In December, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) introduced new legislation that prohibits “the general making and display of political, religious and personal statements or comments unless previously approved in writing by the FIA.” This has come in response to a rise in the prevalence of political statements being made on the podium. Most notably, Lewis Hamilton has protested against racial inequality during the Black Lives Matter protests. As well as this, Hamilton wore a rainbow-coloured helmet at the Qatar Grand Prix, amidst accusations of human rights violations against LGBTQ+ people in the region. The attempts to restrict drivers from using their platforms to make personal and political statements raises questions about the connection between politics and sport. Should athletes be politically neutral whilst representing their sport?
There exists a history of athletes making political statements at global sporting events. US sprinters Tommy Smith and John Carlos famously protested in support of the Black Power movement at the 1968 Olympic games, raising black-gloved fists on the podium while The Star-Spangled Banner played. Similarly, Muhammed Ali’s influence in boxing stretched beyond the sport, seen in his unapologetic activism during the civil rights’ movement in America. More recently, the Iranian national football team refused to sing the national anthem in their opening World Cup match against England – in support of nationwide anti-government protests in Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini.
Running parallel to the history of political signalling by athletes, however, is the plea amongst fans to ‘keep politics out of sport’. For these fans, sport is a realm in which disparate communities join to witness and celebrate human achievement. Politics acts merely as the invasion of division into a world of unity. The projection of human excellence within elite sport, it is argued, ought to transcend the political and social differences in everyday life. It does this through a shared admiration for the world’s greatest athletes – an appreciation of their skill, commitment and teamwork regardless of their background or political beliefs. For many fans sport is escapism. It is the place that personal and political grievances are, for a short moment, forgotten.
Why, then, do the worlds of sport and politics remain inseparable? One reason is that sport emerges out of the social structures of society, leaving it inextricably tied to the political context. This remains evident at the height of sporting competition today. The geographical division between rugby league and rugby union reveals its class-based foundations and the Glaswegian rivalry between Celtic and Rangers is rooted in religious sectarianism.
Sport organises the masses around a single spectacle, influencing how social attitudes are formed and reproduced.
It is no surprise, then, that in January this year banners with the message “support the strikes” were seen at Anfield and Celtic Park and only last week chants of “f*** the Tories” were overheard during the BBC’s coverage of Wrexham’s FA Cup tie with Sheffield United. This serves as a reminder that for all those who wish politics would stay out of sport, there are those that aren’t willing, or able, to draw the line.
What is more important in the debate surrounding athletes making political statements, however, is the power of their position and the potential for sport as a vehicle for political change. Elite sporting success brings the opportunity to make a political statement that resonates with people around the world. A political demonstration on the world’s largest sporting stage is an opportunity like no other to seize the attention of millions of people. Thus, the reason that Lewis Hamilton chose to wear the rainbow-coloured helmet at the Grand Prix is the same reason that Emily Davidson chose the 1913 Epsom Derby as the stage for her protest in support of women’s suffrage, when she threw herself in front of the King’s horse.
Sport grasps our attention like nothing else, inevitably providing a scene in which your political message cannot be ignored.
Given the communication potential sport holds, it is likely that no one recognises the influence of sport in politics more than the likes of Mohammed Ben Sulayem, the president of the FIA responsible for the recent ban on political statements by F1 drivers. Powerful political figures often enter the world of sport with this very purpose. It is no surprise that emerging countries often go to great lengths to represent themselves at global sporting events. This gives them an opportunity to showcase their nation as modern, successful societies and align themselves with universal values for fairness, discipline, and inclusion.
In Formula One, China, India, the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia have all hosted their first Grand Prix’s in the past 20 years during a time in which they share ambitions of increasing influence on the global political stage. Whether the power of sport is being manipulated by states in attempts to enhance their reputation as a form of sportswashing, or whether it is a genuine desire to be involved with the world’s most captivating spectacles, those at the top are under no illusion about the utility of sport in achieving change.
A restriction on political messages being platformed by athletes is not a move in favour of the idea that sport ought to stay separate from politics. Rather, it is an attempt to maintain control of the political image of the sport in the hands of those at the top. Lewis Hamilton said he would “rather not race” than not speak up for what he believes in. Though not all athletes will feel the same, no athlete should be forced to be ‘neutral’. Any attempt to do so is simply a reminder of the power of sport in politics.
Image description: Lewis Hamilton, the Iran Men’s National Football Team, and Tommie Smith & John Carlos, all athletes who have used their platform for various forms of protest and making statements