How politicised is sport?

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The popular uprising in Bahrain earlier this year was only a cog in a greater machine which has driven a backlash against repression across the entire Middle East. However, if anyone understands the potential importance of even the smallest component, it is those involved in Formula One. Bahrain was set to host the season opening Grand Prix at Sakhir on 13th March, but Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa surrendered the right having been given final authority on the matter by Bernie Ecclestone, head of Formula One Management and probably the closest thing F1 has to a crown prince of its own. When Mr Ecclestone was asked why he was handing over responsibility for the decision to the Bahrain royal, he replied that “he will know whether or not it’s safe for us to be there.” The implication is that the only relevant consideration in the eyes of the sport was the security of the F1 circus, and he confirmed this in the same interview with BBC Radio 5 Live by saying “I don’t think it’s anything to do with politic[s].” F1 is not in the business of making political statements. The racial segregation imposed by the apartheid system in South Africa after the Second World War had drawn more and more international condemnation particularly when popular uprisings within the country were brutally repressed during the 1980s. Jean-Marie Balestre, President of the FIA at the time, was put under increasing pressure from both governments and fans to cancel the 1985 race at Kyalami but stood firm. The Grand Prix went ahead boycotted only by Ligier and Renault due to demands by the French government. A letter in Autosport from 26 December 1985 issue denounced the FIA for failing to see that if the event went ahead it would “only serve to present the country’s nationalist government with manna from heaven, a propaganda coup on a plate. In this instance, politics and sport are inseparable, for better or worse.”

This view seemed to be mirrored by several F1 insiders who were less convinced than Mr Ecclestone that the only decisive factor on the season opening race going ahead should be security of those involved in the sport. Veteran Red Bull Racing driver Mark Webber was outspoken in calling for the cancellation of the Grand Prix, suggesting that “they have bigger things, bigger priorities” than hosting a sporting event. Adam Parr, chairman of the Williams team, believed that it “would have just been incendiary” and “inappropriate” to race in Bahrain and not “sensitive to what is going on in the country.”

Last year the BBC’s Martin Brundle complimented the Crown Prince on organising a fantastic event while on his signature grid walk. To see a well respected journalist from such a fiercely neutral media outlet repeating his flattery to a monarchy ultimately responsible for the deaths of several protesters would leave a bitter taste. However, popular indignation often centres on the flavour of the month. The so-called “jasmine revolution” has dominated the international headlines ever since the downfall of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, former President of Tunisia, and this is the main reason the Bahrain Grand Prix was turned into such an emotive issue.

This does not mean that the human rights records of other countries that the West interacts with through sport and other means should be forgotten. Amid the calls for Bahrain to be banned from hosting a race for the foreseeable future, the Chinese continue to imprison and otherwise intimidate political activists, most recently by pre-emptively cracking down on minor protests in Beijing and Shanghai inspired by events in the Middle East. While interaction with China is necessary due to its role as a world heavyweight, the Economist newspaper warns against confusing “engagement with endorsement.” Awarding China both the Olympic Games and an annual Grand Prix in recent years flirts with the latter policy, just as going to Bahrain in its current state would have done.

Sporting bodies such as Fifa care far more about forging political connections and expanding their influence than about going to countries with a modicum of worker protection or tolerance of homosexuality, as evidenced by their decision to give the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. When high ranking officials such as Sepp Blatter, the current President of Fifa, make jokes about homosexuals “refrain[ing] from any sexual activities”, people will question the ability of sport to affect attitudes for the better. Governing bodies in most major sports also tend to be male-dominated and so do not necessarily set the best standards for gender equality.

Perhaps it is inevitable that as the global recognition, and therefore value, of international sports increase they will inherently become more political. It was at least understandable for Boris Johnson to be heavily involved in the London 2012 bid, but David Cameron spending three days in Zurich to lobby for England’s World Cup 2018 bid felt unnecessary at best, misguided at worst. F1 rookie Pastor Maldonado carries huge financial backing from Venezuela’s state oil company (PDVSA) in exchange for his public support of Hugo Chavez. When politicians actively seek to integrate sport and politics, it potentially damages the reputation of both, with the former appearing to be a vessel for certain ideologies and the latter becoming trivialised by association with something that comedian David Mitchell claims really “doesn’t matter.”

You are just as likely to see a teenager wearing a Manchester United shirt in a Nairobi slum as you are in a Salford school. It is always worth remembering that sport is a business above any-thing else. Branding has immense power when it comes to creating an imagined sense of community, and in a globalised world it is virtually impossible to separate, in the case of football, the idea of kicking a ball around for fun from the top brands that act as the face of that idea. In reality, a child in Kibera has little in common with a child in Manchester, and thinking otherwise potentially legitimises the disparities between them.

Sport is often portrayed as a unifying force which could teach bickering politicians a lesson. During the Second World War, British politician R.G. Briscow exclaimed, “if only Hitler and Mussolini could have a good game of bowls once a week at Geneva, I feel that Europe would not be as troubled as it is,” but it is worth remembering that sporting events can bring out the worst in people as well as the best. Had the contest between the two dictators been anything like as heated as most Rangers vs. Celtic matches the idea that sport would calm violent tendencies appears laughable, particularly if El Hadji Diouf (Rangers’ controversial winger) was involved. There is a marked difference between competitive spirit and dangerous tribalism, and where certain sporting events become a focal point for bloodthirstiness the establishment has a responsibility to pursue change.

However, sport has always played a part in highlighting our similarities rather than our differences. On the Western Front in 1914 British and German soldiers came together in the ‘Christmas Truce’ and played games of football together. Ten years after the controversial Grand Prix in South Africa, the Springboks won the 1995 Rugby World Cup in their home country, and with the help of President Nelson Mandela’s claims that “the Boks belong to all of us”, united a nation under one team and began the healing process in a country divided. Huge sporting bonanzas like the Olympics draw both participants and audiences from almost every country on the globe. With this influence comes responsibility, and sport must not be blind under the pretext of being impartial. Earl Warren, former Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court once claimed that “the sports page records people’s accomplishments; the front page has nothing but man’s failures,” but the back page cannot always plead innocent to those failings. It is not the role of sport to change mindsets, but it should seek to open minds.

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