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    The Alchemy of Sports and Politics

    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
    .

    Published on Apr 27, 2012

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