Basil d’Oliveira – a life to prove the absurdity of racism in sport

Cricketer Basil d’Oliveira, who had a significant impact on the modern history of South Africa, has died in his 80s. Through his achievements he single-handedly demonstrated the absurdity of racist beliefs, particularly in relation to sport.

The dramatic story of his career is covered in numerous obituaries (see for example the BBC and Daily Telegraph online) but it’s worth a short summary here:

Growing up in South Africa during the apartheid era, d’Oliveira was denied the opportunity to play cricket at the top level due to the colour of his skin. Determined and ambitious to prove his ability, he managed to move to England in 1960 where he progressed through club cricket to the professional game. In 1968, two years after his England debut, he scored 158 in a famous victory against Australia. He should have been a natural choice for selection in the England team to tour South Africa shortly afterwards.

Shamefully, he was omitted from the squad because the South African government had warned that he was not welcome. Following injuries, however, he was later called up as a replacement, which led to the cancellation of the tour. This was one of the key incidents that led to the sporting isolation of South Africa which lasted until 1991.

D’Oliveira had a distinguished cricketing career, despite the late start, and coached successfully for many years afterwards. By all accounts he seems to have been a remarkable man who made a great impact on everybody he met.

At a time when several unpleasant stories about racism in sport are circulating, d’Oliveira’s death is a reminder that pioneers in a number of sports battled against great odds to overcome discrimination at different times over the last century. Sports fans and the current generation of athletes owe much to their achievements for the opportunities that exist today.

While progress towards genuine equality in sport is not always visible from year to year, over decades the pattern is clear. The simple truth of sport is that world-class talent is unambiguous, wherever it comes from. The fact that fans want to see the best athletes and coaches want to win is a powerful incentive to challenge discrimination.

With courage, dignity and determination, Basil d’Oliveira created a chance for himself then seized it, inspiring millions in the process. If you want a demonstration of the power of sport, look no further.

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