Khabib makes for an ideal role model, at the perfect time.
By popular vote of the British public, Khabib Nurmagomedov has clinched his latest award and has been crowned the BBC’s World Sport Star of the Year in its annual event recognising outstanding achievement in sport.
This marks an end to what has been an emotional year for the mixed martial arts star who lost his father, mentor, and best friend to coronavirus in the spring, before retiring undefeated and undisputed after a dominant submission victory over Justin Gaethje in October, leaving the sport of MMA as the pound-for-pound best fighter on the UFC roster and making a powerful argument for even being considered as the greatest of all time in the sport.
Khabib’s award is not just a triumph for the sport of MMA, which has steadily gained traction to unseat boxing as the most popular combat sport, but it is also a victory for minorities in a year that has seen mass protests and riots against racial discrimination across Europe and North America, and a period that has seen the demonisation of Muslim refugees fleeing war and persecution.
Khabib’s qualities are worthy of recognition
Khabib is one of those rare sporting phenoms who, as I argued earlier this year, transcends the sport he competes in. His status as an unabashedly Muslim champion stems from not only his dominant athletic performance but his character and his public image as a practising and conservative Muslim. He regularly speaks of his Islamic values, refusing to allow alcohol to be placed in front of him at press conferences, and averting his gaze from the scantily clad showgirls sports promotions love to use to draw on sex appeal.
His humble and pious conduct has endeared him to the hearts of millions of Muslim fans around the world, fans who feel under attack because of their identities as Muslims. However, he has also garnered praise from many non-Muslims, including fellow athletes and former rivals, who praised the Dagestani for his charitable donations and initiatives.
Notably, he also rebuked Saudi Arabian authorities early this year by telling them to spend the extravagant $100 million purse they offered him to fight a rematch with defeated Conor McGregor on charity instead.
It is through these and many other acts that Khabib has become an excellent ambassador for Muslims, a global faith community that has consistently been at the sharp end of Western violence, dehumanised in the media, and the butt of crude and vulgar jokes in European magazines.
Rather than taking aim at and satirising the powerful, the machinery of Western society instead targets and belittles an already weak and marginalised community, mirroring the European antisemitism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that culminated in the Holocaust.
Amongst this cacophony of anti-Muslim hatred and vitriol, Khabib stands proud and strong, a champion inside and outside the cage, setting an example for Muslims and non-Muslims alike that it is possible to be at the top of your game and simultaneously to be principled, honourable, and moral. In that way alone, Khabib has rightly earned his award and stands a cut above the rest.
Sports level the playing field
While there is no suggestion or any real reporting that Khabib faced discrimination on his way into MMA when he began his career in Russia, he certainly faced a barrage of racist and anti-Muslim hatred from his erstwhile rival McGregor, who he eventually went on to decisively smash in the cage in October 2018.
In many ways, that fight showed one reason why sports are so popular around the world – it is, quite literally, a leveller of playing fields. Barring instances of doping and other foul play, most sanctioned sports are regulated to ensure that they remain competitive. In such an environment, and while discrimination still no doubt exists, the primary consideration is almost always one of talent. When things are fair and everyone is given equal opportunity, champions have been able to emerge from minority or disadvantaged communities.
Indeed, the other big winner of the BBC’s Sports Personality Awards was another ethnic minority champion, Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton, who has not only been one of his sport’s greatest proponents and record breakers but has also used his platform to protest racial violence and discrimination against Black people in light of this year’s anti-racism movement sparked by the killing of African-American George Floyd.
While he did not win any awards, Turkish-German midfielder for Arsenal, Mesut Ozil, has also used his popularity to highlight human rights issues by taking a stand against China’s persecution of its Uighur Muslim minority and criticising global Muslim silence and apathy towards the plight of their coreligionists. He paid a price for his activism, as Arsenal has since sidelined him from playing any games, reportedly as a result of Chinese economic and political pressure.
Nevertheless, it is arguable that Ozil’s star has never shined brighter, as he has attracted broad support and praise for his principled stance.
Primarily as a result of their talent, athletes who attain stardom within their chosen sports acquire an influential role in society. Sports stars are able to amplify their voices using their platforms to reach millions in a way that would make most politicians envious, and allow the likes of footballing athlete Marcus Rashford to even force the British government to U-turn on policy decisions regarding child food poverty.
The challenge now, then, is to apply the same meritocratic principles that underpin international sporting competition and that allow the disadvantaged and marginalised to show they are equal to anyone else, and to carry that over into other fields.
Athletes like Khabib are already doing so by setting up their own organisations, passing down the ladder for others to climb up out of obscurity and to fulfil their potential on the world’s biggest stages.
Will politicians help bridge the gap between equal opportunity to excel in sports and the need for wider meritocracy in modern society? Judging by today’s obsessions with discriminatory policies and divisive populism, this is unlikely. However, we must remain hopeful for a better future for all, and sporting superstars can help in the long struggle to achieve that.
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