Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

The Man Who Would Reclaim Sports


It was 1976, and the Summer Olympics in Montreal had improbably become ground zero in the struggle against apartheid. Several dozen African nations threatened to boycott if the International Olympic Committee dared allow South Africa to be a part of the games. Montreal’s athletic jamboree was in jeopardy and the cause of all the tumult, according to Sports Illustrated, was a diminutive South African poet the magazine called “the Dark Genius of Dissent.” His name was Dennis Brutus. Brutus organized entire blocks of the world around a simple question: how can the Olympics say they stand for “brotherhood” and fair play if apartheid nations could join the festivities? It worked. The “Dark Genius” shamed the shameless and changed international sports forever. Over the course of decades, as a dissident, refugee, and political prisoner, Brutus advanced this simple athletic argument. The organizations he founded, the South African Sports Association (SASA) in 1958 and its successor, the South African Nonracial Olympic Committee, (SANROC) used it to hammer critical nails in apartheid’s coffin.

For Brutus, this work in the sports world was merely an extension of a lifetime organizing for racial and economic justice. His death on December 26th after a long bout with cancer has created an incalculable void. Not merely because he was beloved as the “singing voice of the South African Liberation Movement”; not merely because Brutus held a reservoir of political lessons; but because he remained a tireless agitator for justice. Days before the recent international climate talks in Copenhagen, the ailing Brutus called the proceedings a sham, saying, “We are in serious difficulty all over the planet. We are going to say to the world: There’s too much of profit, too much of greed, too much of suffering by the poor. … The people of the planet must be in action.”

He also never stopped holding up the dreamy ideals of sport against reality’s harsh light. Up until the final days of his life, while the leaders of South Africa celebrated the coming arrival of the 2010 World Cup, Brutus was in the streets, protesting the demolition of low income housing to make way for soccer’s international party. In December 2007, he publicly rejected induction in the South African Sports Hall of Fame, saying to 1,000 onlookers:

Being inducted to a sports hall of fame is an honor under most circumstances. In my case the honor is for helping rid South African sport of racism, making it open to all. So I cannot be party to an event where unapologetic racists are also honored, or to join a hall of fame alongside those who flourished under racist sport. Their inclusion is a deception because of their unfair advantage, as so many talented black athletes were excluded from sport opportunities. Moreover, this hall ignores the fact that some sportspersons and administrators defended, supported and legitimized apartheid. There are indeed some famous South Africans who still belong in a sports hall of infamy. They still think they are sports heroes, without understanding and making amends for the context in which they became so heroic, namely a crime against humanity. So, case closed. It is incompatible to have those who championed racist sport alongside its genuine victims. It’s time-indeed long past time-for sports truth, apologies and reconciliation.

I had the privilege to interview Brutus extensively three years ago about why he came to see sports as an arena to fight for justice. His answer was, I have come to learn, typical Dennis Brutus: refusing to be anything less than blunt and provocative. I asked him whether he agreed with me that sports could still be a lever to change the world. Instead of cheerleading the notion, he said to me,

My own sense is that sports has less capacity now to change society then it had before.  For instance, the degree that sports has become commercialized.  The degree that your loyalty is no longer to a club like it used to be because guys are bought and sold like so many slaves….The other thing that really scares me is the way that sport is used to divert people’s attention.  Critical political issues in their own lives.  Their living conditions.  The Romans used to say this is the way to run an empire.  Give them bread give them circuses.  Now they don’t even give you bread and the circuses are lousy…

But amidst his critiques, Brutus was never a pessimist, only a “critical optimist.” How else to explain that in his next breath, he also said to me,

We must however realize that the power and reach of sports is undeniable…It’s kind of a megaphone.  People will hear [political athletes] because their voices are amplified.  Not always in a very informed way.  Of course when there are exceptions, it can produce magic: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for instance or Muhammad Ali. So it does help and they do have that megaphone: but allimportant is content. All-important is politics. That is decisive.”

There are ways to honor Dennis Brutus and his memory. Read aloud his poetry at the first opportunity. Keep his words alive to “produce magic” for a new generation. Keep fighting for a global justice. And keep fighting to reclaim sports. As people are criminalized in Vancouver to make way for the 2010 Olympics, as the poor are dispossessed in the name of the 2010 World Cup, we should proudly claim Dennis’s well-worn place at the march, never allowing those in power the comfort of indifference. As Dennis said to me when I asked him how he could stay so active into his 80s, “This is no time for laurels. This is no time for rest.”

Note: I highly recommend Dennis’s brilliant collection, Poetry and

DAVE ZIRIN is the author of A People’s History of Sports in the United States (The New Press) Contact him at


DAVE ZIRIN is the author of A People’s History of Sports in the United States (The New Press) Contact him at

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


Weekend Edition
October 21, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Wight
Hillary Clinton and the Brutal Murder of Gaddafi
Diana Johnstone
Hillary Clinton’s Strategic Ambition in a Nutshell
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Trump’s Naked and Hillary’s Dead
John W. Whitehead
American Psycho: Sex, Lies and Politics Add Up to a Terrifying Election Season
Stephen Cooper
Hell on Earth in Alabama: Inside Holman Prison
Patrick Cockburn
13 Years of War: Mosul’s Frightening and Uncertain Future
Rob Urie
Name the Dangerous Candidate
Pepe Escobar
The Aleppo / Mosul Riddle
David Rosen
The War on Drugs is a Racket
Sami Siegelbaum
Once More, the Value of the Humanities
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
Neve Gordon
Israel’s Boycott Hypocrisy
Mark Hand
Of Pipelines and Protest Pens: When the Press Loses Its Shield
Victor Wallis
On the Stealing of U.S. Elections
Michael Hudson
The Return of the Repressed Critique of Rentiers: Veblen in the 21st century Rentier Capitalism
Brian Cloughley
Drumbeats of Anti-Russia Confrontation From Washington to London
Howard Lisnoff
Still Licking Our Wounds and Hoping for Change
Brian Gruber
Iraq: There Is No State
Peter Lee
Trump: We Wish the Problem Was Fascism
Stanley L. Cohen
Equality and Justice for All, It Seems, But Palestinians
Steve Early
In Bay Area Refinery Town: Berniecrats & Clintonites Clash Over Rent Control
Kristine Mattis
All Solutions are Inadequate: Why It Doesn’t Matter If Politicians Mention Climate Change
Peter Linebaugh
Ron Suny and the Marxist Commune: a Note
Andre Vltchek
Sudan, Africa and the Mosaic of Horrors
Keith Binkly
The Russians Have Been Hacking Us For Years, Why Is It a Crisis Now?
Jonathan Cook
Adam Curtis: Another Manager of Perceptions
Ted Dace
The Fall
Sheldon Richman
Come and See the Anarchy Inherent in the System
Susana Hurlich
Hurricane Matthew: an Overview of the Damages in Cuba
Dave Lindorff
Screwing With and Screwing the Elderly and Disabled
Chandra Muzaffar
Cuba: Rejecting Sanctions, Sending a Message
Dennis Kucinich
War or Peace?
Joseph Natoli
Seething Anger in the Post-2016 Election Season
Jack Rasmus
Behind The 3rd US Presidential Debate—What’s Coming in 2017
Ron Jacobs
A Theory of Despair?
Gilbert Mercier
Globalist Clinton: Clear and Present Danger to World Peace
James A Haught
Many Struggles Won Religious Freedom
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Dear Fellow Gen Xers: Let’s Step Aside for the Millennials
Uri Avnery
The Peres Funeral Ruckus
Tom Clifford
Duterte’s Gambit: the Philippines’s Pivot to China
Reyes Mata III
Scaling Camelot’s Walls: an Essay Regarding Donald Trump
Raouf Halaby
Away from the Fray: From Election Frenzy to an Interlude in Paradise
James McEnteer
Art of the Feel
David Yearsley
Trump and Hitchcock in the Age of Conspiracies
Charles R. Larson
Review: Sjón’s “Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was”