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today is Jan 30, 2023

For decades, athletes have stepped out in support of or opposition to various social, religious and political issues. Formula 1 drivers joined them in recent years, becoming increasingly outspoken on human rights matters.

Now the sport’s governing body, the FIA, has reacted. As RaceFans revealed yesterday, drivers and other participants in FIA events have been told that from next year they may not make “political statements” without the governing body’s permission.

The clampdown has come about through a revision to the International Sporting Code. It is broadly worded, stating that prohibited actions now include “the general making and display of political, religious and personal statements or comments notably in violation of the general principle of neutrality promoted by the FIA under its Statutes unless previously approved in writing by the FIA for International Competitions, or by the relevant ASN for National Competitions within their jurisdiction.”

An FIA spokesperson explained the change when contacted by RaceFans. “The ISC has been updated in alignment with the political neutrality of sport as a universal fundamental ethical principle of the Olympic Movement, enshrined in the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Code of Ethics, together with the principle of the universality set out in Article 1.2,” they noted.

As the spokesperson noted, the FIA’s Statutes already held that: “The FIA shall promote the protection of human rights and human dignity, and refrain from manifesting discrimination on account of race, skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic or social origin, language, religion, philosophical or political opinion, family situation or disability in the course of its activities and from taking any action in this respect.”

The same statute also states: “The FIA will focus on underrepresented groups in order to achieve a more balanced representation of gender and race and to create a more diverse and inclusive culture.”

The new rule gives the FIA considerable power over how drivers can express themselves. It remains to be seen how broadly this rule may be interpreted, and which activities previously accepted by the FIA may now be considered a breach of regulations.

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Sport has long been used as a platform for protest by athletes who wanted to have their say on current affairs which affected them personally, or to act as allies for others. At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, American sprinter Tommie Smith and his countryman John Carlos took to the podium after finishing first and third in the 200-metre race. During the nation anthem, both athletes raised their hands and performed the ‘Black Power’ salute in protest at the treatment of black Americans and other minorities in the United States. They were expelled from the games soon after.

Sebastian Vettel, Aston Martin, Hungaroring, 2021 Vettel stood up for LGBTQ+ rights That did not discourage others from imitating them. In baseball, Toronto Blues player Carlos Delgado stayed in the dug-out as “God Bless America” rang out around the stadium in 2004, in protest to the wars at the time taking place in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2016, American footballer Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem before an NFL match. Asked why, Kaepernick said he could not show pride in the flag when the oppression of black people was still prevalent in America. Kaepernick inspired a new generation of protesters beyond the NFL which continues to this day. The Australian men’s cricket team took the knee for the first time on home soil earlier this month.

More recently the Iranian players performed a “silent protest” as their national anthem blasted around them during the opening match of the FIFA World Cup in protest over the human rights abuses taking place in their home country. The silence followed protests sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran’s notorious morality police. Knowing their families could pay a heavy price, the players locked arms and bowed their heads as an Iranian woman was shown crying in the crowd.

But at times expressions of solidarity have prompted reactions from officials. Ahead of Germany’s Euro 2020 match against Hungary, the Munich City Council planned to illuminate the football stadium in the rainbow flag colours showing support for LGBTQ+ pride. However the football body UEFA blocked the move, which came as Hungary’s government pushed legislation discriminating against gay people.

Sebastian Vettel criticised UEFA’s reaction. “I think to excuse it as a political message I think is the wrong path,” he said. “It’s definitely not harming anybody and I think it’s a great message that they would have loved to send out and were not allowed.”

“I think some institutions need to rethink their approach on banning these type of messages,” concluded Vettel.

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He is one of several drivers who have become increasingly outspoken on a range of social issues in recent years. This was prompted in parts by the events of 2020 and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.

F1 dropped is ‘We Race As One’ campaign after 2021 The death George Floyd at the hands of police officer Derek Chauvin, who was filmed kneeling on the neck of the unarmed black man for over nine minutes, provoked worldwide outrage. Chauvin was eventually found guilty on three charges. In the interim drivers including Lewis Hamilton were moved to speak out against racial discrimination and in support of diversity. He said the Floyd case brought up “so much suppressed emotion” in him.

Hamilton became heavily involved in changes to Formula 1’s pre-race routine including the introduction of the ‘We Race As One’ observance, which ended at the beginning of this year, during which drivers had the opportunity to take the knee. In 2020 Mercedes changed the livery of its car to black with the words “end racism” printed on the side and their drivers wore black overalls.

Hamilton took the protest further, regularly wearing T-shirts which bore political messages. On one occasion, when Hamilton sported a T-shirt on the 2020 Tuscan Grand Prix podium which read “arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor”, the FIA was moved to act, preventing the post-race trophy ceremony from being used as a platform the same way in future.

The drivers have also found their voices in relation to some venues F1 has chose to race at. The year before football took its World Cup to Qatar, F1 held its first race there, and will return on a long-term basis from next season.

Several drivers indicated their views on Qatar’s strict anti-LGBTQ+ laws, where same-sex relations are punishable by imprisonment. For last year’s race Hamilton added the Progress Pride flag to his helmet, saying he hoped it “sparks positive conversation and change.”

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His concern wasn’t limited to Qatar. Similar laws are in place in Saudi Arabia, which also joined the F1 calendar last year. Hamilton described the oppression as “terrifying.”

“These places need scrutiny,” he added. “It needs the media to speak about these things. Equal rights is a serious issue.”

The same issue was widely discussed during the Qatar World Cup. The England and Wales teams joined those of other European countries by planning to wear a ‘OneLove’ armband in protest against discrimination in the country. FIFA took a dim view of this and warned them they would face a sporting sanction if they did, forcing the teams to back down.

The FIA’s announcement yesterday looks very much like an attempt to do something similar. But with the 2023 F1 calendar featuring stops in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other countries whose human rights records have faced criticism, the controversy is unlikely to fade away.

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