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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 February 2008, 12:27 GMT
Spain struggles to tackle sport racism
By Danny Wood
BBC News, Madrid

Lewis Hamilton at the trackside in Barcelona
The incident gave Lewis Hamilton little to smile about
Racism is an issue in Spanish sport and reflects attitudes held in wider Spanish society.

However, cases of serious discrimination or violence based on race seem no more prevalent in Spain than in other western European countries.

Where it is possible to point the finger at Spain is for its wide tolerance for less extreme forms of racism - like using race as a way to hurl insults or make fun of someone.

The racist taunting of Lewis Hamilton is just the latest high-profile example.

'Acceptable' abuse

Four years ago, British football players Shaun Wright-Phillips and Ashley Cole were the target of monkey chants from Spanish fans during an international friendly in Madrid.

British fans were outraged, but for many Spanish fans this is seen as an acceptable way of abusing the opposition. It regularly occurs in Spanish league games.

That incident followed Spanish national football coach Luis Aragones making abusive racist comments about French striker Thierry Henry.

You could imagine that sort of incident in Britain leading to the resignation of the national football coach - not in Spain.

The Spanish Football Federation was very slow to take action, but did eventually end up fining Aragones. The Spanish press reacted, but not with much of a sense of outrage.

Thierry Henry
Footballer Thierry Henry has found himself on the end of racist abuse

The decision by a small group of fans to paint themselves black and taunt Lewis Hamilton with racist abuse at the Formula One circuit in Barcelona was denounced by Spain's sporting authorities.

But there is a definite sense among sports followers here that the British press is exaggerating an incident that could have happened anywhere to suit an anti-Alonso bias.

Spain's Fernando Alonso and Hamilton are two former team-mates who rowed publicly last season.

And Spanish sports fans - through their comments posted on news websites - often seem to condemn and excuse the abuse at the same time, seeing it not so much as racism but as bad taste in the context of a fierce sporting rivalry.

'Lamentable insults'

Jaime Martin edits the Formula One section of Marca, Spain's biggest selling sports newspaper.

''It's been exaggerated in the news reports a bit. It was only four or five people who were doing this in the context of the competition between Alonso and Lewis," he says.

"It's certain that the insults were racist, but if Lewis was bald the insults would have related to his baldness."

Like Mr Martin, many Spaniards do not see much difference between racist insults based on the colour of someone's skin and other forms of verbal abuse.

''These sorts of racist insults are lamentable and racist insults need to be eradicated, and so do non-racist forms of abuse" says Mr Martin.

On the website of national newspaper El Pais the racism directed at Lewis Hamilton is confronted in a sideways manner.

Spanish coach Luis Aragones
Spain's Luis Aragones was fined for making racist comments

A survey asks readers whether they think there should be more control of the signs and placards people bring to motor racing events.

The majority say yes, but a British audience would probably see a survey on placard control after an incident like this as rather missing the main point.

British society has much less tolerance for this form of racism than Spanish society does, and there is a consciousness about race-related issues in the UK that does not exist in Spain.

After many decades of immigration, and with it a certain amount of experience on race issues, British society is generally much more sophisticated and sensitive about race - although there are clearly still serious problems.

Spain is just starting along that same road. Until the death of dictator General Franco in 1975, migration to Spain was virtually non-existent.

The things that happens on a football field or in motor racing are a reflection of the reality of day to day life in Spain
Isabel Martinez, SOS Racism

During the last decade the population of migrants - among them Latin Americans and Africans - has risen by more than 400% to about five million.

For any society, even Spain, which has a reputation for being generally open and friendly to foreigners, that is a big adjustment.

Isabel Martinez is spokesperson for SOS Racism in Barcelona. She says: "Immigration has been a part of British society for much longer, here it is a newer phenomenon - although that is not an excuse."

"The things that happens on a football field or in motor racing are a reflection of the reality of day-to-day life in Spain."

Ms Martinez thinks the more attention that is focused on Spain's racism problem, the better.

Anti-racism groups are concerned that unless education programs are introduced in schools, sport and the workplace, current insensitive attitudes to race could contribute to serious social problems.

"What we should do is learn from that experience in Britain and use it as an example," says Ms Martinez. "It's not too late."

Circuit acts on Hamilton incident
05 Feb 08 |  Formula One
Ferdinand wants racism crackdown
04 Feb 08 |  Internationals
Hamilton saddened by racist abuse
04 Feb 08 |  Formula One

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