What do Mahatma Gandhi and competitive boxers have in common? They’ve both been powerful advocates for human rights, a group of fighters and advocates said Sunday at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

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What do Mahatma Gandhi and competitive boxers have in common? They’ve both been powerful advocates for human rights, a group of fighters and advocates said Sunday at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. 

A Romani-German boxer the Nazis discriminated against bleached his hair blond and covered his body with flour to mock the regime’s vision of "racially pure" Germans.

A Sikh who fought for the right to box for Canada without shaving his beard said Canadians shouldn’t take human rights for granted. Even though they’re enshrined in law, they’re not always a given, said Ontario light-flyweight boxing champion Pardeep Singh Nagra. 

He was stunned by the explanation when he was barred from competing in the national finals in 1999 because of his beard. "It was a danger," Nagra was told. 

The Canadian Amateur Boxing Association then changed its position about a beard being dangerous, saying it gave him an unfair advantage through a layer of protection from blows to his face. 

Nagra studied the history of boxing rules that dated back to British traditions of gentlemen being clean shaven. There was no mention of accommodating anyone for whom a beard is a religious requirement.

Nagra had to "lawyer up." He won his court case but rather than the boxing community rallying to uphold his right to religious expression, he became an outcast.

"Somehow the blame was put on me." 

Johann Trollmann was born in Germany in 1907 and started boxing at age eight and winning matches not long after that. When he grew up and started fighting for his city, Hanover, then Germany, he ran afoul of the Nazis because of his Sinti-Romani background, derogatorily called "gypsy."

"The Nazis didn’t like his heritage," said Trollmann’s great niece, Diana Ramos-Farina, invited from Germany to speak at the museum in Winnipeg.

"And they didn’t like his ‘un-German’ style of boxing," either. 

Trollmann was a winning fighter who danced around in the ring, floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee decades before Muhammad Ali. He was allowed to compete but only if he stood still and fought with his fists, in the proper German style, she said. Her great-uncle took it further than that.

"He dyed his hair blond and covered his body in flour and stepped in the ring like that." 

His career was over. He ended up in a concentration camp where he was beaten to death. It’s been more than 70 years since his death but persecution continues for some athletes.

"Racism in sports is still fairly common although it’s not publicly accepted," said Ramos-Farina. 

To counter that, a foundation in Germany is funding disadvantaged kids from diverse backgrounds so they can play sports. 

"If we’re all on one team, we lose our fear of outsiders and people who look different."

Spectators, athletes and members of the general public need to speak up when they see and hear someone’s rights being violated, said Nagra. 

No one knows when their rights could be trampled next, he said. 

"If you’re sitting on the sidelines, to use a sports metaphor, you’re part of the problem, not the solution."

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

 

 

 

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

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