The decision to go ahead with the Bahrain Grand Prix could have significant adverse consequences for the global Formula One franchise—it is time to rethink both mission and values.
During the lead up to the Chinese Grand Prix, Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone was asked by a reporter if the Bahrain event was going ahead. Ecclestone’s reply was an emphatic yes. However, what he said next was even more interesting.
Ecclestone stated quite clearly that sport has nothing to do with politics. For a man who was born in 1930 it was a most amazing statement and one can only wonder where he has been hiding for all of his 82 years.
Ecclestone’s lifetime has witnessed two Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling heavyweight boxing championship bouts and the Berlin Olympics of 1936; events where nationalism, politics and race collided in such a manner and with such meaning that they reverberated around the world.
In 1947, when he was only 17, Ecclestone would have witnessed or heard of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier and becoming the first black person to play the major leagues in baseball. Last week many in the US, and in a few other parts of the world, celebrated the 65th anniversary of that momentous occasion—the beginning of the racial desegregation of sport in the US and as some would say the first step on the road to civil rights.
As a young man of 26, Ecclestone would have heard of the fighting between the water polo teams of Hungary and the Soviet Union at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne—it was the infamous “blood in the water” match. The reason for this acrimonious encounter was an event that had taken place several weeks earlier. Soviet tanks had rolled into Budapest, crushing the Hungarian spring and tightening Soviet control over that nation and its people.
The late 1960s and early 1970s, by which time Ecclestone was approaching middle-age, saw the beginning of the sporting boycott of South Africa. It did much to both hasten the end of that country’s policy of racial segregation not just in sports but in all aspects of the daily life of that nation. Today, the English FA (Football Association) has adopted a campaign entitled “Let’s Kick Racism Out Of Football”.
There are many more vivid examples of the relationship and/or entanglement between sport and politics. Ecclestone’s assertion that sport has nothing to do with politics is therefore so misguided that it can only be described as willful ignorance. However, willful ignorance does have a cost, especially when you are responsible for one of the greatest brand names in sport.
Irrespective of whether or not you see the political unrest in Bahrain as an Iranian plot to undermine a Sunni monarchy, or, the legitimate protests of a marginalized Shiite majority, the fact is that civilians have died at the hands of the security forces. This never plays well in any market. When an organization, such as Formula One ignores these issues, they run the risk that their brand will be damaged by both association and fallout.
As with other sports, some of the world’s major brands use Formula One to market their products either directly e.g. Mercedes and Renault, or indirectly, e.g. Red Bull and Vodafone. As such, in a region where social media has already toppled governments, any negative fallout from protests during the race weekend will have an audience that will be both global and critical. Therefore by definition, this could have significant adverse consequences for Formula One and the brands that are its lifeblood—a double negative if ever there was one.
Ecclestone, Formula One and the brands that support it should forego willful ignorance and carefully rethink their mission, their values and how these guide their actions—and ultimately maintain the value of their brands.