Leo Mckinstry

If homophobia is a problem for bobsled, why is it OK for cricket?

The Twenty20 World Cup and a tale of sporting double standards

If homophobia is a problem for bobsled, why is it OK for cricket?
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Where are the threats of a boycott, the calls for isolation, the outraged letters to the Prime Minister? Where are the rainbow logos, the delegations of human rights activists, the declarations of solidarity? On 16 March Bangladesh is to host the T20 World Cup, one of the top limited overs tournaments in international cricket. All the top cricketing nations, including England, will participate. Yet the competition has not attracted so much as a bat squeak of protest from gay rights campaigners, despite the fact that Bangladesh has an appalling record of institutionalised discrimination against homosexuals. Indeed, same-sex activity remains a criminal offence in the country.

Similarly, not a single objection has been made to India’s cricket tour of England this summer, which will involve five Test matches and six one-day internationals.   This equanimity from the gay rights lobby is astonishing, given that last December India’s Supreme Court decided to reaffirm the country’s legal ban on homosexuality. It was a judgement that overturned a ruling of the Delhi High Court in 2009, which had legalised gay sex. Activists in India were outraged at the Supreme Court’s recent decision. ‘We’ve been set back 100 years. What age are we living in?’ said Anjali Gopalan, of the Naz Foundation, a gay rights pressure group in India.

But in sporting circles, this judicial regression is a taboo subject. The contrast with Russia could hardly be more graphic. In the run-up to last month’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, the airwaves were filled with indignation at the brutal homophobia of President Putin’s regime. There were demands for a boycott of the games and acres of press coverage were devoted to the evils of Russian anti-gay prejudice from both the public and officialdom.  Much of this fury concentrated on a law passed in June last year by the Russian parliament that outlawed ‘propaganda of non-traditional relations’, a piece of legislation that was supposedly designed to protect children from gay rights evangelism.

To parts of the gay rights lobby, this measure was a symbol of brutal repression, a step so intolerant that it made the Winter Games at Sochi an affront to humanity. National treasure Stephen Fry was so incensed that he even penned a letter to David Cameron, urging that the Winter Olympics should be held anywhere but Russia, since Putin’s hostility to gays was similar to the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews. ‘An absolute ban on the Russian Winter Olympics is simply essential. At all events, Putin cannot be seen to have the approval of the civilised world. He is making scapegoats of gay people, just as Hitler did the Jews,’ wrote Fry.

But there have been no such fulminations over England’s sporting links with the far more bigoted regimes of the Indian sub-continent. In fact, Russia decriminalised homosexual activity in 1993, soon after the collapse of Soviet tyranny, whereas the criminal bans have remained in place not just in Bangladesh and India, but also in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, two of the other top cricket nations from the subcontinent that will be playing in the T20 tournament next month. Less than six months ago, the government of Bangladesh, whose population is largely Muslim, openly rejected calls from the United Nations to decriminalise homosexuality, arguing that to do so would ‘conflict with the sociocultural values of the country’. In a graphic illustration of the harsh reality engendered by this stance, two lesbian factory workers from Dhaka were recently arrested for the offence of daring to live together, after local police had been tipped off about their relationship. Similarly, the President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, last year refused an entry permit to the lesbian partner of the Norwegian ambassador to his country. ‘Our women will also want to behave in this manner if we allow such actions,’ he explained in justification.

There is another crucial difference between the Russian case and that of the Indian subcontinent. For all the media furore about the Winter Olympics, Russia was only the host of the games, not the base of the sport’s governing body. No one has accused any leading figures on the International Olympic Committee of aggressive homophobia. But precisely such a charge has been made against the head of Indian cricket, Narayaswami Srinivasan, by none other than his own son Ashwin. Srinivasan, 69, a highly successful industrialist, is the president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, but Ashwin, who is openly gay and lives with his partner Avi, claims that his father has made his life a misery because ‘he is vehemently against homosexuality’. According to Ashwin, his father once used his influence to have both of them beaten up by the police with iron rods in a Mumbai restaurant. His account is disputed, but Ashwin insists that he and his partner ‘have come close to losing [their] lives due to the constant physical and mental torture’.

And what was the response of cricket’s global administrators to these allegations? Last month, Srinivasan was appointed chairman of the International Cricket Council, the game’s ruling body. Cricket is almost his fiefdom, since India, with its huge population and devoted following, provides 80 per cent of the sport’s revenues.

The hypocrisy of the gay rights lobby on this issue can partly be explained by the ideology of political correctness, which means that, because of the guilt-tripping nostrums about western colonialism and racial victimhood, campaigners are terrified of confronting even rampant prejudice among non-white ethnic groups.  This is the same cowardly spirit that has led to the scandalous complacency in Britain about misogynistic practices like female genital mutilation, predatory grooming by urban gangs of Muslim men, or the spread of unofficial sharia courts. The double standards also reflect how the metropolitan left now views Russia and the Indian subcontinent. The former is seen as a right-wing, bastard-capitalist state run by gangsters and oligarchs, which deserves all the condemnation it receives. But the latter is regarded as a land of diversity, progress and inspiration, full of heroic masses whose only faults are the legacy of the British empire.

Cricket has been drawn into highly political causes in the recent past. As Nelson Mandela testified, the sport’s international boycott of South Africa played a key role in the end of apartheid. But with India the dominant force in the game today, there is no chance of that happening on anti-gay discrimination, especially when equality campaigners, so shrill over the Winter Olympics, choose to remain silent.