A prominent human rights group has written to Formula One CEO Stefano Domenicali to raise serious concerns over what it claims is the sport’s ongoing role in “sportswashing” ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix.
The new season gets underway in Bahrain on March 5, ahead of which the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) has urged F1 and the FIA, motorsport’s governing body, not to “sportswash the blood-soaked images” of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, which hosts a race on March 19.
“Sportswashing” refers to governments using high-profile sporting events to project a favorable image of their country around the world, often to draw attention away from alleged wrongdoing.
“Despite horrific human rights records, both states enjoy generous F1 contracts and exploit the F1 platform to sanitize their image on the world stage, while thousands of political prisoners languish behind bars,” Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, BIRD’s Advocacy Director, said in a statement commenting on the letter on Monday.
“F1 must establish an independent and impartial inquiry to examine the role of their races in human rights violations, and the FIA must adopt a human rights policy consistent with UN principles.
“Failure to do so will allow their sport to continue to be used to repair the reputation of brutal dictators.”
In response to BIRD, an F1 spokesperson in a statement to CNN: “For decades Formula 1 has worked hard be a positive force everywhere it races, including economic, social, and cultural benefits.
“Sports like Formula 1 are uniquely positioned to cross borders and cultures to bring countries and communities together to share the passion and excitement of incredible competition and achievement.
“We take our responsibilities very seriously and have made our position on human rights and other issues clear to all our partners and host countries who commit to respect human rights in the way their events are hosted and delivered.”
The FIA, motorsport’s governing body told CNN it “cannot interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign state.”
“The FIA, as is the case with other international sporting federations, cannot interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign state,” said an FIA spokesperson in a statement on Monday.
“This independence from the affairs of states, as underlined by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), does not mean however that we are insensitive to any potential hardships endured by the people concerned.
“At the pinnacle of motor sport, F1 events take place across a huge spectrum of different countries and cultures around the world,” added the FIA statement.
“It is our belief that the most fundamental goal of motor sport, and all sport, is founded on the desire to increase our common ground and cultivate the principles of cooperation and commonality between people.
“The FIA will continue to work on projects that bring positive benefits to the wider society, acting always within its scope as the regulator of world motor sport,” the federation added.
CNN has reached out to the Bahrain Supreme Council for Youth and Sports and the Saudi Arabia Ministry of Sport for comment.
This is not the first time that F1 has come under the spotlight for hosting races in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
In 2020, seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton said the sport has a “massive issue” with human rights ahead of competing in Bahrain.
But speaking to CNN Sports days after Hamilton’s comments, former F1 CEO Chase Carey said the sport has been “very clear about our commitment to human rights” and is “very proud of our partnership here in Bahrain.”
CNN’s Amanda Davies, Jack Guy and Matias Grez contributed to reporting.