Sports' reaction to Queen's death is understandably complicated

·5 min read
British F-1 driver Lewis Hamilton observes a moment of silence one day after the death of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II.  (Andrej Isakovic/AFP via Getty Images - image credit)
British F-1 driver Lewis Hamilton observes a moment of silence one day after the death of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II. (Andrej Isakovic/AFP via Getty Images - image credit)

This is a column by Shireen Ahmed, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

As the United Kingdom continues to mourn the death of Queen Elizabeth II, there has been a constant outpouring of condolence from athletes, sports media personalities and organizations and clubs connected to the long-reigning monarch. She had a noted history of a love of horses and of competition.

The weekend following her death, all English Premier League matches were cancelled and many other events were quickly ended or postponed, including rugby in England and Scotland, and the Tour of Britain cycling event.

A historic rendition of God Save the King was sung at the storied Oval cricket pitch in South London as England played South Africa in a series of test matches.

The English women's cricket team played India and stood for a moment of silence.

One commenter to that post made reference to the Indian national anthem, which seems simple on the surface, but if one pauses to examine the context, it's a little more complicated. India was a British colony and the amount of brutality and oppression it endured is not only historically chronicled, but ever-present through the remains of colonial legacies that uphold systems of oppression (like shadeism and classism) in the subcontinent.

So when athletes remember Her Majesty, what are they permitted to remember under the rules of their respective organizations' propriety?

I am a woman of immigrant experience whose family was displaced from India in 1947 and eventually ended up in Canada. As such, I got used to seeing the Queen's face on currency and in public spaces. There are a fair share of people from the 32 sovereign states over which she reigned during her 70 years as monarch who are mourning her deeply. I am not unfamiliar with Commonwealth traditions. But the pressure to ignore the harm that was done and the ways in which those connections were not all rosy is something I am thinking about a lot.

Society has a tendency to canonize people after they die. But is it honest to do this? Is it fair to the citizens, claimed by the monarchy as "subjects", to not be able to grieve in their own way?

Some football clubs in Scotland and Ireland posted very simple messages up on their social media to remind supporters that the matches were cancelled. Some put up her profile to honour her legacy. And some deeply connected to British resistance celebrated her death at Tallaght Stadium in Dublin during a UEFA Conference League match between the Irish Shamrock Rovers and Swedish Djurgårdens IF Fotboll.

Many took to social media to lambaste the incident, calling it crude and tasteless.

But why are the feelings of those most brutally affected by the Crown ignored or asked to be put on hold while those unaffected continue to be the main actors in the theatre of her death?

As the public in England struggles with the worst economy in decades, the costs associated with the Royal Family is on the minds of many.

Still, reactions to the Queen's death have been complicated in the sports world. There has been criticism of racialized athletes who have expressed their condolences.

British Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton has been an outspoken advocate of anti-racism, posting on his Instagram account: "She was truly an iconic leader, an inspiration and a reassuring presence for most, if not all, of our lives."

The Queen knighted Hamilton in December 2020, a title that is a symbol of notoriety and status in modern England, but one that also carries the responsibility of servitude to the crown.

The difficulty is that Hamilton's post lauding the Queen comes just weeks just after he visited Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Namibia. The horrific history of British rule in Kenya is not unknown. Reactions to her death on the streets of Nairobi were mixed.

Hamilton could not have travelled to Kenya and remained unaware of this history. In fact, the trip was so impactful he expressed he would not be the same man. Hamilton's family is originally from Grenada — another British colony.

Is it too complicated and even hypocritical that he would express so much sorrow for a woman who was complicit in the struggles of many African nations?

I don't have an answer except to say it is very complicated.

There are those who will argue that he should not have engaged this way. And those who insist that he should be critical of the monarchy because it is a stalwart of brutal imperial history.

But Lewis Hamilton is a Black man in a world where whiteness abounds. He will be judged differently. And we know this. He is also navigating a space between many worlds.

Instead of focusing any frustration on Hamilton, it may be wiser to not police people's grief. There are anti-monarchists who have been arrested, and there are those who have shared their family histories online and suffered repercussions. This certainly leads us into deeper discussions about free speech. But the reality is that not everyone's grief can be monitored or surveilled, nor should it be. It can certainly be frustrating, and in my own experience, it has hurt my heart to watch people from my own community shower the Queen with accolades and hang on to a tradition that means little to me.

I can still recall my late paternal grandfather's tales of the viciousness and horrors of the partition of India and what he witnessed and how the British were complicit in the devastation.

But at the end of the day, if I value systems of personal freedom, people have a right to love the Queen and they have a right to critique her in sports and beyond.

I will continue to observe this fascinating period in history as I drink my chai.