This week the decision to hold this year’s Olympic games in Beijing has come under intense scrutiny. The Olympic torch relay has been disrupted by demonstrators protesting against China’s appalling human rights record. The fear is that holding the Olympics in Beijing will legitimise the authoritarian Chinese government. The flipside to that argument is that the Olympics will shine a light on human rights abuses in China and force the government to clean up its act.
The thing is, as we F1 fans know, the Olympics is not the first major worldwide sporting event to be held in China. The Chinese Grand Prix is almost certainly one of China’s biggest annual sporting events, providing worldwide exposure. I have to admit that I was disappointed that little was made of the human rights issue when Formula 1 first arrived in China in 2004.
There are a whole host of reasons you could use to protest against the Chinese regime. Its treatment of the people of Tibet is just the tip of the iceberg. The Chinese Government an undemocratic, totalitarian, Communist one. Corruption is rife. Indeed, one man who was instrumental in bringing F1 to Shangai, Yu Zhifei, has since been jailed for corruption. Political and religious freedom is severely restricted. Even the number of children people can have is restricted to one, leading to widespread infanticide, particularly of young girls.
Yet Formula 1 is all too happy to race there. I can’t help feeling that there is some hypocrisy in the F1 community here. Currently Max Mosley finds himself under intense pressure for simulating torture. Meanwhile, nothing is said about a government that actively engages in torture.
It could be argued that F1 and politics shouldn’t mix. Maybe it is not the role of the F1 community to make value judgements on these issues. A frequent argument put forward by governments like China’s is that its critics judge on the basis of western values and should be more tolerant of local traditions. Can Formula 1 legitimately call itself a World Championship if it insists on western values?
Even then, you can even turn many of the criticisms of China’s regime back on western governments. Even the most liberal western governments engage in freedom-restricting behaviour.
You could even say that the Olympics is a special case because it is an inherently politicised event. For all the platitudes about the “Olympic spirit” and how the Olympics can bring the world together, the fact is that several times in the past century the event has been one of the world’s prime platforms for political willy-waving and Cold War posturing. The Olympics go hand-in-hand with politics and international relations.
Yet Formula 1 has not been immune to the influences of international relations. The South African Grand Prix was taken off the calendar for several years from the mid-1980s as international boycotts of the country intensified due to its policy of apartheid.
In a sense, Formula 1’s reaction to China is simply a reflection of the wider world’s Janus-like approach towards human rights. Cynics say that western governments keep quiet about the Chinese regime because it is such an important trading partner which has helped keep inflation low for the past few decades.
Still, I am surprised that there is never much fuss made about the fact that Formula 1 is happy to race in China. I wonder if the extra publicity being generated for the cause of human rights in China this year will lead the spotlight to be turned on Formula 1 just as it has been turned on the Olympics.
This could be a developing issue for F1. From next year, a grand prix will be held in another totalitarian country. The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix will be held in the United Arab Emirates, a country which does not hold democratic elections and has a poor human rights record.
What do you think? Is it acceptable for F1 to turn a blind eye to despotic regimes? Am I making too much of an issue of this?