This weekend will see Formula 1 make its long-awaited, and highly controversial, maiden visit to Russia.
While I have little desire to be dragged into any mud-slinging on the subject, I don’t believe that the sport is doing itself any favours by associating with a leader as controversial and reviled as Russian President Vladimir Putin, who will (by all accounts) be making a visit to the Sochi Autodrom.
Sport should always try and steer clear of politics; it’s about uniting cultures and countries. Sport should not be used to unduly influence political, social or diplomatic activities – history will show that’s far easier said than done.
Article 1 of the FIA Statutes indicate this implicit understanding:
“The FIA shall refrain from manifesting racial, political or religious discrimination in the course of its activities and from taking any action in this respect.”
Under the current leadership of FIA President Jean Todt, however, there has been little indication that this statute has ever been followed.
Contrast this with the Mosley-era FIA stance when the Turkish Grand Prix organisers decided, in 2006, to have the winner’s trophy presented by Mehmet Ali Talat, whom it introduced as the ‘President of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a breakaway area of the country that only Turkey recognised. The Cypriot government filed an official complaint with the FIA, who quickly handed down a $5 million fine to the event’s organisers. After 2011, the event was seen no more on the F1 calendar.
F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone is a wheeler-dealer, but he has little political sensibility. One only needs to look at where he has helped schedule Grands Prix to see this in evidence. Formula 1 went to Argentina during the highly controversial military junta rule in the 1970s, it raced in South Africa during the height of the country’s condemnation for its apartheid policies, and more recently we saw the mess of trying to stage a race in Bahrain in 2011 during the height of the country’s Arab Spring uprising.
In that instance, Ecclestone and Todt chose to ignore the global view that trying to stage a race was not a good idea. Ultimately, the race was postponed and then cancelled after much dithering, and the sport’s reputation took a serious hit for failing to take a clear stance in acknowledging the obvious risks.
And so we now come to Russia where a race will take place at a time when the country has been clouded by international sanctions following its illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in the Ukraine and alleged state-supported incursions into other parts of the former Soviet country. Then came it being implicated in the appalling shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
Of course Formula 1 needs to expand its global reach, but at what cost?
When any government funds a race – be it in Australia, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi or elsewhere – there is always a political agenda. Usually the aim is to promote tourist or commercial investment in the city or country, but sometimes there’s a darker purpose: galvanising national pride in the leader and their politics. Worse still, it could be to divert attention away from other activities that the leader wants hidden from their own people or a broader international audience.
What is not considered is the damage that can be done long-term by the perception that the sport associating itself with questionable governments. Is Formula 1 tacitly accepting and condoning the country’s actions and policies in doing so?
Motorsport and propaganda have been bedfellows in the past. Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini both used pre-war races as blatant exercises in showing their countries’ political and sporting muscle. Argentine leader Juan Perón did likewise. Early era world champion Juan Manuel Fangio was once kidnapped and held hostage in Cuba by Fidel Castro’s guerillas.
Of course, there’s the counter-argument that could be applied. Virtually every country on the calendar has questionable government practices that could allow observers to connect the dots in this way: here in Australia, for example, is currently embroiled in the appalling treatment of foreigners seeking asylum on our shores to the point that the United Nations High Commission for Refugees has declared our government’s practices as completely diabolical. Should that disqualify us from staging a race each year?
I could go on, but ultimately, fault-finding with every country is not the point.
Much is going to depend on how much visibility President Putin has over the weekend. Reports suggest that he will pay a visit to Sochi, and the sport will now need to consider just how much involvement it wants to have with a man who is being accused of gross human rights violations against ethnic groups on his own soil and in the threats being imposed on his neighbouring states.
Formula 1 has shown – and will continue to show – a chase for the quick buck, and there are evidently plenty of dollars being thrown FOM and the FIA’s way in its latest adventure to new territory. Let’s hope that the sport does not get itself involved in a blatant propaganda exercise, but it’s ultimately difficult to see how it couldn’t be.
Images via Daily Gazette and Daily Mail