With the Russian Grand Prix coming up, the F1 world must again face the question of whether sport should be treated as something unconnected with the real world, or whether it should be treated as an integral part of the political landscape. It is not an easy question to answer because, on the one hand, no one wants sport disrupted; but on the other hand no one wants it to be used for political purposes. And where does one draw the line? One should point out straight away that when a government pays for a race, any race, there is a political agenda. Usually it is about driving business to a city or a region, but sometimes it is about national pride or the promotion of the leader, his party or his politics. Sometimes it also about diverting attention away from truths that the leader does not want his own people to see.
Ironically, the profiteers always adopt the sporting argument. They say the sport can help cure political problems. Occasionally this can be true, but is fair to say that this is rarer than a French steak. The problem with the argument is that you can hear the ker-ching! of the cash register in the background… Commercial people think commercially and often only in the short term. They do not worry that the sport might be doing itself long-term damage by associating with dodgy or corrupt regimes.
Money is money and they just love shoveling it into their pockets, not caring if there is a policeman just around the corner.
On the other hand one has those who argue that a sporting event is a clear signal that those involved accept and condone the government which is paying for there event. They argue that taking part in the Russian Grand Prix is something between collaboration and donning a Russian uniform and marching through Red Square in the Victory Day Parade.
Much will depend on how much visibility President Vladimir Putin demands, but it would be strange indeed if the President did not show up and take advantage of having the world’s most glamorous, capitalist and televised of sports on Russian soil.
Politicians love to create events at which they can bask in glory, and sport is a favourite way to do it. Some point to the way in which Adolf Hitler (or at least Josef Goebbels) cleverly politicised the 1936 Berlin Olympics with German medal winners giving the Nazi salute and liberal use of the Swastika, both party symbols rather than being national ones.
There was very skillful use of propaganda to promote the idea of the Aryan supremacy and the power of Germany, culminating in Leni Riefenstahl’s movie Olympia. At the same time the Games were used to peddle the line that Germany was peaceful and tolerant, which assuredly it was not. The moment the games were done, repression returned.
Every case is different but my general view is that F1 should be careful not to become part of a political problem, as it did in Bahrain. If a race finds itself caught in a crossfire, it is always going to end up with bullet holes in its trousers. One can say that this country or that country has questionable records on human rights, but if we did that there could be no races because you can find such questions in most countries. It is a minefield and so we have to go ahead and avoid stepping on mines. If it is obvious that there can be trouble for the sport it is best to duck out. Why take a risk when a risk is not required? I understand that most F1 sponsors want to do business in Russia, albeit without the spotlight being shone on the business, but I cannot help but think that F1 has more to lose than it has to gain in Sochi. The FIM, which governs motorcycle racing, showed how it should be done back in the spring when the Ukraine Crisis first began. It immediately cancelled a Superbike race in Moscow but said that the sport would return as soon as the politics were out of the way. It was neat, efficient and little reported. Sadly, F1 does not have a governing body with that kind of political sense, despite employing a string of consultants with fancy CVs. In any case, even if there was some political nous worth having in the federation, it is doubtful there would be the backbone required to tell the commercial people what should be done. The wagon filled with gold is clearly pulling the horse downhill in the FIA world.
And so I guess that we will march through Red Square, figuratively at least, and the world will deal with us accordingly.