Mihir Bose: The modern idea of sport has morality at its core

With increasing lack of trust in politicians and church leaders, sports stars have filled the vacuum

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Formula One's presence in Bahrain this weekend was the result of the sport forgetting a very important principle: that sport is more than just athletic activity or, in this case, buzzing round a circuit in hi-tech cars. Above everything else, it has a moral dimension.

By choosing to race in a kingdom whose suppression of human rights has been so widely broadcast to the world, the petrol-heads are not only damaging their own sport but also the credibility of the wider sports movement.

Cynics will say this is humbug. Formula One is probably the most unabashed money-making machine in all of sport. It is also a most curious sport. Given the technology needed, many would even question whether it counts as a true sport. And, unlike other sports, the real controller is not the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile but the rights holder, Bernie Ecclestone.

And while publicly Ecclestone is careful to say little about wider issues, he doesn't appear privately to be driven by morality. Last year, as controversy raged around the Bahrain Grand Prix, he told Zayed Alzayani, the businessman who runs the competition, that "if human rights was the criterion for F1 races, we would only have them in Belgium and Switzerland".

But this is where Ecclestone is contradictory. Formula One's rise has been made possible because, with increasing lack of trust in politicians, men of science and letters, and even church leaders, sports stars have filled the vacuum. Sport has also become a rare source of trusted news in an intensely sceptical world; a sporting result is a fact about which there can be no argument. And sport can also be understood by all, regardless of language or culture or intellect.

Ecclestone has made the most of this. In taking the sport to places with little interest in Formula One, he has claimed that, by staging the race, the country reaches a higher level. Bahrain's Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa buys that argument, lavishing millions to stage it.

Given all this, Ecclestone cannot escape the charge that he now appears to be colluding with the Bahrain government in its suppression of human rights.

That this should be done by a sport which has blossomed in this country in the very year London becomes the first city to stage a third Olympics is all the more regrettable.

It is worth recalling that modern sport as it was spread round the world from this country had morality at its core. Back in the middle of the 19th century, Thomas Hughes presented his headmaster at Rugby, Thomas Arnold, a man of religion, as a great man of sport. Hughes's book Tom Brown's Schooldays was so persuasive that Pierre de Coubertin took up the idea to revive the Olympics. In effect, what Hughes and De Coubertin did was to spawn two ideas which have become global concepts. Hughes's big idea was in the private realm – that sport develops character. De Coubertin's was in the public realm – that sport could transmit values between nations through international competition.

Contrast this with another race that was held this weekend in London, the Marathon. The origins of that race are purely nationalistic if not racial, a Greek runner advertising his country's unexpected military victory against the invading Persians. The ancient Greeks may have invented the Olympics but they never saw them in moral terms. For them, the Olympics were not an expression of universal human values. They were open only to free Greek men. After a time, slaves and "barbarians" were allowed to watch but not take part.

In contrast, observe what De Coubertin said about sport. At that time, there was much debate about whether athletes should be paid. De Coubertin did not care for that, declaring: "To me, sport was a religion with its church, dogmas, service ... above all a religious feeling, and it seemed to me as childish to make all this depend on whether an athlete received a five-franc coin as automatically to consider the parish clergy unbelievers, because they receive a salary for looking after the church."

True, De Coubertin himself collaborated with the Nazis. Sport also struggled to deal with apartheid. But it can sometimes show the way in however limited a fashion.

Back in the Twenties the British sent an all-white delegation to India, headed by the liberal Sir John Simon, and including Clement Atlee, to judge whether the nation was capable of ruling itself. Gandhi was so outraged he came out of retirement to resume leadership of his nation's freedom fight. At the same time, the MCC sent a cricket team which played against Indians and encouraged them to form a cricket board which paved the way to India becoming this great cricketing nation. This showed how sport can see the bigger picture. Formula One appears to have lost sight of that.

 

Mihir Bose's 'The Spirit of the Game, How Sport Made the Modern World' is published by Constable

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