Nathan Hine

At its best, sport crosses borders and brings people from all cultures, backgrounds, age, ethnicity, race and gender together. But is there a limit? Is it morally right that in countries where there is civil unrest happening right now or have a questionable human rights record are being awarded lucrative sporting-based contracts? 

There have always been two competing visions: the desire to take international sport to every corner of the globe and a call from western democracies not to endorse regimes with human rights malpractice and civil disorder. So what should it be? 

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In 2002, Formula 1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone signed a contract with the Bahraini royal family for a Grand Prix to be hosted by the Gulf State in 2004. Construction began on the circuit and the facilities required to welcome the glitz and glamour of F1. It was not only the first Grand Prix to be hosted in the Middle East, but the first major international sporting event to take to the region. 

There could be no better advert for tourism in Bahrain than showing off the VIP facilities specially built for the F1 circus and the helicopter shots of downtown Manama. So while F1 does not directly endorse the Bahraini Royal Family, it continues to provide them with a great platform to show off their kingdom to the world. 

Bahrain is only one of a number of races that has attracted widespread criticism with Russia, Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi all on the provisional 2021 F1 calendar.  And it is not just F1; Football, boxing, and athletics are hosting more of their international events in Asia and the Middle East.  

But should they? As new venues, these countries pay more to host events than European countries. For instance, Forbes estimates that Bahrain pays £53 million to host the Grand Prix every year while Silverstone’s F1 contract for the British GP is estimated to be between £17-£25 million. 

From a financial perspective, the reasons are clear and with the pandemic having had an adverse impact on global sport, we can expect this trend to continue. On paper, this seems like a win-win for the sport in question: they get a brand new facility to use and get paid more for going there. 

Morally though, it poses a problem for sport. By sporting bodies hosting events in nation-states that are undemocratic and do not have the same approach to human rights effectively gives a free pass as they have been accepted by the international community. 

That is why politicians from democratic governments are piling on the pressure for sporting bodies not to endorse these regimes. For example, last year a letter written by thirty MPs to F1 boss Chase Carey asked for last year’s Bahrain double-header not to go ahead to ‘put human rights above racing.’  

In addition, civil disorder creates a huge risk to all of sport as highlighted by the events leading up to the cancelation of the 2011 Bahrain GP. From mid-February, a series of anti-government protests started in Bahrain which was inspired by the unrest in Egypt and Libya as part of the Arab Spring. 

The protests were led by the Shia-dominant and Sunni-minority Bahraini opposition with protests escalating throughout the country and daily clashes between opposition groups and government forces. The protesters wanted the crown prince of Bahrain, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, to stand down and a new democratically elected government in the gulf state. 

With images of government clashes emanating around the world, the visuals did not look for F1 with the season-opening race scheduled to take place on 13 March. Under massive pressure from the international community, the race was only cancelled at the last minute, causing huge embarrassment for both F1 and the Bahraini royal family while there was civil unrest in the street. 

With talk of race cancelation in 2011, one protester Hasan Dhani, told The Guardian: “There is a big connection between [the uprising] and Formula One. The race has been the prince’s dream since he was a child. He wants to negotiate so he can fulfil this dream, and it makes me sad his dream is more dear to him than the needs of his people.”

This is never a good look for any sport, let alone F1 with drivers on $40 million salaries and with the Royal Family paying up to $50 million at the time to host the race. So for sport to be opting for events in  Saudi Arabia over Portugal, Bahrain over Germany could be a huge lose-lose for them. It has the risk to give the impression that global sporting bodies are endorsing some of the most morally regrettable regimes in the world. 

 However, a recent example shows that there might be an appetite for change. The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) has confirmed that this year’s World Championship will no longer be held in Minsk after mounting pressure to strip Belarus of the event following President Alexander Lukashenko’s violent crackdown on protestors opposing his controversial re-election. 

The IIHF said the event could no longer take place due to ‘safety and security issues that are beyond the IIHF’s control.’ Having said that, the change in course came about just days after major sponsors threatened to withdraw funding for the event should the event take place. 

In a statement published on Twitter, Czech carmaker Skoda Auto said: “We have been a proud partner of the IIHF Hockey World Championship for 28 years. But we also respect and promote human rights. Therefore, Skoda will withdraw from sponsoring the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship if Belarus is confirmed to be co-hosting the event.’

With that said, the temptation is too great for international sport. Anthony Joshua’s fight against Andy Ruiz in 2019 was in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia  and the 2021 Saudi Arabian GP in Jeddah shows where the minds of sporting organisations are on this issue. 

But the Belarusian example shows that it is possible for sport to take a stand against unrest and human rights if given the right incentives. If key sponsors stop endorsing sports that go to such countries, it is likely that the attitude from sport will change.  

Sport is omnipresent in our lives and something we should savour and enjoy, but at what cost? There seems to be a consensus among politicians and the public that we should not endorse countries that do not adhere to our values with mounting political pressure for the UK boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. But will this be listened to? At the end of the day, money talks, but schmoozing up to dictators could have a financial and possibly even a political cost all of its own.

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Last Update: February 11, 2021