Last night I was listening to the radio while getting ready for sleep – in this case not a good idea since it made me waken up and start thinking! Stephen Nolan’s R5Live newspaper review guests were arguing quite aggressively with a caller. The issue was whether or not the Bahrain F1 Grand Prix should take place while pro-democracy protests were being violently suppressed. They said no, and she said yes – if you can race in China with its poor record of human rights then you can race in Bahrain. If sporting links with a state are to be broken then governments should give a lead and advice, and they haven’t yet done so.
Consistently, the studio guests said that with China it is important to be on the inside helping to build relationships. We need to influence political development towards democracy at a time when there is not a full-blown attempted revolution, although there are other human rights issues. The difference with Bahrain is that, with the continuance of the ‘Arab Spring’ and the drive towards democracy in the Gulf, the ruling elite are, at this moment, engaged in the repression of legitimate protest. In the present social ferment the wealthy elite are seeking to use F1 as a showcase to the world that all is well in Bahrain.
I do not claim to have much wisdom to offer, but what struck me about this argument was that both sides were taking a pragmatic stance and neither side was taking a consistent principled stance. For example, if we fast forward to next year’s race, according to the argument of the studio guests as long as the civil unrest in Bahrain had been sufficiently suppressed, (as in China in 1989) so that all was quiet by then, it would be ok for the Grand Prix to take place regardless of how many people have been killed or imprisoned. That does not seem to me to be a workable policy, never mind a moral one.
Perhaps principled stances cannot be applied consistently across global situations because of political realities. But if that’s the case then at least we ought to recognise the fact and try to lay out some kind of guidelines for those seeking to pursue their legitimate business whether sport or not. Both business and sport are political realities: if you don’t do politics you don’t do life. The question for us is not whether or not we can separate sport and politics – we can’t, as has been proved so often. The question is where, when and how are we going to allow sport to be used politically, by us or by others? Debating the issues around this requires the involvement of sporting organisations and politicians. But it also needs input from theologians and ethicists to keep the discussion honest because we know that the lure of money and power are strong influences on our pragmatics.