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Sport and politics bound together

Sport may aspire to be more humanist - but it cannot escape politics

By Tim Franks
BBC Sports News Correspondent

There is a belief - a founding creed - that sport and politics do not mix. That sport, somehow, transcends the grubby world of compromise and intrigue and the quotidian.

"We've never, ever, ever been involved in religion or politics," Bernie Ecclestone told the BBC on Friday. "It's not for us to run a country."

History suggests that the path is not so smooth. Sport may aspire to something more humanist, and more universal. But it cannot escape.

So it is difficult to believe that the F1 panjandrums will decide solely on the grounds of "safety and security" whether to go to Bahrain. Politics permeate everything.

Sporting powers celebrate their reach and importance when it is convenient and then wish somehow that they could be left alone to get on with their competitions when it is not

Should the multi-million dollar motor-racing show descend on Bahrain, with the protests still in full spate, the ramifications will extend beyond the standings in the drivers' championship.

The demonstrators, after all, are - as in Egypt and Tunisia - trying to say that business cannot carry on as usual. F1's presence would suggest that it is.

It is not, in any case, as if sport is forever trying to spurn the embrace of politics.

The PR executives and members of the Royal Family, who persuaded Fifa to bring the World Cup to Qatar in 2022, believe that politics was key to their success - far more, in their eyes, than the many millions spent on their ambassadors and prototype stadium and splendid presentations.

They had a simple question to the Fifa executives: if now is not the right time to bring the World Cup to the Middle East, then when will be?

Major sporting events are an imprimatur of success, and - more importantly to many countries - of acceptance.

The English cricketers who went to apartheid South Africa may have said that they were just going for the sake of the game. They were called, by British MPs, "grotesque beyond belief".


The president of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, praised the Beijing Olympics as "truly exceptional": through the games, he said, "the world learned more about China, and China learned more about the world."

What we also learned, from Amnesty International and other human rights groups, is that on 13 September 2007 one of the country's top lawyers, Gao Zhisheng, wrote an open letter to the US Congress, saying he did not support his country staging the Olympics.

Just over a week later, Gao was imprisoned and tortured. His current whereabouts are unknown.

Sport matters to us because of the release it provides. At its grandest, it can unite and liberate.

But the sporting powers cannot have it both ways.

They cannot celebrate their reach and importance when it is convenient and then wish somehow that they could be left alone to get on with their competitions when it is not.

Should Bahrain still be in ferment come the beginning of March, then Ecclestone's decision will - whether he likes it or not - be making a statement which will resonate down the Arab street.

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see also
Ecclestone hopeful on Bahrain GP
18 Feb 11 |  Formula 1
Angry Bahrainis bury their dead
18 Feb 11 |  Middle East
Bahrain tightens grip on protests
18 Feb 11 |  Middle East
Bahrain police break up protest
18 Feb 11 |  Middle East
Bahrain GP 'could be cancelled'
17 Feb 11 |  Formula 1
Bahrain quells GP security fears
16 Feb 11 |  Formula 1
Alonso triumphs as Vettel fades
14 Mar 10 |  Formula 1

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