In August, Laurence Halsted will head to the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics to represent Great Britain in the sport of fencing. But Halsted is not just in Rio to play; he is a believer that as an Olympian, he has an obligation to be part of the tradition of athletes who don’t just “shut up and play,” but say something. In May, he wrote an essay for The Guardian titled, “Olympic athletes must exercise their right to speak beyond their sport.”
In it, he issued a clarion call for Olympic athletes to rise up to challenge injustices linked to the Rio Games. In this interview, he speaks some truth about Brexit, Brazil, and the importance of being an athlete unafraid to speak out.
How could Brexit impact Great Britain’s future in international sports?
Whilst I think that the long-term effects will be neither as bleak, nor as utopian, as hardl-ine Remain and Leave campaigners will have us believe, there are certainly aspects of this decision which I find particularly saddening. The wrenching apart of the UK, coming straight after Scotland voted by a small margin in their own referendum to remain a part of it, is one such aspect. A major reason for Scotland deciding to stick with the UK was their continued membership of the EU, and since that is now due to be retracted they will most likely take to the ballot boxes again, this time with a reinforced will for independence.
Whilst there are some sports where the home nations of Scotland, England, Northern Ireland, and Wales compete separately (e.g., football and rugby), in the Olympics we have always come together as one, unified British Team. We are one of only three countries to have competed in every modern Olympics, and the only country to have won at least one gold medal at every summer Games. The British Team has a long, inspiring tradition which, in my mind, can represent a real source of pride for a people who historically have found pride in many of the wrong places.
If Scotland does achieve its own independence that could well mean that in Rio 2016 I will be amongst the last members of Team GB as we currently know it, and that is a disheartening thought. It goes heavily against my personal ideology that we should rather be removing barriers between people, and in this case even more so because I have always identified myself more as British than English. I guess this stems largely from representing Great Britain ever since I was 15. There really is nothing much more efficient for dissolving differences and fostering connection between people than working towards a shared goal, such as you find in any sports team.
Are other athletes are speaking out?
Yes, actually! In the run-up to the vote there were a number of sportspeople and celebrities voicing their opinions, mostly, if not entirely, in favor of remaining in the EU. I was very pleasantly surprised to see a statement posted by David Beckham, detailing his positive personal experiences of being an integral part of Europe and why he was voting Remain. It was simply a statement about why he was voting that way, but it garnered thousands of responses, the vast majority of those that I read being vicious denunciations of Beckham and reasons why he should just keep quiet on the subject. Even keeping the right to free speech aside, I think that Beckham was showing exactly the kind of responsible and considered approach that we could do with a lot more of from our cultural icons. This referendum was actually the first time where I have really felt that a significant number of British role models were taking their position of responsibility very seriously in that respect. And at a time where the politicians on both sides were conducting divisive, fear- and hate-filled campaigns, many celebrities were modeling a more respectful, considerate approach to the debate.