‘Sportswashing’ – where countries use international sporting events to improve their global image and reputation – is nothing new, but it’s particularly in the spotlight right now thanks to events like the upcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar and Formula One’s new 2021 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, which kicks off this weekend.
Many fans and drivers have come out and said they don’t feel comfortable with Formula One going racing in Saudi Arabia. The ultra-conservative Islamist absolute monarchy is widely regarded as having one of the worst human rights records in the world and enforces a strict interpretation of Shariah law.
While the Saudi authorities have tried to present the country as a welcoming place for visitors, many remain hesitant about the conditions on the ground – and dozens of human rights organisations have condemned the race, with Human Rights Watch in particular decrying the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix as “part of a cynical strategy to distract from Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses.”
Now, the sport’s biggest star – reigning and seven-time World Drivers’ Champion, Lewis Hamilton – has come out and criticised Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, with the popular Brit explaining the difficult position he and others in F1 find themselves in when it comes to racing in illiberal countries.
“With the utmost respect to everyone that’s here – so far I’ve had a warm welcome from everyone on the ground… Do I feel comfortable here? I wouldn’t say I do. But it’s not my choice to be here, the sport has taken the choice to be here. Whether it’s right or wrong, whilst we’re here again, I feel it’s important that we do try to raise awareness.”
It’s an issue that fellow driver, four-time World Drivers’ Champion Sebastian Vettel, has also been vocal on, the German telling The New York Times that he thinks “it’s wrong [that] we go to certain places… we need to start facing more the consequences of our actions and take on that responsibility.”
Hamilton has revealed that he will wear a helmet featuring the LGBT pride flag in Saudi Arabia as a form of protest, as he did during the inaugural Qatar Grand Prix last month. Qatar, like Saudi Arabia, has been accused of sportswashing and criticised for its poor human rights record. Hamilton explains:
“I will wear [the helmet] here again and the next race [in Abu Dhabi], because that’s an issue… if anyone wants to take the time to read what the law is for the LGBTQ+ community, it’s pretty terrifying. There’s changes that need to be made.”
Hamilton has also called attention to the status of women in Saudi Arabia, and particularly their historical driving ban for women (isn’t it ironic that a country that used to ban half the population from driving is now hosting an F1 race?) “Why are some of the women still in prison from driving many, many years ago? There’s a lot of change that needs to happen and I think our sport needs to do more.”
F1 has a long history of engaging in sportswashing. From racing in South Africa during apartheid to racing in Russia during their annexation of Crimea, the sport is guilter than most of hosting events in countries with less-than-stellar human rights records.
Prince Khalid Bin Sultan Al Faisal, president of the Saudi Arabian motorsport federation that is in charge of the race and a member of the Saudi royal family, argues that the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix isn’t an attempt at sportswashing, but is instead an attempt to try and open up the country to the outside world. And there’s probably some truth to that.
There’s an argument to be made that if we want other countries to join the global, rules-based, liberal international community, sport could be a good place to start building bridges (and slowly making an impact).
Similarly, Hamilton might be able to make more of a difference by participating in the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix like he is than he would be able to if he was sitting out of the race. His star power – and the eyeballs that follow him – is a real asset.
Although, the more cynical take is that Hamilton might be more willing to sit out the race if the championship wasn’t on the line… With rival Max Verstappen ahead of him in the points with only two races to go, Hamilton can’t afford to sit out a race. Has he put his desire to win ahead of his ethics?
It’s a tricky one, and there are no right answers. All we can hope for is for Saudi Arabia’s rulers to be true to their word, allow spectators to enjoy the race without being harassed, and actually improve their human rights situation.
The Saudi Arabian Grand Prix will run from Friday 3rd to Sunday 5th of December, with Practice 1 kicking off at 4:30pm local time on Friday.