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F1 Shows Implicit Support for Vladimir Putin by Holding the Russian Grand Prix

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistOctober 4, 2015

Vladimir Putin applauds Lewis Hamilton following the Mercedes driver's victory at the 2014 Russian Grand Prix.
Vladimir Putin applauds Lewis Hamilton following the Mercedes driver's victory at the 2014 Russian Grand Prix.DIMITAR DILKOFF/Getty Images

At last year's Russian Grand Prix in Sochi, Russian president Vladimir Putin made a fashionably late entrance, with the television broadcast devoting an unusual amount of time to his arrival and subsequent conference in the grandstand with Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone and the king of Bahrain.

After the race, Putin greeted the top three drivers in the green room and then handed out the winning driver and constructor trophies on the podium, waving to the crowd. In all, he probably had more screen time than the two Mercedes cars at last weekend's Japanese Grand Prix.

Of course, F1 has a long history of burying its head in the sand when it comes to political controversies in countries where it races (South Africa and Bahrain, for example). Before last year's race in Russia, Ecclestone said, "I don't know what a race in Sochi's got to do with anything. I mean, we don't get involved in politics or religion," per the BBC's Dan Roan.

Bernie Ecclestone (right) not getting involved in politics with Vladimir Putin.
Bernie Ecclestone (right) not getting involved in politics with Vladimir Putin.Mark Thompson/Getty Images

If Ecclestone really doesn't understand what the problem is with a race in Russia (this year's race takes place next weekend), well, I'm not sure we can help him. But let's try.

Last year, Russia invaded Ukraine, taking control of the Crimean Peninsula. This military aggression received widespread international condemnation and resulted in ongoing sanctions imposed by the European Union and the United States, among others.

In July 2015, Cecile Pouilly, press secretary for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, reported that nearly 7,000 soldiers and civilians have been killed as a result of Russia's invasion, per Worldbulletin News. For perspective, according to a Brown University study, approximately 6,800 American soldiers have been killed in more than a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Meanwhile, according to Human Rights Watch:

The human rights situation in Russia continues to deteriorate, with the crackdown intensifying on civil society, media, and the Internet. In 2014, Parliament adopted laws and authorities engaged in practices, that increasingly isolated the country and inflamed a level of anti-Western hysteria unseen since the Soviet era. Authorities arrested and harassed activists, blocked independent online media, adopted new laws, and proposed measures that would further stifle free expression.

This is the country with which F1 has chosen to do business. And whether the sport's decision-makers want to admit it or not, F1 is providing implicit support for Putin and the Russian government by going ahead with the Russian Grand Prix.

As I wrote last year, it is likely there are some F1 sponsors who are not thrilled with the idea of having their logos juxtaposed with Putin's smiling face. Neither is it a stretch to think that the decision to race in Russia is exacerbating the current difficulties some teams are having finding sponsors.

McLaren still have space on their car for a title sponsor.
McLaren still have space on their car for a title sponsor.Mark Thompson/Getty Images

More recently, the governments of France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Kingdom and United States issued a joint statement criticising Russia's involvement in the war in Syria.

"These military actions constitute a further escalation and will only fuel more extremism and radicalization," the statement reads, in part. "We call on the Russian Federation to immediately cease its attacks on the Syrian opposition and civilians and to focus its efforts on fighting ISIL."

More broadly, Russia is also a significant contributor to the worldwide problem of human trafficking. According to the CIA World Factbook, "Workers from Russia and other countries in Europe, Central Asia, and Asia, including Vietnam and North Korea, are subjected to conditions of forced labor in Russia’s construction, manufacturing, agriculture, grocery store, maritime, and domestic services industries."

The Human Trafficking Center reported last year that tens of thousands of forced labourers were involved in infrastructure projects related to the 2014 Winter Olympics. Of course, the Sochi Autodrom, host of the Russian Grand Prix, is part of the Sochi Olympic Park.

Sochi Autodrom @SochiAutodrom

Sochi Autodrom was announced as winner of 2014 Race Promoters' Trophy by FOM at the annual #FIAPrizeGiving in Doha! http://t.co/D4jGEooHg5

Back to the CIA World Factbook, which states, "Russia does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making a significant effort to do so. ... The government has not investigated allegations of slave-like conditions of North Korean workers in Russia."

Read those last few paragraphs again.

Now read what Ecclestone said of Putin after spending time with him at the Sochi race last year, according to the Russian newspaper Vedomosti (h/t the Independent): "He’s a first class person. I always supported him.

"He could control Europe or America; he is able to deal with it. But I think he is very busy. Let him finish what he’s doing and then we’ll see."

Right then.

And we haven't even mentioned Boris Nemtsov—a Russian politician and Putin critic who was assassinated in Moscow in February—yet.

Unfortunately, with a seven-year deal worth $200 million, according to Reuters' Darya Korsunskaya, it does not look like the Russian Grand Prix is going anywhere. Putin will likely show up again this year, turning the race into a personal photo opportunity. With nothing but glowing praise from Ecclestone, why wouldn't he?

International sporting events, like F1 grands prix, should be opportunities for people of various backgrounds to come together for peaceful enjoyment and celebration. But when the events are co-opted by corrupt leaders, as the 2014 Russian Grand Prix was, they can quickly cross the line from spectacle to farce.

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