What’s the difference between Hein Htet Aung’s three-finger salute and Malaysia banning Israel from competing in Kuching?

Hein Htet Aung’s three-finger salute during a football match early last month cost him a one-match ban.

The action by the Myanmar footballer, who plays for Selangor FC II, may be easily brushed off by fans with the FA of Malaysia being forced to step in as to not condone unsportsmanlike behaviour.

However, the political salute widely used by anti-coup protesters in troubled Myanmar, has certainly ignited a long-standing debate between keeping sports pure and sacred or allowing athletes the freedom to express themselves.

The iconic podium image at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics comes to mind.

It is of Amercian sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos putting their fists up in the air, paying tribute to Black power as they highlight an era when racial tension was at its height in the West.

Another man in that picture, Australian runner Peter Norman who won silver in the 200m, did not raise his fist but he stood in solidarity with his peers.

It was an action that caught the world’s attention – and the athletes paid a heavy price for expressing themselves.

Boos and jeers were heard from the stands as Smith and Carlos were rushed out. They were later suspended by the US team and kicked out of the Olympic village.

Upon their return to the US, they received death threats.

Years later, Smith and Carlos were embraced but not Norman. In fact, Norman’s career ended prematurely as the Australian government turned its back on the sprinter.

It was only in 2012 that the Australian government apologised for the treatment Norman received by his home nation – that too six years after he died.

Since then, there have been other instances of athletes or nations being penalised for their political beliefs.

In Malaysia, most sports associations are run by politicians who infuse and inject their political agenda within the ecosystem.

The hypocrisy is appalling. If sports were indeed to be pure and sacred, free from racism and political beliefs, then the first step is to eradicate politicians or their proxies from the system.

In Malaysia, it is common to see ministers and chief ministers in key positions in the football structure. Millions of ringgit belonging to the state – better invested for education and infrastructure – are instead pumped into football.

But these politicians are never penalised for the wastage or their repeated failures.

In fact, policies by the decision makers seem to stray from the spirit of fair play and allowing sports to be a pure and sacred avenue.

Malaysia banned Israeli athletes from participating in World Para Swimming Championships which was supposed to be held in Kuching, Sarawak in 2019.

This is because the country does not have diplomatic ties with Israel and sympathises with the Palestinian cause. How is such a gesture different from what Hein did during the match against PDRM FC?

And what about China and Myanmar which have been widely alleged to victimise their Muslim-minority population?

Sports should indeed be pure, colour blind and viewed without any political affiliation or bias. Yet, that’s just an illusion.

At the end of the day, it boils down to the whims and fancies of those in power.