The Alchemy of Sports and Politics

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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
.

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