Should sport and politics mix?

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“Formula 1 is not a political sport and should not be used politically,” said Red Bull team boss Christian Horner before the start of the new Formula 1 season. Christian Horner is wrong, and the notion that sport isn’t political misses reality.

Sport is escapism. That’s why we love it. It’s the idea that you can sit down in your favorite spot on the sofa, put your feet up and immerse yourself in the world-class level at which your favorite sports are played. Whether it’s 90 minutes, 72 rounds or 18 holes, you’re so engrossed that all of life’s worries are forgotten.

The general belief is that politics and sport should not mix. Somehow the idea has developed that sport is a phenomenon separate from politics and society. This has largely been peddled by people using the sport for their own political or societal gain.

The latest example comes from the wonderful sporting utopia of Formula 1, the sporting body that has expanded its influence in countries with some of the world’s worst human rights records – Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and Qatar, to name a few.

The suits in Formula 1 introduced a ban on drivers showing political or religious expression “without prior authorisation” for the new season, which started this weekend. This ban is an attempt by the governing body to restrict riders’ freedom of expression and use their position as world-renowned athletes to push for change in the world.

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Despite the ban, Lewis Hamilton continued to wear his rainbow helmet at the opening race in Bahrain, a country where gay marriage is prohibited. Hamilton has yet to be sanctioned for his ad.

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It’s the latest addition of most likely white men in suits at a boardroom table pretending that sports and politics are not inherently linked.

Ultimately, sport and politics are and will always be linked. Sport doesn’t live in a vacuum, detached from the rest of the world. In fact, sport is inherently linked to the social and political contexts of its time. The sports themselves are shaped by this and in return help to shape society.

Look at the countless examples from the past century. The origins of both rugby union and rugby league were primarily based on the class’s origins in England. The rivalry between Celtic and Rangers in Scotland is rooted in sectarianism and tribalism surrounding Irish nationalism. The raised, black-gloved fists of Tommie Lee and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics will remain one of the most iconic individual moments in sport.

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Sport is tied at the waist with nationalism, one of the most powerful tools in a politician’s arsenal. The Olympic Games medal table does not feature the names of individual athletes, but rather a series of medals next to a nation’s flag.

Sport can be used as a vehicle to power a country’s nationalist machinery, as was so blatantly demonstrated at the 1936 Olympics. A more recent example was the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the subsequent 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, which featured political scoring and parades of national strength at the height of the Cold War.

Part of the reason politics and sport will always be intriguingly linked is because it’s now increasingly being used by politicians themselves. Sport has become a mainstay for the political elite to improve their self-image. The 2022 World Cup in Qatar has been the most prominent example so far, and Formula 1 is contradicting itself by adding races in countries that have the financial clout to include these events for their own PR development, rather than actually dealing with social and political issues to deal with their own people.

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Christian Horner’s support for a ban on motorists making political statements is hypocritical. Those comments came 3 years after Horner welcomed then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson at Red Bull’s headquarters in Milton Keynes for a photo op on his campaign trail.

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The hypocrisy is glaring. Sport will always be associated with politics while politicians use it as a prop. The fact that those in power are trying to restrict the freedoms of sports stars, the people who make their sport successful, should worry athletes of every sport.

Now more than ever, athletes have a platform to be spokespeople for issues around the world, and Williams driver Alex Albon said he feels it’s a responsibility for sports stars like him to “make people aware of these types of situations.” .

Trying to separate politics from politics threatens the purity of sport. Sport, like every other facet of life, is deeply political. There was little uproar as the sporting world reacted quickly to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, kicking them out of the International Olympic Committee and FIFA World Cup qualifiers. Where is the false outrage at these actions by the No Politics in Sport brigade, or is it too focused on footballers getting on their knees?

The title of this article gives the impression that we have a choice whether sports and politics mix. Ultimately, sport was and remains political, whether those responsible like it or not. Instead of attempting the impossible task of separating sport and politics, we should instead focus on harnessing political action in sport for the common good. If we don’t, sport risks falling behind a rapidly changing society, arguably faster than we’ve ever seen.

  • Conor Keenan

    Conor, 24. Irishman in London, desperately trying to soften my accent. sports nerd. Bad golfer. I still remember Ruud Van Nistelrooy in a Man Utd shirt. Specializing in Football, Golf, NFL and more. @conorjkeenan

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