There was a line in a recent newspaper article that got me thinking.
A spokesman for motorsport’s governing body, the FIA, told the UK’s Daily Telegraph, that the organisation does not mix politics with sport. My immediate reaction was to think that in the modern era, how can you possibly not? If countries of the world blatantly ignore global convention, why should sport honour them by turning up with a vast array of commercial riches and a bottomless pit of feel-good-factor?
The FIA ‘doesn’t mix politics with sport’ and when you allow for the fact the FIA is a robust, global organisation with immeasurable levels of credibility, perhaps we should consider whether there is merit in simply staying out of it. Surely the FIA can’t be wrong. Can it?
So should sport be used to teach errant countries a lesson when they step out of line, or in the age of entertainment, should it rise above international affairs and simply put on a show for the people? Do we support sport as a political tool to inflict a form of punishment, or sport as a means of public expression and release?
The FIA story revolved around political demands for the cancellation of October’s Russian Grand Prix in Sochi because Russia has been under mounting pressure following the Malaysian Airlines MH17 disaster. It’s not the first time Russia has been under such scrutiny this year – Sochi was also where the IOC staged the 2014 winter Olympics; a decision they were heavily criticised for because a large chunk of the world sees Russia’s wider social policies as being divisive, unfair and morally unacceptable.
Sport, on the other hand, is all about inclusivity and competitive fairness. So should organisers and federations turn away in protest, or turn a blind eye and put on an unforgettable, world class event to show them how it’s done?
The problem is, that when you start this train of thought, you realise it’s not just about the politicians and the sports bodies. There’s a snowball effect. Think for a second about the billions of dollars injected into sport by the sponsors and the commercial stakeholders. Isn’t it right that they should have a say too? In fact, shouldn’t there be an obligation and responsibility that comes with the sponsorship role that commercial organisations play?
Of course, businesses see investment in sport as a worthy of their brands and products and the return on investment is beneficial, otherwise they wouldn’t be doing it. But what if a sport plans to turn up in a politically sensitive region of the world, compromising a major sponsor’s business plan? The sponsor’s cash helps to make these events possible, so do they have a right to demand exclusion, do they simply withdraw their support, potentially leaving sports high and dry or in signing up, do they do so ‘warts and all’?
Where do you draw the line? If I’m a commercial stakeholder, do I advocate for the ‘right thing’ and champion the good that sport can do or do I stay silent because I’m frightened I’ll lose business? Commercial organisations can be conflicted and it’s highly possible (dare I say certain) an exec’s view will be heavily influenced by vested interest.
Christian Horner, the Principal of the F1 Red Bull team told a press conference re the Russian Grand Prix: “I think it’s wrong to make Formula One a political statement or subject when we are a sport.”
So is he right or is it merely a notion of a different horse for a different course? Perhaps each situation should be assessed on its own merits. Do you think South Africa would have rejected apartheid without international sporting sanctions? This may be an extreme example but it showcases how sport does mix with politics and how it can be used for the greater good.
If you believe sport should be used to make a political statement, surely those within it have a right to make their own political statement? Does that then mean that contracted athletes, players and drivers have a right to withdraw their labour based on politics? Have the commercial organisations that fund the sports and their celebrities handsomely for visibility, earned the right to have their say too?
Where does it end?
After reading the different perspectives from politicians and sports people, I’d love to know your own thoughts.