The Alchemy of Sports and Politics

| 4/27/2012 9:15:49 AM

Bahrain GP
Formula 1 racing, like all sports, is not supposed to be about politics. F1 is really about everything else—speed, strategy, innovation. It’s about everything going wrong all at once, and it’s about a thousand pieces coming together at the best possible moment. In this equation, politics doesn’t make sense. It’s maybe for this reason that when politics does enter sports, it seems to turn that world on its head—especially the bit about things coming together.

That’s certainly what happened at the Bahrain Grand Prix last Sunday. Admittedly, I’m a big F1 fan, and there was a lot to talk about from the weekend’s race. Sebastian Vettel won with typical style, keeping former champion Lewis Hamilton and teammate Mark Webber at a distance, and marking his first win of the year. But the real story was Team Lotus: after a two-year hiatus, Kimi Räikkönen achieved his first podium of the season after vaulting nine positions from qualifying. Meanwhile, his young teammate, Romain Grosjean, fended off Lewis Hamilton in the closing laps to gain his own spot on the podium.   

In most parts of the world, hearing that much was easy—especially in Canada or England where F1 is more popular, and the coverage far superior. But the real story yesterday wasn’t on the remote desert track. It was in the north, in Manama where ongoing protests overshadowed the weekend’s festivities. On Friday, reports The Guardian, during the first of three planned “Days of Rage,” riot police shot and killed Salah Abbas Habib, a 37-year-old protester. The night before the race on Sunday, riot police patrolled city and village streets, enforcing an unofficial curfew. Well aware of the country’s violent crackdown, F1 driver Nico Hülkenberg said the race should probably be canceled. Stopping short of expressing regret, Mark Webber told reporters there was no reason to celebrate after finishing fourth on Sunday.  

Last year, things were very different—at least in Sakhir. Amid intensifying demonstrations inspired by the wider Arab Spring, Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa requested that his country’s GP be suspended, says BBC. Activists and human rights groups praised the decision, though F1 didn’t formally cancel the even until some months later. But this year, without a formal request from Manama—aside from protesters calling for a boycott—the race went on as planned. For many, the incident mirrored the 1985 South African Grand Prix, a controversial event that defied an international boycott and divestment movement against South African apartheid. Unlike Bahrain, that race was more about future champions, as Nigel Mansell defended pole position against Alain Prost and the legendary Ayrton Senna, all of whom went on to win multiple world titles over the next ten years.

But as with Bahrain, drivers’ and team members’ reservations about apartheid didn’t stop the larger F1 apparatus from going ahead with the race. The teams that did formally pull out that year—France’s Ligier and Renault in particular—did so mainly in line with their home country’s official boycott against the apartheid regime.

It’s an old pattern. For athletes, acting on political principle usually carries a heavy penalty. In contrast to say, film stars—whose political ideals and actions are all but a career asset—the situation is a little more complicated for athletes. This was certainly true for Tommie Smith and John Carlos—the Olympic medalists whose podium Black Power salute in 1968 brought international attention to the black American struggle. As The Guardian points out, it didn’t take long for the International Olympic Committee to suspend both runners from the U.S. team. The LA Times compared the action to a Nazi salute. People booed.

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