Louis Smith’s ban? British Gymnastics needs to get off its high horse

Louis Smith

News that gymnast Louis Smith has been suspended by his governing body for mocking Islam is so 2016.

I don’t want to bang on about the auto-satirical state we’re in, but this is basically the blasphemy law being revived by British Gymnastics. It’s certainly one in the eye for parliament, which abolished the offence of blasphemy in 2008 – but perhaps those outplayed politicians can now retaliate by arbitrarily changing the scoring system for the uneven bars.

By way of a recap, Smith and his fellow gymnast Luke Carson were filmed at a wedding shouting Allahu Akbar and mimicking a prayer pose, and the video found its way to the Sun last month. Smith has since apologised profusely, and accrued the standard death threats and summons to appear on Loose Women. But following a high-level inquiry into the incident at the Kettering nuptials, British Gymnastics have suspended him for two months. Announcing their decision on Tuesday, they declared solemnly: “As the custodians of the integrity and values of the sport, we have had no choice but to act responsibly.”

Wait – the custodians of the integrity and values of gymnastics? What are those when they’re at home? Perhaps, like me, you imagined gymnastics to be much as other sports, even if you do hold almost similar reservations about sports with human judges as you do about sports you can drink a pint while playing.

Leaving those debates for another column (a column which I myself have written at least twice), sports are commonly agreed to be competitive physical activities. Capable of being inspiring, certainly, and frequently places where great spirit and whatnot is on display. But above all: sports. Not established value systems, and certainly not a forum for creating pseudo-case law on free speech. To pretend otherwise is a dangerous category mistake.

But that is exactly what British Gymnastics seems to be doing. I haven’t been this troubled by insidious sport-related behaviour since the pant-wetting petition to make the BBC remove Tyson Fury’s name from last year’s Sports Personality of the Year shortlist. That, at least, had the merit of being a petition, as opposed to the top-down work of an authority that should know better.

Then again, perhaps it is all of a piece. The same type of people who don’t trust the public to vote for the right sublebrities in meaningless competitions also don’t trust the public to be able to come to its own conclusions about an obviously stupid twat like Louis Smith. As I say, he is evidently a stupid twat (you could tell on Strictly, innit – and I’m not even getting into the man-bun). Yet what is more satisfactory in a case where there is no reasonable evidence of incitement to violence: that grown-ups come to that judgment themselves? Or that British Gymnastics, of all post-parodic entities, enacts a de facto blasphemy law?

It goes without saying that there is an even higher authority for their actions – namely, UK Sport, the high-performance agency whose rulebook states that athletes may be ineligible for funding if they are “derogatory about a person’s disability, gender, pregnancy or maternity, race, sexuality, marital status, beliefs or age (this is not an exhaustive list)”.

Isn’t it? Because once they put “beliefs” in, they pretty much covered any possible base. What if an athlete was of the belief that The Life of Brian was an excellent movie, or that Father Ted was hilarious? Naturally, something tells me mocking mass would be rather less frowned upon than mocking the call to prayer. But why on earth can’t athletes be derogatory about people’s beliefs?

This is one of those debates where it sharpens the focus to consider the individuals lining up on each side. First out of the traps to condemn Smith was one Mohammed Shafiq of the Ramadan Foundation, who was prominently featured in the Sun’s coverage, denouncing Smith for his behaviour. “It’s outrageous somebody can mock any faith”, Shafiq declared – except, of course, that it isn’t. Indeed, the opposite is true. It would be outrageous if any faith couldn’t be mocked - and if any faith was so great, being mocked wouldn’t matter to them. Lest his point be misunderstood, however, Mr Shafiq took care to repeat it, declaring: “our faith is not to be mocked.”

So who is Mohammed Shafiq? His most eye-catching claim to fame arguably came in 2014, after Maajid Nawaz – a Muslim who runs anti-extremist thinktank the Quilliam Foundation - tweeted a cartoon featuring Jesus and Mohammed greeting each other in friendly fashion. Shafiq’s formal response was stark: he declared the Quilliam Foundation a defamer of the prophet (a charge which can provoke Islamists to kill) and added such billets doux as: “We will notify all Muslim organisations in the UK of his despicable behaviour and also notify all Islamic countries.” Well, you get the idea with that one. After a year of being needled about this by some, including the Observer’s estimable Nick Cohen, Shafiq finally apologised, and claimed to have “learnt a huge lesson”. Not that huge a one, it seems, if he still regards lame-arse mockery of any faith as on the banned list.

As for British Gymnastics, they don’t appear to be anywhere near learning any useful lessons – but then, they take their lead from the benighted fools at UK Sport, who bang on about the privilege of representing a country at the same time as cravenly denying that country’s essential freedoms. In many ways, it’s an old hypocrisy. Governing bodies have long come down like a ton of bricks on any athlete that gets political – yet I can scarcely think of anything more absurdly political that British Gymnastics operating a blasphemy law.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Marina Hyde, for The Guardian on Wednesday 2nd November 2016 13.05 Europe/London

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