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Sportswashing: its Meaning and Impact on the Future of F1

Exploring cases of alleged sportswashing within F1's history

Following Formula 1’s announcement that the Qatar Grand Prix will be making its debut to the 2021 racing calendar last week, the deal has again stoked the long-burning flames of conversation surrounding human rights within the F1 fan community and afar.

Debates have resurfaced as to whether F1 should be travelling to, racing within and signing contracts with regions of exacerbated political and social unrest and inequality.

The term ‘sportswashing’ is often used in ongoing conversations around the subject. Defined as the practice of individuals, organisations and nation-states airbrushing previous human rights abuses and exercising soft power through hosting and participating within international sporting events, the term has become a marker of judgement for fans and critics in spotlighting issues and hypocrisies presented by international sports.

Following the 2021 Turkish Grand Prix – and in light of the motorsport’s colourful 71-year-old history – it is important that we, as fans, are aware of F1’s alleged embroilment within sportswashing and its potential implications on the production and coverage of the sport we love.

What Studies Have Shown

While sportswashing may be a relatively new concept, politics has been inextricably linked to sports for decades. Studies have shown that sport, when utilised by nation-states, can be harnessed for nation-building, breaking down antipathies, cultivating a sense of national identity and appearing deceptively inclusive within a globalised context.

Daniel S. Traber, a Professor in the Department of Liberal Studies at Texas A&M University at Galveston, positions this within the context of F1. Citing how early iterations of the racing cars from the mid-1950s would be painted in the country colours of the manufacturer or constructor, he notes how governments could financially incentivise teams to defend their nation’s reputations on the international stage.

Famous historical examples within motorsport include Hitler’s awarding of subsidies to Mercedes and Audi in their adorning of the swastika pre-WWII, as well as how racing cars would be painted in colours coordinating with their constructor’s and manufacturer’s country of origin: green meaning British, German being white, French supporting blue, and red aligning with the Italians. Evidence of this still remains on the 2021 racing grid today with the Ferrari (Italy), Alpine (France), Aston Martin (British) and Haas (American/Russian) F1 teams, respectively.

Much like how entertainment and culture are routinely utilised by big business for profit, it is clear that politics and political discourse can permeate televised sports in promoting and sharing particular messages in a similar fashion. Research from Professor Mark Lowes at the University of Ottawa has suggested how ‘place-marketing’ strategies have become integral processes in building cosmopolitan images of F1 host countries. Defined as image creation (or recreation) of a place, its purpose is to sell a cultivated image within the marketing of the culture of a particular city. Real-world examples of this include the digital marketing campaigns of F1 sponsors projected around Grand Prix host cities during race weekends.

The problem with place-marketing strategies within sports, and particularly F1, is that it can allow host cities and regions to glamourise and simplify how they convey themselves to the rest of the world. It can be perceived as a form of ‘whitewashing’, whereby regions entangled in complicated politics and human rights issues can self-project images of luxury, expense and progression to avoid the implications that controversial images can have towards their international reputation, influence and economy.

Case Studies

As spotlighted at the beginning of the article, the addition of a Qatar Grand Prix to the F1 2021 racing calendar and beyond has sparked debates around sportswashing. The race is set to take place at Losail International Circuit on 21 November, 20 miles north of Doha situated against the backdrop of the Persian Gulf. Qatar’s inclusion within the calendar means that the heated championship battle between Mercedes-AMG Petronas’ reigning World Champion Lewis Hamilton and rival Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen will culminate in a Middle Eastern triple-header, with Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi rounding out the season in December.

On announcing the Grand Prix, alongside a 10-year deal with the nation from 2021, F1 said: “We are very grateful to the Qatar Motor and Motorcycle Federation and the Qatari authorities for their enthusiasm and support in hosting a race this season, at short notice.” This is in reference to the circuit’s substitution over 2021 Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne due to the ramifications and travel restrictions manifested by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are also very appreciative of their efforts to ensure the race can take place in November at the Losail International Circuit,” they continued. “There was a strong will from Qatar to be helpful to F1 and in the course of this process the vision for a longer partnership was discussed and agreed for 10 years.”

This deal and statement have received criticism from international human rights organisation Amnesty International, with the organisation highlighting Qatar’s alleged maltreatment of migrant workers, deterrents on free speech and criminalisation of same-sex relationships.

Amnesty International UK’s CEO, Sacha Deshmukh, remarked: “It’s no secret that rich countries in the Middle East see top-level sport as a means to rebrand and sportswash their images, and a Grand Prix in Qatar would be more of the same.

“Having sunk vast amounts of money into Paris Saint-Germain and hired thousands of overseas workers to build stadiums for next year’s World Cup, Qatar is clearly attempting to turn itself into a sporting superpower.”

Much like how Lewis Hamilton previously used his platform during the 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix to urge Formula 1 and the FIA to take tangible action against the “massive problem” of human rights issues within nations they race at, Deshmukh opined: “Drivers and their teams should be prepared to speak out about human rights in Qatar in the lead up to this race, doing their bit to break the spell of sportswashing and image management.”

In response to accusations of aiding sportswashing, an F1 spokesperson said: “For decades Formula One has worked hard to be a positive force everywhere it races, including economic, social, and cultural benefits. Sports like Formula One are uniquely positioned to cross borders and cultures to bring countries and communities together to share the passion and excitement of incredible competition and achievement.

“We take our responsibilities on rights very seriously and set high ethical standards for counter-parties and those in our supply chain, which are enshrined in contracts, and we pay close attention to their adherence.”

Similar instances of sportswashing have also been reported from racing in Bahrain. In 2011, the scheduled Bahrain Grand Prix in Sakhir – the opening round of the season – was cancelled following mass human rights protests against the ruling Al Khalifa family. Yet following the suppression of the nation’s Arab Spring, F1 has kept the track as a staple on the calendar ever since.

The Bahraini government vehemently rejects claims of human rights abuses and systemic discrimination. With sportswashing claims resurfacing following Hamilton’s earlier condemnation of the sport for its lack of action, the following statement was issued: “Bahrain takes its obligations in this regard extremely seriously, and is committed to upholding and maintaining the highest standards of human rights protection, including the right to free expression.

“No person is arrested or prosecuted for the peaceful expression of their opinion, and all persons arrested (regardless of the charge) benefit from full due process safeguards, including the right to representation and the right to fair trial before Bahrain’s independent judiciary. Further, the claims of torture and/or retribution are categorically denied.”

In a statement of their own, F1 said:

“We have always been clear with all race promoters and Governments with which we deal worldwide that we take violence, abuse of human rights and repression very seriously. Our human rights policy is very clear and states that the Formula One companies are committed to respecting internationally recognised human rights in its operations globally and have made our position on human rights clear to all our partners and host countries who commit to respect human rights in the way their events are hosted and delivered.”

In 2015, following Bahrain’s suppression of protests against the race, F1 adopted a commitment to recognising and honouring human rights in its global operations. Within F1’s Statement of Commitment to Respect for Human Rights, the sport pledges to“identify and assess, by conducting due diligence where appropriate, any actual or potential adverse human rights impacts with which [they] may be involved either through [their] own activities or as a result of [their] business relationships.”

Fans and critics used F1’s stance on human rights to expose them on their apparent hypocrisy when unveiling Saudi Arabia as an addition to the racing calendar in November 2020. In light of the nation’s track record on civil liberties and human rights, which have been described by Amnesty International as “appalling” and “heinous,” many have questioned whether it is a suitable destination to host a Grand Prix.

F1 advertises on their website that: “The Saudi Arabian Grand Prix promises to be a sun-soaked festival of Formula 1,” located at Corniche, “a 30km coastal resort area of the ancient Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah.” With the on-track action scheduled to take place under floodlights across the city’s scenic waterfront, it is built to enable an average speed of 252km/h around its 27 corners. Saudi Arabia, like Qatar, also has a 10-year deal in place – reportedly worth over £450m.

The nation-state has been condemned for its state security agency’s classification of feminism, homosexuality and atheism as “extremist” concepts. Political dissents, activists, journalists and critics of the state have previously been harassed and incarcerated for denouncing the Kingdom. Women in Saudi Arabia have only been allowed to get behind the wheel of a car and legally drive from July 2018.

Despite recognising the widespread censure of hosting a Grand Prix in Saudi Arabia, Prince Khalid Bin Sultan Al Faisal – president of the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation (SAMF), told CNN Sport he was not concerned politics would overshadow the event.

He said: “Formula One […] is wise enough to know what’s good for them and their reputation, and if they felt that Saudi Arabia is one of those countries, they would have never agreed to come.

“We want the people to come to Saudi Arabia and then see [with] their own eyes and then they can have their opinion. I respect someone’s opinion, but I need to know what is based on and what is the motivation.”

Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia aside, other countries have also faced allegations of using F1 as a form of sportswashing. Malaysia, China, Turkey, Russia, Mexico and Azerbaijan have also all faced scrutiny in hosting F1 Grand Prix to varying degrees due to alleged instances of civil unrest, political turmoil and human rights infringements.

The Future of Sportswashing within F1

So, now that we have observed examples of alleged sportswashing within F1, what do these instances mean for the future development and coverage of the sport?

Formula 1 saw rapid growth in digital engagement throughout the 2020 racing season, with followers up 36% to 35m across all major social platforms, video views climbing 47% to 4.9bn and total engagement up 99% to 810m interactions. These significant gains have resulted in the sport becoming the second fastest growing major sports league on Earth, outperforming the online reach of the PGA tour, NBA and the Premier League.

Following Liberty Media’s acquisition of the Formula One Group in late 2016 for £3.3bn, fans have been exposed to heightened portrayals of behind-the-scenes content from the racing constructors and drivers themselves. Fans can also leverage Netflix’s Drive to Survive series (which has recently been renewed for a fourth season), documentaries such as Schumacher (2021), Codemasters’ annual F1 video game series, eSports competitions, mobile apps and social media to satisfy their motorsport cravings.

Where am I going with this? As an industry, F1 reached an estimated value of £1.5bn at the beginning of 2020. As much as we love it as the entertaining and cultural phenomenon that it is, it is ultimately a business. Money talks within the world of F1, and always has done. Being historically rooted within upper-class culture, the sport maintains an exuberant ‘symbolic cultural capital’ through marketing/pitching itself as a luxury-level sport to attract investors and sponsors. You only need to read the of symbolism of the expensive cars, luxurious destinations such as the Monaco Grand Prix, tailored VIP race-day experiences, available vintage memorabilia and merchandise, and the now obsolete existence of the F1 grid girls to see that.

F1 needs financial capital and investment to stay in operation. After losing large amounts of revenue throughout the 2020 racing season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, additional fees provided from nations such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar are major boosts to its industry. Realistically as fans, there is not much we can do to prevent F1 from marching to the capitalist beat of the 21st century’s drum. These races seem here to stay.

However, as evidenced through the re-appropriation of F1’s ‘#WeRaceAsOne’ initiative – established by F1, aimed at tackling issues of racism, prejudice and inequality within the sport – through the ‘#WeSayNoToMazepin’ movement, fans can harness the visibility and interconnected nature of social media to demonstrate their disapproval. Whether this would actually materialise into meaningful change towards F1’s corporate social responsibility remains to be seen.

Headline Image Credit: Formula 1

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