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The Alchemy of Sports and Politics

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.

The same was true for Muhammad Ali, who was famously banned from boxing after refusing to support U.S. actions in Vietnam. In fact, the only time when an athlete’s politics doesn’t carry this kind of risk is when the politics are outside their control. The symbolic victories Joe Louis and Jesse Owens won over (Nazi) German opponents illustrate this contradiction. No one could deny the cultural importance of Joe Louis’ triumph over Max Schemling in 1936—the event won accolades from Langston Hughes and Franklin Roosevelt, among others—but there was no talk of suspension. Critically, in both cases, neither athlete made an individual statement against injustice. Rather, their actions were important because of what they represented, almost independent of the athletes’ personal ideals.  

And this is certainly true today, though with some isolated exceptions. In particular, pro basketball stands out as more welcoming of political messages than other sports. Both the Miami Heat and the Phoenix Suns recently used their mass media presence to bring attention to larger social issues. But by and large, sports’ entertainment value trumps its politics, and its social and philosophical dimensions are usually hidden.

Speaking more recently, John Carlos blames a rising influence of money for making political questions less a part of pro sports. In the 1960s, athletes were quicker to see larger issues play out, rather than focusing on career and contractual obligations. “That’s the difference between Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan,” he told The Guardian. That would certainly be true of Formula 1. The Washington Examiner points out that Mumtalakat, Bahrain’s sovereign wealth fund, owns 50 percent of McLaren Racing, a leading F1 team. But that may only be part of the problem. Writing for Huffington, David Hobbs condemns the tendency to see sports as somehow removed from larger social issues and obligations. And that’s true of races in Bahrain, or China, for that matter, he says.

At the same time, the idea that pro sports are insulated from larger political forces is very much a Western one. Other parts of the world in fact seem to have the opposite problem, where social issues are inescapable—athletes being no exception. While Bahrain boasts no hometown Formula 1 drivers, Al Jazeera reports that more than 150 athletes, coaches and officials were arrested during Arab Spring protests last year. Two were national footballers, brothers Mohammed and Alaa Hubail, who were sentenced to two years’ imprisonment, and now live in exile. For them, an arena free of political dimensions may be somewhat welcome.     

Image by Emily Faulk, licensed under Creative Commons 

Sources: BBC, The Guardian, F1 Fanatic, PBS, Huffington, Politico, Washington Examiner, Al Jazeera, Christian Science Monitor.