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Formula 1

Why sport and politics really do mix

by Edd Straw
4 min read

Sport and politics must not mix. How many times have we heard that claim?

What a simple, straightforward world it would be were that the case. Sadly, in this complicated, intertwined, and deeply problematic world, sport cannot pretend it exists in a vacuum to prevent difficult questions being taken on. Sport and politics mix constantly; to pretend otherwise is wilfully naive.

Try telling Bubba Wallace that sport and politics don’t mix after a noose was found in his garage at the Talladega NASCAR race on Sunday. Try telling Lewis Hamilton that sport and politics don’t mix when he’s constantly confronted by the inequalities that exist within F1. Try telling Willy T Ribbs that sport and politics don’t mix given the outrageous hostility he faced during his career.

Try telling any of motorsport fan who has ever felt excluded and unwelcome, be it by an overt act of exclusion or an accumulation of microaggressions whether driven by racism, sexism, homophobia or any other such destructive, divisive outlook, that sport and politics don’t mix. Human rights are, like so many things, inexorably connected to politics.

Only those not constantly reminded of the intersection of politics and sport simply because of who they are, have the privilege to argue that they don’t mix.

That’s why it’s essential to listen carefully to the voices highlighting inequality and ask how to be part of the solution rather than dismissing them out of hand.

Hamilton is F1’s one true global superstar and he has used that profile to make it impossible to deny these problems exist. As a direct consequence of Hamilton’s actions, things have changed. Fellow drivers have been given the confidence to use their platforms to support the Black Lives Matter message and become better allies to the cause.

Such is vital because, as some drivers have admitted, it can be uncomfortable to talk about knowing the complexity and risks of wading into it from a position of white privilege.

F1 2020

F1 has now launched its own inclusivity initiative. It remains to be seen whether it is successful in any meaningful way, but it’s certainly the right idea. The hope is that it at the very least continues to drive the conversations that need to happen for us all to better understand the problems that exist.

The reaction both to the F1 ‘We Race As One’ initiative and Hamilton are revealing.

It’s not that either should be immune to any criticism as nothing should be off-limits. But using social media as a barometer, while a dangerous business, reveals plenty keen to shout down the merest suggestion that action needs to be taken.

The key is to understand the topic more. Listen to people, read their writings, watch their videos, read their stories

For some of those, the message is a clear ‘stay in your lane’, a deeply problematic position given the history of racism and the underlying assumptions implicit in the suggestion that someone like Hamilton should simply keep quiet and get on with his job of being a racing driver and no more than that.

The contention that Hamilton cannot speak on this topic because he’s not standing against the almost infinite number of other valid causes, including some with a direct connection to F1, is also deeply unfair. The logical conclusion to this stance of whataboutery is that nobody may fight for any good cause unless they do so for all of them, which is an impossible standard to hold anyone to.

As for criticising Hamilton for current employer Mercedes’s wartime ties, these are undeniable. But they are not relevant today given the transformation in those organisations and are simply a crude way to attempt to deny him the right to talk about a topic that he has every right to raise.

Lewis Hamilton Daniel Ricciardo F1 2020

But this does not mean those who offer such reaction should be condemned, or that it follows those of you reading this who do argue sport and politics don’t mix are to be treated like pariahs. The reason for raising awareness of these societal problems and how they manifest themselves within a sport is to create discussion and foster greater understanding

The key is to understand the topic more. Listen to people, read their writings, watch their videos, read their stories. Then the complexity of the issue in question will start to unravel and we can all at least endeavour to have a small part in the solution. The same applies to those on all sides of any argument, because only by doing that can people really start to communicate and break down the barriers that exist.

If you are reading this, you are almost certainly a fan of motorsport. Why would you not want to ensure motorsport is open to the maximum number of people to enjoy it, to contribute, to enrich it?

F1 Austria 2020

After all, there’s a real sadness about the lack of fans at this year’s closed-door races given what mass participation brings to Formula 1. Why would any of us want to close the door, even unwittingly, to anyone by pretending that sport and politics don’t mix?

Perhaps there will come a time when sport and politics truly don’t mix. But that’s a long way off and could only exist in a far more fair, equal and, sadly, perhaps impossible world. Until then, it is everyone’s responsibility to listen, learn, and make their own contribution, no matter how small, to changing things across a wide range of causes.

Too often, the sport and politics line is used as a ‘get out of jail’ free card. It’s time for us all to face these challenging problems and simply do better.

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