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Green Rage on the Baize: How activists are disrupting UK sports
Sports have long been utilized as platforms to champion causes or raise awareness about socio-economic and political issues—even by unlikely suspects.
Robert Milkins and Joe Perry were playing their first-round tie in the World Snooker Championship Monday when a man ran down the arena floor, leapt onto the table, and emptied a bag of bright orange power over the green baize.
The man was accompanied by a female protestor who tried to glue herself to the other table but was stopped by the referee before she could bind herself to the fixture.
The sudden intrusion took both the players and the crowd in attendance at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, England by surprise. However, the purpose of the protest became apparent moments later by the message emblazoned across the man’s t-shirt: Just Stop Oil.
The incursion was a political protest—the latest in a trend of activist-staged disruptions taking place at sports events in the United Kingdom.
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Soon afterwards, World Snooker declared that the table cloth had been damaged beyond repair and would need to be replaced overnight. Play was suspended while footage of the incident went viral on social media.
According to its website, Just Stop Oil is a UK-based environmental group founded in 2022 that uses “civil resistance” and “direct action” to pressure the British government to halt new fossil fuel licensing and production. The group is best known for a series of protests targeting public art galleries where activists glued themselves to famous works and, in one instance, threw tomato soup at Vincent van Gogh's 1888 work The Arles Sunflowers.
This is not the first time that Just Stop Oil has disrupted a sports event. An activist representing the group previously attached himself to a goalpost during an Everton vs Newcastle United game on March 17, 2022. He used a metal zip-tie to attach himself to the goalpost by his neck and stayed there from several minutes until he was cut free and removed by officials.
Four months later, five activists from the group snuck onto the track at the 2022 British Grand Prix during the opening lap of the race. The campaigners were quickly dragged off the circuit by security.
While Just Stop Oil’s initial targets were obvious choices—Newcastle United is sponsored by Saudi Aramco, the kingdom’s oil and natural gas company, while the Formula 1 remains one of the biggest gas guzzlers in sports—it wasn’t immediately clear why the environmental activists had targeted the World Snooker Championships? Why snooker? And what was the sport’s connection to oil and gas?
In an article published Tuesday, a spokesperson for Just Stop Oil explained the group’s reasoning.
“Why not snooker? Why should any cultural expression be outside the domain of climate action? Nothing is safe from climate breakdown. No-one gets a pass from the collapse of the life systems that make human society possible in the first place. You can’t sit comfortably and spectate while life breaks down around you: this crisis makes neutrality impossible.”
In a sense, they have a point. Sports have long been utilized as platforms to champion causes or raise awareness about socio-economic and political issues.
More often than not, the concept of political protests in sports makes spectators uncomfortable, as it distracts from their enjoyment and forces them to wrestle with difficult topics they would rather ignore. It challenges their views and threatens their favorite form of escapism. And while some critics argue that such disruptive protests do little to change peoples’ minds, there is also a case to be made that a protest that is not disruptive is hardly a protest at all.
This was evidently clear last week when animal rights activists from Animal Rising disrupted the Grand National—Britain’s infamous steeplechase event. More than 100 activists scaled the barricades using ladders and delayed the start of the race by more than 15 minutes. The protest took place in front of 70,000 spectators and millions of viewers and was a statement against the cruelty of the race in its treatment of horses.
In an oped for The Guardian, Animal Rising spokesperson Alex Lockwood wrote that the intention of the protest was to “make people stop and think.”
“The horse racing authorities and betting industry defend slow incremental “welfare” improvements, and yet horses continue to die with awful regularity: 50 so far on the tracks in 2023. On average, a horse dies every other day on the tracks, over jumps and on the flat, with many more dying in training and the paddock. The dangerous institution of the Grand National should have been retired long ago.”
Horse racing in the UK is also intimately tied to authoritarian rulers in the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere, including Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashin Al Maktoum. “Without him, Britain wouldn’t have a racing industry,” an unnamed former racing official told Declassified UK about Al Maktoum.
Lockwood also warned that Animal Rising was planning on “taking more action this year” to raise awareness about the treatment of animals. This is likely to be the case with other activist groups, who will view sports events as a prime platform for publicity. However, their persistence won’t be met with open arms.
World Snooker president Barry Hearn has called for activists who disrupt sports events to be jailed in order to deter future protests.
“We’re such a soft touch as a nation – smack their wrists, give them a small fine, maybe a bit of community hours, maybe a month in prison,” Hearn said. “It’s a ludicrous situation but what do you do about it? The problem is there’s not enough deterrent out there for these people to do anything but get away with it.”
Hearn’s saber-rattling statement echoes a growing sentiment among UK sports officials and fans. It also indicates a fear that the country will be faced with copycat incidents throughout the summer sports season. Over the next few months, England will host Wimbledon, the Open, and the London Marathon, among other events
The All England Club, which hosts the Wimbledon Championships, has hinted that it plans to increase security ahead of this year’s event. “The safety and security of all our visitors is paramount,” a spokesperson told The Guardian.
Whether radical environmentalists are planning to serve up a protest at Wimbledon, have another shot at snooker, or take to the pitch, one thing is for certain: their protests are making the UK sports establishment uncomfortable.
Maybe that is a good thing.