By **Jeremy Harding**
Runners run, jumpers jump, boxers stay on their feet if they can. But Guernica’s revealing interview with Sahrawi runner Salah Ameidan is a reminder that athletes can be a problem for regimes that don’t like their ethnicity, their beliefs, or the values they symbolize merely by being who they are. The kingdom of Morocco saw great potential in Ameidan, but hadn’t reckoned on his refusal to set aside the Western Sahara for his own sporting ambitions and those of the country that’s occupied his own.
In sport, gestures count for a lot. The British lightweight and welterweight boxer, Jackie Berg—a world champion in 1930—wore a Star of David on his trunks. Everyone knows the photo of Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico, hands raised in the Black Power salute, as they took gold and bronze for the 200 meters in the 1968 Olympics.
But simple racial identity—impressed on spectator and athlete alike—can also cause a stir. After Cornelius Johnson (clearly a magnificent African American athlete) took high jump gold at the Munich Olympics in 1936, the Führer (clearly a magnificent Aryan specimen) slipped away before the presentation.
Salah Ameidan is a reminder that athletes can be a problem for regimes that don’t like their ethnicity, their beliefs, or the values they symbolize merely by being who they are.
Ameidan’s case is low-key, and it hasn’t yet got the crowds on their feet, but he’s a very powerful athlete in political terms. He’s turned down an opportunity that most track-and- field performers would have taken without hesitation. In the meantime, he stays on form. In training, Ameidan tells us, he runs about 130 km a week. In a month he’s running roughly the length (and back again) of Morocco’s 2000-km separation wall across the Western Sahara, built to keep the liberation movement away from the main towns under occupation. In other words, Ameidan’s found a way to compete for his country, even if he won’t run for Morocco.
“Not enough is known about our struggle,” Ameidan says, “and people need to be more informed.” And you could start with the former U.S. chargé d’affaires in Morocco, Robert P. Jackson, whose analysis of the Sahrawi independence struggle was lamentable.
But is anyone really much better informed than Jackson? In Endgame in the Western Sahara, author Toby Shelley offers a quick, comprehensive way to find out how Morocco ground the peace process into the sand and how the Sahrawi independence movement shifted from a liberation war to a civil rights struggle: I’ve summarized his arguments in the London Review of Books.
Perhaps Ameidan, technically a 1500 meters runner, is the best guide to the marathon contest between Morocco and Western Sahara, occupier and occupied, that’s been under way since the 1970s. The question for bystanders and well-wishers is how to keep up.
Copyright 2011 Jeremy Harding
Jeremy Harding is a contributing editor at the London Review of Books and reported from the Western Sahara in the 1980s, before the ceasefire. His books include Small Wars, Small Mercies : Journeys in Africa’s Disputed Nations (1994) and The Uninvited: Refugees at the Rich Man’s Gate (2000). Mother Country, a memoir, was published in the U.S. last year.