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Formula One should cancel the Russian Grand Prix

Published March 24, 2014

In 1966, when World Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali was under the gun for refusing the draft during the Vietnam war, he couldn’t find a promoter to stage a fight for him in the U.S.

So he travelled north to Toronto to take on Canadian champion George Chuvalo at Maple Leaf Gardens.

As a result, Connie Smythe, who built the Gardens during the Great Depression and – as Major Conn Smythe – led a batallion of professional athletes who joined the Canadian Army to fight in the Second World War, severed his last links with ”the House that he (Smythe) built.”

Pointing the finger at his son Stafford Smythe, and the young Smythe’s partners, Harold Ballard and John Bassett, Connie Smythe snarled: “They’ve traded class for cash.”

Today, you could say that about Formula One unless – and this is a faint hope - Jean Todt and Bernie Ecclestone announce that as a result of the aggressive actions of Russian president Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, the first Russian Grand Prix scheduled to be held in Sochi in October is cancelled.

The G7 political leaders, Barack Obama, Stephen Harper et al, announced Monday night that they would not attend a planned G8 summit meeting scheduled for Sochi in June and would meet, instead, in Brussels – without Putin.

They did this because of the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the continuing threats against the sovereignty of Ukraine.

If the seven most powerful leaders of the free world feel this strongly about the actions of Putin and Russia, there can be no more fun and games on Russian soil and that includes Formula One automobile racing.

F1 will argue – as it has in the past – that auto racing is sport and has nothing to do with politics. This is patent nonsense, of course, but they’ve gotten away with it before so why not keep trying?

Take apartheid. After resisting for years, F1 finally got the message in 1985 and joined in with the rest of the world in condemning the policies of the South African government. Only after apartheid ended in 1992 did F1 return.

Earlier this century, F1 was caught between a rock and a hard place when it came to racing in Bahrain. Protesters seeking equality for the majority Shias were attacked by police on Feb. 17, 2011, and scores were killed and injured.

As a result of what happened that awful day, F1 announced four days later that the Grand Prix scheduled for March that year was cancelled. In June, however, the FIA decided to try again on Oct. 30 but 1996 world champion Damon Hill spoke out against it happening by saying that F1 “will forever have the blight of association with repressive methods to achieve order.” His words carried weight and there was no Bahrain GP in 2011.

But despite ongoing repression – more than 2,500 people have been incarcerated to date and at least five have died in custody; protest rallies still attract upwards of 100,000 people - F1 just couldn’t bring itself to turn down the money it was getting for that race, so returned to Bahrain in 2012 and 2013 and intends on returning again in just a few weeks.

To add insult to injury, F1 has held pre-season tests at the Bahrain circuit the last two years - something that is atrocious.

There are always excuses, of course. The drivers say they are contracted to the teams and the teams say they are contracted to Bernie and if Bernie says “go,” they go.

Or, get this one:

Engine manufacturers say they have to test in the Middle East in winter to simulate conditions of the European summer. That then brings this quote from Sauber team principal Monisha Kaltenborn. “If the tests are mainly meant for the engine, to have the right conditions to test that engine, then you (small teams like hers) don’t have a choice.”

Didn’t we deal with all that “just following orders” nonsense 68 years ago at Nuremberg?

But the world doesn’t seem to be united against the atrocities in Bahrain, which are internal, so F1 probably feels justified in going there. But Russia is an entirely different matter.

Russia’s moving against Ukraine is just the sort of thing that plunged the world into chaos twice in the last century. The G7 leaders are correct to take a stand and F1 would be wise to follow suit.

As my colleague, Cathal Kelly, wrote several weeks ago in calling for a boycott of the Paralympic Winter Games: ”Participating in a Russian sports event on Russian soil is a tacit endorsement of Russia. It would be like finding out that the friend who’s hosting the party is up on a murder charge, but going anyway because it sounds like fun.”

I sincerely hope Todt and Ecclestone decide to take the high road and pull the plug on that Grand Prix now. It was a mistake to keep racing in South Africa when the rest of the world was condemning apartheid, and it is a mistake to continue racing in Bahrain.

Which means it’s time they did something right for a change. It’s time they traded cash for class.

- NORRIS McDONALD

nmcdonald@thestar.ca

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