough to classify someone as male or female so that you could rely on chromosomes alone or a particular gene or genitalia alone to classify. And what clinicians knew at that point and were troubled by is that this would always unfairly exclude some women. We all have a range of sex traits. There are at least six and, actually, more closer to nine. None of them are binary, and they vary between individuals. And so the idea was that you couldn't do this fairly. [00:05:42][46.9]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:05:43] So in the late 1990s, the International Olympic Committee, or IOC, decided they would no longer have mandatory testing of all women, but they left themselves a carve out. [00:05:54][11.1]

Katrina Karkazis: [00:05:55] They had a reserve clause which said that if they deemed a woman suspicious, they could test her. [00:06:00][5.6]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:06:01] And that's what happened to Annet. Blood samples were taken at the IAAF World Championships in South Korea in August of 2011. But Annet wasn't told about her high testosterone levels until July of the following year, after she qualified for the Olympics. [00:06:23][21.9]

Payoshni Mitra: [00:06:24] If the federation had the samples from August 2011, why did they wait that long before contacting Annet? Is it just then to stop her from competing in a big tournament like the Olympics? [00:06:40][16.3]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:06:41] That's athletes' rights activists and scholar Payoshni Mitra. For over a decade, she has worked with female athletes with naturally high testosterone. [00:06:50][8.6]

Payoshni Mitra: [00:06:51] So you see what the federation is focused on. The federation is focused on the podium. It's about stopping athletes from getting to that podium—and the Olympics podium, obviously, is the most important one. [00:07:06][14.7]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:07:06] We asked the federation why there was a delay between Annet's samples being taken in August of 2011 and the investigation that began in June of 2012. But they did not directly answer our question. Caster Semenya is probably the most famous runner to be caught up in these regulations. She burst onto the scene at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin. [00:07:31][24.3]

Madeline Pape: [00:07:31] Caster was the hot favorite, so she was this up and coming junior athlete. [00:07:36][5.2]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:07:37] That's Madeleine Pape. She represented Australia in the 800 meters at the 2008 Olympics and was expected to do well in Berlin. [00:07:46][8.9]

Madeline Pape: [00:07:47] So we knew that there was this superstar young athlete coming in who was a favorite for the medal. But beyond that, I didn't hear anything else being said about her, just that she was exceptional, you know. So I was intimidated when I drew the same heat. [00:08:03][16.2]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:08:04] Madeleine remembers seeing Caster on the warmup track before the race. [00:08:08][3.4]

Madeline Pape: [00:08:08] Semenya has made no secret of presenting herself in kind of a tomboy, nonconforming sort of way, so certainly I saw that. But it didn't raise red flags for me. [00:08:20][11.9]

Madeline Pape: [00:08:25] So the race happened. I raced poorly. I was really, really disappointed wit how I ran, because I knew I was in good enough shape to make the semifinals. [00:08:33][8.4]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:08:34] But soon, rumors started to swirl about the young runner from South Africa. [00:08:38][3.9]

Madeline Pape: [00:08:39] Perhaps she had an unfair advantage relative to other athletes in the female category. Perhaps her body actually was different to other women, and she, she didn't really fit in the female category. And I remember in some ways thinking, "Oh, OK, well, you put two and two together, and it makes sense, right?" [00:09:01][22.0]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:09:07] The federation, then called the IAAF but now known as World Athletics, announced that they were going to conduct an investigation into Caster's biological makeup. [00:09:17][9.9]

Madeline Pape: [00:09:18] I mean, they publicly declared this. So you can imagine the kind of reception that Semenya had when she won gold. I mean, it wasn't that you could hear a pin drop, but it was a really muted reaction in that stadium. And I think people were just kind of confused. [00:09:37][19.6]

News Clip: [00:09:39] This athlete goes on a lap of honor. 1:55.45. Smashing the national record, of course. An amazing performance. We'll be hearing a lot more of that, no doubt. [00:09:43][3.7]

Madeline Pape: [00:09:52] I didn't really know how to react, like, do we celebrate this athlete? Do we–what? What do we make of this situation? You know, I mean, World Athletics certainly through Semenya under the bus by making that announcement the night before the final. [00:10:09][16.9]

Payoshni Mitra: [00:10:13] For the longest time, athletes with high testosterone were told that they were cheaters. They were made to feel as if they were cheating, but they have never doped. [00:10:23][10.3]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:10:24] That's athletes' rights activists Payoshni Mitra again. [00:10:27][2.8]

Payoshni Mitra: [00:10:27] This has happened over and over again that athletes have been made to feel inadequate and athletes have been made to feel that they have been cheating the system, which is not true. [00:10:35][8.3]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:10:36] Many of these athletes have what's called differences in sex development, which cause their bodies to produce unusually high levels of testosterone or "high-t." [00:10:45][9.4]

Payoshni Mitra: [00:10:46] This is high testosterone, which is naturally occurring high testosterone. So there is nothing to hide about it. There's nothing to be ashamed about it. This is how they are born. [00:10:58][11.6]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:10:58] Some of these athletes now identify as intersex. Many do not, but they all have one thing in common. [00:11:06][7.3]

Payoshni Mitra: [00:11:06] All of these women are assigned female sex at birth, brought up as girls, identify as women all their lives. [00:11:12][5.9]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:11:15] When Annet Negesa's manager called a few weeks before London, he told her the doctors from the federation asked her to go to France for additional testing to keep her Olympic dreams alive. [00:11:26][10.9]

Katrina Karkazis: [00:11:26] She was alone in a lot of her travel to these various visits. [00:11:30][3.8]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:11:31] Bioethicist Katrina Karkazis, again. [00:11:33][2.4]

Katrina Karkazis: [00:11:36] She had very little that had been explained to her, either by the doctors in her country, which was Uganda, or by the doctors who performed some of the investigations, which were the IAAF-affiliated physicians in Nice. [00:11:49][13.2]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:11:50] Annet doesn't speak French, and she says she didn't really understand what the doctors were telling her. [00:11:55][4.9]

Annet Negesa: [00:11:55] They're saying, "You need to get medication. We need to lower your testoterone levels. [00:12:01][6.1]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:12:03] According to the federation's own records, the IAAF's then-medical manager officially informed Annet of her ineligibility on July 27, 2012. But Annet was told that she could reapply after undergoing medical treatment to lower her testosterone levels. With Annet's permission, the federation forwarded her medical records from the examination in Nice to a doctor they recommended in Kampala, Uganda. Annet returned home and waited to undergo treatment. [00:12:34][30.9]

Annet Negesa: [00:12:35] I had only one decision of doing what they wanted, because I love this sport. [00:12:40][5.3]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:12:42] A few months later, in November, Annet was taken to a hospital in Kampala. She thought she had agreed to a Annet would later learn that she had been born with internal testes. She had received a gonadectomy, an irreversible procedure that completely altered her body. In their email to us, the federation says they did not recommend a specific course of treatment, and the doctor who performed the surgery has not commented publicly. But Annet's medical records indicate he was waiting for further guidance from the federation before starting Annet on hormone therapy. [00:13:09][27.8]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:13:12] You're listening to The Long Game from Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. I'm your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. And now back to our story about Ugandan runner Annet Negesa. [00:13:29][17.7]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:13:31] Annet tried to go back to the life she had before surgery, attending classes at university, but terrible headaches forced her to return home instead. Her joints ached, and her body felt weak. She didn't know how to explain to her mother what had happened to her. Annet received no follow up therapy or treatment after the surgery. She was neglected and alone. [00:13:52][21.3]

Katrina Karkazis: [00:13:53] When you lower testosterone, whether it's pharmacologically or surgically, it has a range of physiological effects. [00:14:00][7.1]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:14:01] That's bioethicist Katrina Karkazis again. [00:14:03][2.3]

Katrina Karkazis: [00:14:04] So it messes with the endocrine system, which is constantly trying to stay in a kind of harmonious balance. It can affect mood. It can mess with liver metabolism. It can create fatigue. And all of these are devastating for an elite athlete. And with Annet, she experienced incredible fatigue and nausea, and she didn't understand why. Because, again, no one had explained to her that it was important to have hormone supplementation afterwards just for simple daily living, let alone anything else. [00:14:39][35.7]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:14:40] A few months after her surgery, Annet attempted to return to sport and train again. She was in so much pain, and she wasn't able to regain her prior fitness levels. In the years immediately following Annet's surgery, India's Dutee Chand and South Africa's Caster Semenya fought against regulations that required them to lower their natural testosterone levels in order to compete. They took their cases to court and won—for a while. In 2016, Caster won her second consecutive Olympic gold medal in the women's 800 meters. [00:15:14][33.7]

News Clip: [00:15:14] And Caster Semenya is going to do what most people thought she would do in the 800, and she runs away and wins it brilliantly. [00:15:21][7.0]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:15:22] Caster was joined on the podium by Francis Niyonsaba from Burundi and Margaret Wambui from Kenya. Three years later, World Athletics banned women whose testosterone exceeded the limit from racing in middle distance events, which included the 400 meters to the mile. As a result, five athletes were banned from competing in the Tokyo Olympics, including all three of the 800 meter medal winners from Rio. Running was not only Annet's passion. For her, running meant so much more. [00:15:57][35.0]

Katrina Karkazis: [00:15:58] One of the things I think that people from the Global North may not be familiar with is the extent to which sport is a route to economic betterment in the Global South. [00:16:10][12.6]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:16:11] Athletes all over the world use sport as a pathway to a better life. But major events pay appearance fees to elite runners, and that money can go far in a place like Uganda, where the cost of living is low. Long before she even qualified for the Olympics, Annet was earning enough money to support her entire family. [00:16:30][18.6]

Katrina Karkazis: [00:16:30] One needn't have incredible prize money in order to really have a tremendous impact on their own life and that of their family. [00:16:38][7.5]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:16:39] Annet lost her university scholarship. But that wasn't all she lost. She lost the support of her country. She lost her community of fellow athletes, and she struggled to find a job. People were questioning whether she was a woman or a man, which felt incredibly discouraging for her. [00:16:55][16.9]

Annet Negesa: [00:16:56] They were seeing me like an abnormal person, like if you go looking for a job. So it was really, really hard. [00:17:02][5.4]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:17:02] For seven years, Annet was alone and sick. She wasn't receiving the medical care required after the surgery. She was isolated, thinking she was the only person who was like this. [00:17:13][10.9]

Annet Negesa: [00:17:14] I didn't have anyone to talk to, even my parents. No one. [00:17:17][3.3]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:17:20] Athletes' rights activists Payoshni Mitra tries to reach out whenever she hears about a female athlete who has been flagged for naturally high testosterone levels, but she has to know about them first. Caster Semenya's story made international headlines, but many high-t athletes like Annet simply disappear. Their medical records are shielded behind confidentiality rules. [00:17:43][23.1]

Payoshni Mitra: [00:17:44] So I could never reach out to Annet at the time, and she probably needed me the most. [00:17:48][4.5]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:17:49] But Payoshni wonders, who are those rules actually protecting? [00:17:51][2.7]

Payoshni Mitra: [00:17:52] The federations can investigate, make these athletes undergo medical assessment, extremely invasive medical assessments, and after that, what happens to this woman? She disappears. As far as the federation is concerned. She doesn't really disapper. What is disappearing is the fact that the federation has caused such harm. So the confidentiality clause was protecting the federation for seven years. It's not Annet. [00:18:24][31.6]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:18:26] Seven years after her surgery, Annet was still struggling. She had managed to find a few odd jobs—painting houses, building a cow shed. She was barely making any money. That's when another athlete introduced Annet Negesa said to Payoshni Mitra. The two started talking. [00:18:42][15.9]

Payoshni Mitra: [00:18:43] And then eventually I got a chance to go and meet her. She broke down several times, because that was the first time she was talking about it. [00:18:51][8.0]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:18:52] Payoshni helped Annet understand she has nothing to hide. [00:18:55][2.3]

Annet Negesa: [00:18:55] She's the lady who gave me courage and strength. [00:18:58][3.0]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:18:59] With that courage and strength, Annet decided to share her story for the first time in 2019. She spoke to a team of German documentary filmmakers. [00:19:07][7.8]

Filmmakers: [00:19:08] [Speaking German] [00:19:08][0.6]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:19:11] It wasn't the first time a female athlete spoke out about having high-t. [00:19:17][5.4]

Payoshni Mitra: [00:19:17] Dutee Chand and Caster Semenya were already speaking and, you know, quite famous, and a lot of people got to know about them and their struggle and their resistance. Annet adds to that story, because both of them got enough support at the right time so that they could resist severe kind of medical steps. [00:19:36][18.3]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:19:36] In June 2013, a clinical study revealed that four women athletes had undergone irreversible medical surgeries to reduce their testosterone levels, but their names were not made public. [00:19:47][11.0]

Payoshni Mitra: [00:19:48] We didn't know any athlete before who said, "Well, I went through that. I went through all of that." So that was extremely important, because Annet came out and spoke about how harmful these regulations are. [00:20:03][14.9]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:20:04] Payoshni calls Annet a whistleblower. She says Annet helped focus the attention away from the bodies of female athletes and onto the actions of the federation. [00:20:12][8.6]

Payoshni Mitra: [00:20:13] What we are doing today is criticizing the organization and what they did. So we are reversing that scrutiny today, and that is possible because Annet has openly spoken about what she went through in 2012. [00:20:27][13.6]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:20:36] Slowly, over time, attitudes toward athletes with high-t are changing. Remember Madeleine Pape, the Australian runner who lost to Caster Semenya at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin? Madeleine retired from running and earned a Ph.D. in sociology. She's now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, where she studies gender equity in sport. Madeleine has a deep admiration for Annet's decision to come forward. [00:21:05][29.1]

Madeleine Pape: [00:21:06] It's clear when Annet talks that people really stop and listen. Because for a long time, this issue has been underground, and we haven't actually had the opportunity to hear first-hand, you know, the voices of the women who've been affected. And it's not Annet's job to do this, I think it's actually a really, really big burden for her to have to teach us about the kinds of effects that these regulations have had on her body and on her life. I have so much admiration for her, for her stepping up and being prepared to put herself forward in that way and claim that and say, "Yes, I am someone who has testosterone above the limit. And yes, I have had my life turned upside down by these regulations." That's a really, really brave, really, really brave decision to make. And I just wish that she didn't have to do that in order for us to better appreciate how these rules affect people's lives. [00:22:10][64.4]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:22:15] In November of 2021, the IOC issued a new framework for inclusion and nondiscrimination on the basis of gender identity and differences in sex development. Annet and more than 250 athletes and activists worked with the IOC to develop it. But while the framework was seen as a cause for hope among athletes like Annet, World Athletics President Seb Coe told reporters that the federation sees no need to alter its regulations in order to comply. [00:22:44][29.2]

Sebastian Coe: [00:22:45] Look, I'm—I read the the framework document. It's very much in alignment with everything that we believe very strongly in the principle of of of fair, fair play, open competition. Look, the broader point I need to make here is that our regulations will remain in place. [00:23:06][21.5]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:23:07] And so Annet continues using her voice to bring change to the system. She hopes that in sharing her story, she can prevent another female athlete from undergoing an irreversible surgery like the one she had. [00:23:20][12.6]

Annet Negesa: [00:23:20] There are very many other athletes who are like me. I don't want them also to go through situation which I went through. That's one of the reasons why I came out and talked about. [00:23:30][9.8]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:23:31] And athlete's rights activist Payoshni Mitra says not all of Annet's efforts are visible. [00:23:35][4.7]

Payoshni Mitra: [00:23:36] She does a lot of work behind the scenes. [00:23:38][2.2]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:23:39] Whenever Payoshni meets other women facing pressure to permanently alter their bodies to comply with the regulations, she offers to put them in touch with Annet. [00:23:47][8.3]

Payoshni Mitra: [00:23:48] This is such a personal, physical situation that they were dealing with—such a personal thing. And they were always told that you have to not talk about it, hide it, pretend you have an injury, etc. But then if another athlete comes and tells them, 'Well I was in the same position as you were," it's really helpful. And Annet does that a lot for me. She speaks to them individually, and she stays in touch. She asks me later, "How is she doing?" All she messages them on WhatsApp. There is that ongoing kind of willingness to provide support to these young athletes. She knows that she did not get it herself, but she's so dedicated and she doesn't want this to happen to anyone else. And that's important. That's a true activist. [00:24:35][47.4]

Sheeba Josheph: [00:24:37] We asked Annet what she hopes people will take away from her story and what changes she hopes to see for high-t athletes in the future. [00:24:45][7.3]

Annet Negesa: [00:24:45] What I can say about that is like, let them take the people as they were, as they were born, as they were created. You are not God. God is the one who created that person. And even the mom who produce that kid, she didn't know that she is producing such a kind of kid. So let them take us as we are. [00:25:12][26.8]

Annet Negesa: [00:25:42] I'm Negesa Annet from Uganda. 800 meters. African champion 2011. And I'm who I am, and I'm proud of myself. [00:25:52][10.2]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:26:06] That's it for this episode of The Long Game. I'm your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. The Long Game is a co-production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. This episode was produced by Sheeba, Joseph and Karen Given, with help from Kim by Karma, Joe Hawthorne, Dan Ephron, Rob Sachs, Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah, and Jigar Mehta. To hear more about Annet, check out Out There, an award winning podcast that explores big questions through intimate stories outdoors. Annet is featured in an episode that dropped on November 18th called, "In the Name of Fairness." Find it wherever you listen to podcasts. Make sure to follow us on Apple or your favorite podcast app, and please leave us a review. To learn more, subscribe to Foreign Policy, a global magazine of news and ideas, or visit Doha Debates a production of Qatar Foundation. Next week on the podcast, since becoming an environmental activist, American football player Ovie Mughelli has been invited to a lot of lectures, conferences, and fundraising events. He's often the only black person in the room. [00:27:16][70.2]

Ovie Mughelli: [00:27:16] We have a global problem. We need a global solution. And I wanted to bring more people who look like me who are dealing with the negative effects of the environment, climate change, global warming, the whole thing. I wanted them to be part of the solution. [00:27:29][12.3]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:27:29] That's next week on The Long Game. [00:27:29][0.0]

In 2012, Annet Negesa qualified to represent Uganda in the 800-meter run at the London Olympics. But just weeks before the Games, she got a call from her agent. A test had shown high levels of naturally occurring testosterone in her blood. She would not be allowed to compete. In an attempt to restore her eligibility, Negesa, who is intersex, underwent a serious, irreversible surgery that derailed her career and left her with serious medical side effects. Now, Negesa is sharing her story to try to help other women avoid the same fate.

Episode 12

How a Former NFL Player Tackles Environmental Racism—With Help From a Cartoon

+ReadClose transcript

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:00:00] Around the world, black and brown communities are disproportionately affected by pollution and climate change. [00:00:05][5.3]

News Clip: [00:00:05] Flint residents are irate. Their water is not safe. [00:00:08][2.8]

News Clip: [00:00:16] We're in what's known as Cancer Alley in Louisiana, an area between New Orleans and Baton Rouge lined with petrochemical plants and refineries. [00:00:24][8.3]

News Clip: [00:00:31] The scrap yards there at Agbogbloshie may be one of the most polluted places on Earth. [00:00:35][4.4]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:00:43] It's no coincidence that factories and toxic waste facilities have been built near poor communities and communities of color. It's part of the larger systems of racism that exist all over the world. And, for a long time, the people most affected by environmental threats have been largely absent from the broader conversation. [00:01:01][18.5]

Ovie Mughelli: [00:01:03] I'm not trying to just have a fancy rubber chicken dinners and, you know, give me a bunch of wars I can put my office or let me find a tax write off and create a foundation. Like, all that is pointless. I really wanted to find a way where I can create a better future for my kids and all kids. [00:01:18][15.7]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:01:23] From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates, this is The Long Game, a podcast about the power of sports to change the world. I'm your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. American football player Ovie Mughelli played nine seasons in the NFL. That's a long time in a league where the average career lasts just over three years. But the legacy he wants to leave behind has nothing to do with football. Ovie spoke with The Long Game's Karen Given. [00:01:55][31.5]

Karen Given: [00:02:00] So this is a conversation about football and the environment. But I actually want to start with a cartoon series. Tell me about Captain Planet. Why did it resonate with you when you were a kid? [00:02:09][9.4]

Ovie Mughelli: [00:02:10] Yeah, Captin Planet. Just the name, like, puts a smile on my face. [00:02:13][3.3]

Clip from Captain Planet: [00:02:14] I am Captain Planet. Go Planet! [00:02:19][5.0]

Ovie Mughelli: [00:02:19] Captain Planet, was my jam. That was my joy. That, that was something that I really looked forward to and was fully involved in the storylines and the plots and the characters and the villains. [00:02:37][18.0]

Ovie Mughelli: [00:02:39] And it's something that had a huge part in kind of making me who I am today. [00:02:44][4.7]

Karen Given: [00:02:45] So there was one character in particular that you especially related to, right? [00:02:48][3.9]

Ovie Mughelli: [00:02:49] Yeah, absolutely. Kwame. [00:02:51][1.3]

Clip from Captain Planet: [00:02:52] don't think this is a good idea, but I cannot let you go on your own. Thanks, Kwame. [00:02:57][4.8]

Ovie Mughelli: [00:03:00] Kwame is African. I'm African-American and African. My parents are from Nigeria, mom and dad are from Nigeria. Seeing somebody who looked like me was something that was just so cool, especially back then, because you didn't see in the 80s that many African-American or prominent African-American characters that didn't fall into a certain stereotype. [00:03:18][18.3]

Clip from Captain Planet: [00:03:19] Oh, let our powers combined Earth. [00:03:23][4.1]

Ovie Mughelli: [00:03:25] So with Kwame being, you know, "Earth" and you know "Earth," you know, strong and being powerful and part of the team, and I wanted to understand, you know, why they are fighting these bad guys and try to save the rainforest. And you know, what is this whole sanability environmental thing? It made me curious. It started me down the journey. [00:03:45][20.4]

Karen Given: [00:03:48] So as I understand it, playing in the NFL was not really your original plan. So what did you think you were going to do with your life? [00:03:54][6.8]

Ovie Mughelli: [00:03:56] Well, I thought I was going to be a doctor like my dad. I saw him every day wake up, late night, early mornings. He was gone at Christmas, you know, missed my birthday, because he's delivering babies to the hospital and literally bringing life into the Earth. And he just always was working hard for his family to try and give us a better life. So I wanted to be a doctor just like him. Most immigrant children could say that. Doctor, lawyer, engineer. That's it. You got to be one of those. You're not going to be a poet or a writer or an art—no, that's not going to work in, you know, immigrant families. So I picked medicine out of the three and was—well, it's full speed ahead. I was pre-med at Wake Forest University. I was taking anatomy as a college football player, cutting up cadavers and fun stuff, and I studied for the MCATS for two months. My sister is a psychiatrist, a year older than me, gave me all her books, and I had every intention of taking the MCAT and going to med school. [00:04:48][52.4]

Karen Given: [00:04:52] Wow. So despite all that time that you actually spent studying, the Baltimore Ravens drafted you in the fourth round of the 2003 draft. Take me to the moment when you received that phone call. Were you waiting by the phone? Did you expect it? [00:05:05][13.7]

Ovie Mughelli: [00:05:06] I was waiting, Karen, and waiting, Karen, and waiting much longer than I wanted to, because I was counting my money before I even got it. I was like, alright, they say that I'm the number one fullback going to the draft by USA Today. And so, if I go mid second round, I'll get about 1.5 million signing bonus. And with that, I can get this, that, the third out. I had my car picked out. I had the vacations I was going to take. So, talk about waiting by the phone. I waited in the first round pass, it's fine. Second round pass. All right, that's fine. I'll go third round. Third round, early ... Third round, mid ... Third round, end of it and that pass. And back in the day, in 2003 when I was drafted, the first day was the first three rounds. So I had to wait a whole other day to a fourth roun cam. And everyone was like, "It's all right, Ovie, it's OK. You, you'll be the first guy taken in the fourth round." So fourth round goes, they're in the middle of the fourth round. I'm still waiting, they're almost at the end of the fourth round. At this point, I'm walking, fuming, saying I'm going to make everyone rue the day that they didn't pick Ovie Mughelli sooner. And they finally called me fourth round. They gave me a call and saying, "Would you like to be a Raven?' I was like, "Yes, I'd like to be anything in the NFL. Absolutely. Gosh darn it. What took you so long?" When they called, it was one of the happiest moments of my life, because every little kid who is out there, you know, jukun and high stepping and stiff arming and, you know, hurling and leaping and catching footballs, they want to do that in front of, you know, 60, 70, 80,000 people, millions on TV. And I actually had a chance to do that. And seeing the, the pride in my parents' eyes, even though they wanted me to become a doctor, having their son, you know, do what 1% of people in the world—probably smaller than that— get to do made them so happy, so proud, so joyous that it made me feel the same way. [00:07:01][115.6]

Karen Given: [00:07:04] So it was during those first few years in Baltimore that you first started your foundation, but the environment was not your focus. So what was your mission? [00:07:13][8.6]

Ovie Mughelli: [00:07:14] Yeah. So when I first gstartedot my foundation, it was just really trying to focus on education. So many times where you grow up, the zip code that you live in determines your success in life, and that shouldn't be. It just really bothered me that the tools that allow you to be successful aren't even being disseminated, aren't even being given out in certain communities. So my foundation really was about trying to impress upon kids the importance of education, how we can get them from their current situation to a better one, and how it can really uplift their whole family. [00:07:52][37.5]

Karen Given: [00:07:53] So in 2007, the Atlanta Falcons made you the highest paid fullback ever in the NFL. That must have felt really good. [00:08:01][7.6]

Ovie Mughelli: [00:08:01] Oh my gosh, did it? Those things happened to other people, doesn't happen to this Nigerian southern boy from Charleston. The coolest part–I always tell this story: Arthur Blank flew his private jet to Baltimore to pick me up. And I really wanted my parents–you know, my dad is the oldest of 12, my mom's oldest of 11, you know how they grew up. It's just they've come a long way, and they've never been on a private jet. Neither did I. And so I just asked Mr. Blank we could go to Charleston and pick up my parents. And he was like, "OK, sure." We went to Charleston, my hometown. My parents were dressed up in their Nigerian garb and the headdress and the the whole, the whole thing. And they came like it was coming to America. It was great. They were— Arthur Blankset a limo to pick them up. And so they walked down the red carpet, walked into the jet. We had the steak and lobster and just, you know, high class service. And it was just a really cool thing, because my my—oh gosh, no, it's it's still chokes me up now, because my mom was crying like half the thing. I was like, "Mom, stop crying. This is a really happy moment." She's just like, "I just can't believe this. I just can't believe this. I just, you know, she's like, Thank you, Jesus. We don't deserve this. Like, we've been too good to us, you know, giving all this honor and glory to my son, and we give back to you." And I was just like, "Mom, like, I get it like, you're happy, but you're making me cry." And so she was just a mess the whole time. But she, she got together when we got there, got to Atlanta. You know, the other limo went to the facility and signed one eight zero zero, several zero contract. So it wasn't just about the money, it was about the the the respect and the ability to really, really do what I wanted to for my family and for the people who I cared about. [00:09:50][108.5]

Karen Given: [00:09:53] Well, it was in Atlanta that your story connects back with the environment. So you met Laura Turner Seydel. She's an environmental advocate and the daughter of Ted Turner, who is, of course, the founder of CNN and also the guy who came up with the idea for Captain Planet. So where did you meet Laura? And did you really sing her the theme song from the cartoon? [00:10:14][20.9]

Ovie Mughelli: [00:10:15] I absolutely did. That's one thing I do remember, because I lit up when I realized who she was, because I think it was at some event that Arthur Blank had some of the Falcons go to. And, you know, at some of these events, you know, you put on the face and you shake hands and kiss babies, but you know, you're not really expecting to meet really impactful, influential people. It just sometimes it gets really stuffy, people don't let their guard down. But someone introduced me to Laura, and when they told me that they had a show called Captain Planet, I said, "Wait, what? Like Captain Planet Captain Planet?" She's like, "Yeah!" I say, "Oh, I love that show." And again, it took me back to childhood, so I sang the whole thing, and I was a huge smile on my face. She's like, "You are serious about this." Like, yes, yes, this is a huge part of my childhood. [00:10:58][43.7]

Karen Given: [00:10:59] OK, I'm going to stop you there because you have to sing the song for me. [00:11:02][2.8]

Ovie Mughelli: [00:11:03] [Laughs] It goes, "Captain Hero, he's our hero. He's going to take pollution down to zero." And so I mumble the rest, but the beginning, it just a comes with just those chords and the chorus and the action, people zooming around. They did a great job. Any kid who likes action and adventure and story would be all over it, and I was. I might have gave her a hug. Like I knew her. I was just like, "I love what your dad did." And she asked me, "Oh, you're a planeteer? So so what are you doing for the planet?" And I said, "Uhhhh, I help kids with education." She's like, "OK, that's, that's great. That's good. But what you do for the planet?" I'm like, planet's good. Like, you know, you're doing good stuff and you know your dad and you know, Al Gore's doing some cool stuff and you know, you don't need me for the planet—something to that nature. Don't quote me word for word. But I remember her letting me know that there's so much work to be done in this space. There's such a need for people who, you know, don't look like me in this space, because we need everybody. We need all hands on deck, and I love to kind of educate you and share with you what exactly is going on. And to her credit, she did. She took me to more webinars, seminars, conferences, talks, you know, luncheons, brunches. The whole time I just soaked it all and realized that, wow, I was really wrong when I said that the environment is fine and it's good. There's, there's a lot of work to be done, and I want to be a part of this work. [00:12:49][105.4]

Karen Given: [00:12:55] And as you were learning all of these things that you didn't know about the environment and environmental justice, you also learned, as I understand it, how it was especially relevant to the kids you were already working with, right? [00:13:08][13.0]

Ovie Mughelli: [00:13:09] Absolutely. I learned about environmental racism. I knew about racism, but I didn't know environmental racism was so prevalent. Environmental issues disproportionately affect black and brown people, because they're lower income sometimes and because they don't have the ability to fight back. The landfills, the coal plants, you know, the polluted areas are built around black and brown neighborhoods. These kids are dealing with, you know, asthma and other issues where they can't focus and concentrate at school. It's just a downward spiral that they deal with. It's just the more I learn, the more I realized that I have to find a way to use my position and again, after getting this great contract, I could do anything. I could work on anything. But where could I be the most useful? Where can I really leave a debt? Where could I, most importantly, leave a legacy? And I found that to be in the enviornmental space. [00:13:58][48.8]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:14:01] You're listening to The Long Game from Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. I'm your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. And now back to our conversation with former NFL player and environmental activists Ovie Mughelli. [00:14:20][18.9]

Karen Given: [00:14:22] So Ovie, in 2012, your first daughter was born, and that, too, is a story about the environment, right? So tell me what happened. [00:14:29][7.5]

Ovie Mughelli: [00:14:30] Yeah, my first daughter with my wife, my second daughter was born. But Nesia was bor, unfortunately premature. And she was itty bitty, I don't know how small she was. She was just so small and and just so precious and fit in the palm of my hands. And I wanted so much for her to just be able to, you know, come outside, breathe, come home with us and get all these wires out of her. She had some respiratory issues and they had to, you know, put all these tubes and wires. It was, it was, it was rough, to be honest with you. Every day after practice, I go to the NICU. She was there for almost a month and a half, almost two months just fighting for her life, trying to grow up and trying to be healthy. And I was excited to take her home. And when we were getting her packed up and getting her ready, I think we were almost to the car, doctor came rushing to us and said that the air quality in Atlanta right now, you know, it's fine for for you and me, but you know, for your daughter, the parts per whatever particles in the air, you know, could be harmful, even deadly for your child with the respitory issues she's been having. And I just was floored. I was angry. I was annoyed. I was irritated, and I just didn't understand how anybody in charge could let things get so bad to the point where kids can't breathe the air. You know, I have the best crib, I have the best, you know, baby food. I had the best car seat. I had the best everything. I couldn't provide, you know, her a breath of air. I couldn't protect her. It was because I wasn't doing enough in the enviornmental space. In fact I had this crazy idea that still someone else would deal with it, someone else would take care of it. You know, I'm, I'm new to the Falcons. I need to focus on football. You know, I'll do a little bit here and there. And even meeting Laura was, it was great. But then, you know, like we all do, we get excited about something, but we don't really do as much as we should do about it. [00:16:35][124.6]

Karen Given: [00:16:39] And then did the same thing happen when your son was born? [00:16:41][2.5]

Ovie Mughelli: [00:16:42] Yeah, same exact thing. He was born early. He had to stay in the NICU—not because he needed to grow or any other issues, it was because of the air quality in Atlanta. And he told us again, you know, your son has respitory issues. Just with the smog alerts that come off and on, even though they're low level smog alerts, we don't think that's safe. So we just kept him in the NICU. And both those situations, really, really irritated me. It kind of pissed me off, because I feel like if I would have done more at an earlier stage, not the situation wouldn't happen, but I can least know that we're heading in a direction to make sure other kids have to deal with this. And so after being just irritated, angry, upset that, you know, I couldn't throw money into the air and fix it, I really recommitted myself and my wife recommitted ourselves to do more in the space and not just talk about tried to create change, but actually do it. [00:17:38][56.3]

Karen Given: [00:17:39] So how did the birth of your children change the work that you do? [00:17:42][2.9]

Ovie Mughelli: [00:17:43] Well, it really pushed everything into hyperdrive. We, we started—I think we did our first green camp after a year or two after my daughter, where I had the first environmental football camp. I just knew I wanted to do something. I knew that we have a global problem. We need a global solution. And I wanted to bring more people who looked like me, who are dealing with the negative effects of the environment, climate change, global warming, the whole thing. I wanted them to be part of the solution. And I knew that walking into an African-American elementary school, middle school, high school and saying, "Hey, guys, let's talk about the environment," will get me laughed out the gym or laughed out the room in most, you know, black schools, because they're like, "Mr. Mughelli, are you serious? That's that white people stuff. Ain't nobody talking about the environment, Ain't nobody hugging trees here, you know, ain't no hippies and peace and love." Like, honestly, I had not one, but multiple African-American kids tell me that's a rich white issue. That's, that's they issue. They got time. They got the luxury. They feel bad or bored, they just want to go and do this environmental thing. We got real problems, we got real issues, we got real things. We got to worry about from, you know, violence to to drugs to deal with poverty, like we don't got the time to talk about the environment. And they were absolutely right. It made it more difficult for me to have a compelling conversation, because even though they didn't have time to deal with it, it was still dealing with them. The hurricanes, the fires, the floods, we already talked about some of the asthma issues. Just, it's not waiting for the fact that they don't care about it. It's still a slow moving monster that is negatively affecting black and brown communities. So I wanted to teach them how to make green by going green. So we talked about in the football camp, you know, we talked about green jobs. We talked about, you know, how they can uplift themselves and their family by doing right by the environment. We talked about, you know, finding ways to recycle that helped them to save money or make money or, you know, just clean up the place they live around. And we just try to find, you know, fun ways to make this something to where they instinctively do right by the environment. It doesn't cost you any money to do this. This is something that you can do for free. Turn off your lights, use less water. "We can't buy electric cars, Mr. Mughelli. We can't get all the paper straws and we don't have access to all the stuff the white people do. We don't. We can't do that." And again, I understood. I said, "I want to meet you where you're at." The first thing that we have to do is to get you wanting to be a part of this movement, wanting to really be part of the solution and understanding why it's so important for yourself and your family and for those who come behind you, for you to not leave it up to someone else like I did. And we got that message across, not to everyone, but to some people. It's just a spark. You know, Karen, you just have to like, find what makes people tick and find how to get them to have that light bulb moment and saying that I'm not going to stand on the sidelines. To use a football reference, you know, I'm not going to wait for someone else to make a play. I'm going to decide right now that I'm the one making the play. I'm going to help win the game. I'm going to score the touchdown or make the tackle and save the touchdown. I'm going to do something. And so I wanted to help these kids get the green light bulb moment. I want to help these kids kind of, you know, understand now that you're excited about this now that you want to do something, here are some resources to help you make a difference. [00:21:32][228.9]

Karen Given: [00:21:34] That's great, that's great. I mean, I know for me, when I think about protecting the environment, it seems like just such this huge impossible task. And you are working with kids who are already, as you say, juggling a lot. They're dealing with a lot. So how do you convince them that this is something that they can change, that they can impact? [00:21:56][21.9]

Ovie Mughelli: [00:21:57] I talk about a hundred yards is a long way to go when you're on the other end of the field, but it's about taking it, you know, inch by inch, foot by foot. You know, you fall forward, you move forward. My wife says you fail forward. Everyone's gonna make mistakes. But you, if you're always failing forward, you're going to get to your goal eventually. And with these kids who have other issues that they're dealing with and sometimes they don't even have the time to be interested in this, I tell them about how, how you make time for what's important. Once I convinced them how important this is, I teach them how to make time. And the biggest thing that always gets them excited is there are so many environmental jobs and you can really make any job now sustainable. You know you can be a sustainable chef, you can be, you know, sustainable trucker. There's a thousand one ways for you to make your job more enviornmentally friendly, and all that does is usually save you time, save you money. But most importantly, it's going to save the planet in the long run. So getting them to become creative and realize how they can, you know, find ways to be the first or to be trailblazers, especially because it's not as crowded. Diversity is something that everyone is looking for, and if you can be a new face and give a new perspective in these fields, you're going to be a wonderful bonus to anyone's team. [00:23:29][91.9]

Karen Given: [00:23:32] Hmm. Yeah. So in some ways, your story has sort of come full circle. Tell me about Gridiron Green. [00:23:37][5.1]

Ovie Mughelli: [00:23:38] Oh, love Gridiron Green. Love, love, love Gridiron Green. I just wanted to create something that would give people the same, you know, warm and fuzzies I felt watching Cat Planet. That same excitement, the same, you know, wonder, the twinkle in my eye by watching someone that looked like me in an environmental cartoon. I want to give them that again with Gridiron Green. I remember going to Comic-Con, I remember this very clearly, New York Comic-Con, huge Comic-Con. I was just excited I have a comic book at Comic-Con. I felt so blessed and so cool. I used to walk around, "Yeah, I booth over there. That's my comic. Yes, my comic, my name on my comic." I had people stop by. It wasn't just black people, it was all types of people. It was just even like, you know, the white kids seeing that, oh wait, black people are in the environment or there's a black superhero. No one's ever seen, you know, a sports environmental black superhero. I googled it when I was created Gridiron Green and there isn't any major one out there, but it gave people just like, you know, Barack Obama did what he became president, the reality that, Hey, you know what? We say, anyone can be president, but you know, if anyone can be president, why is there never been a black president? Oh, well, there is a black president now, and people like really, really believe that, wow, black people can be president of the United States. You know, we say, Hey, you held the environmental space is for everybody. We all belong here. We're all, you know, supposed to be—. You go to conferences, 90% white. You go to events, 95% white. You go to, you know, most, unless it's like a specifically minority-led event, most environmental pictures you see, it's we say we're inviting everybody, but we don't see everyone there. But when Gridiron Green was created, and I went to Comic-Con everywhere else, it was something that allows people to say, I can be in this movement. I see someone that looks like me that's doing things in this movement to where it's normal. It's expected. It's something that's celebrated. [00:25:46][127.7]

Karen Given: [00:25:48] And was that the Comic-Con where you met Chadwick Boseman? [00:25:50][2.2]

Ovie Mughelli: [00:25:51] Yeah, I think it was. It was, oh my gosh, that was the coolest thing ever. Because, because Black Panther had just come out or is coming out—either coming out or just had come out. I don't do this all the time, but I definitely used my whole NFL All Pro Falcon status, because there was a huge line. I had to get back to my booth so that I can sign my own autographs and man my own booth. So I told one of his handlers like, "Hey, hey, I'm a NFL player and a big fan of Mr. Boseman. And you know, I want to see if I can get a picture real quick before." And he's like, "Uh, come back at this time." I was like, "Alright, I'll come back." So I was there early. I waited, and they let me sneak in the lines, so I didn't have to wait in the hour long line to get his autograph, so I got an autograph and then, you know, they're like, no pictures, no pictures. "Let me get one picture, one picture, please." So, you know, I dapped him up and turned to the camera, I got a picture that I posted several times. And we have a 60 second conversation when there are people waiting behind us. I'm a large individual, so they weren't yelling at me to move that much. And you know, Chadwick is Chadwick. And we just, I remember he talked to me about football being great and I said, "Your comic book is amazing," and I told him about mine. THe whole moment was really special for me, because Black Panther, as we all know, was just a huge moment in comic, book or, you know, movie history, as far as it being Afrocentric, Marvel superhero, obviously Gridiron Green is not anywhere close to Black Panther, but I felt like in that same vein, I was trying to do a similar thing to bring attention to the role that people color can play in the environmental movement. [00:27:26][94.7]

Karen Given: [00:27:27] We've been mostly talking about the U.S., but everything we've been talking about environmental racism, the fact that most of the people in this space are white and the fact that most of the people affected by environmental problems are not, that's true all over the world, right? [00:27:41][14.0]

Ovie Mughelli: [00:27:41] Oh, yeah, absolutely. A thousand percent. It's a global problem. It needs global solutions. There's no reason why only a small fraction of our population should be mobilized, which I think is a great word, mobilize to fight this issue. Why are we only catering to certain people? Why are we only going to certain places? Why are we only creating events that only some people can be a part of? It makes no sense whatsoever. And, you know, it boggles my mind, and I have to be really frank at couple of conferences where some people got offended and I said, I'm sorry. I said, "Hey, enviornmental movement. Hey, leaders of the environmental movement. You've known the environment has been a very white movement in the 60s and the 70s and the 80s and the 90s and the 2000s. And why has there not been a more concerted effort, not just one where you make a pledge on the third page of your website and say, "I'm all for diversity inclusion," but why has it been a more concerted effort to make this movement more diverse? Something to where when I go to sustainable brands or green bins, two great conferences where I had a chance to speak at, and look out, I can't count the people who like me, like all my fingers and toes. And I told them at both those conferences, I want to come back here in five years in ten years, shoot in three years, and see the people in the crowd look more like the people on this planet, because that's when you're going to see really radical change. [00:29:09][88.2]

Karen Given: [00:29:11] What do you hope comes out of all this work that you're doing? What is the legacy that you want to leave for your children? [00:29:17][5.5]

Ovie Mughelli: [00:29:19] Legacy is simple. At the point where you know, I leave this Earth and go on to be with God, I want to have my kids and more importantly my grandkids say thank you for getting hundreds of thousands, hopefully millions of people of all colors excited about being involved in the environment. Sport has that power, sport has that ability to bring people together for a common goal. When you use the power sports for this, anything's possible. [00:29:45][26.6]

Ibtihaj Muhammad: [00:29:55] That's it for this season of The Long Game. I'm your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. The Long Game is a co-production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. We'll be working on another season of The Long Game. If you have ideas for future episodes, please write us at podcasts@foreignpolicy.com or tag us on social @DohaDebates. This episode was produced by Karen Given with help from Dan Ephron, Rob Sachs, Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah, and Jigar Mehta. Check out our show notes for more information on how to support the Ovie Mughelli Foundation. Make sure to follow us on Apple or your favorite podcast app, and please leave us a review. To learn more, subscribe to Foreign Policy, a global magazine of news and ideas, or visit Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation. [00:29:55][0.0]

It’s no coincidence that factories and toxic waste facilities have been built near poor communities and communities of color. It’s part of the larger systems of racism that exist all over the world. But for a long time, the people most affected by environmental threats have been largely absent from the broader conversation. But there’s one environmental activist trying to change all that. Taking his cues from Captain Planet, his favorite cartoon from the 1990s, former NFL player Ovie Mughelli is using his love of sports and comic books to help create the next generation of environmental superheroes.  
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