Principles for money: from tennis to F1, it is the real competition which seizes the world sport | Tim adams

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YesYou can’t put a price on principles, but there have always been a lot of people willing to give it a try. In the 1980s, as the sports boycott of apartheid in South Africa held on relatively firmly, casino operators in Sun City attempted to attract global sports stars to play one-off exhibition matches. that violate the ban. John McEnroe, then at the height of his rebel powers, turned down one of those paychecks, at the age of 24, with the memorable remark that “I have better ways of making a million dollars. “. In the context of the money being ordered by today’s stars, the bribe offered to McEnroe may seem insignificant; it should be remembered that in 1983 the million dollar evening’s work would have been 10 times what he had banked to win Wimbledon that year.

There were, of course, plenty of players ready to take the money – McEnroe’s rivals Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl went for $ 400,000 and $ 300,000 respectively. Arthur Ashe, the black American tennis legend and anti-apartheid activist, used to try to deter anyone who offered what he called the Sun City “guilt bounty”. One group has always been the hardest to convince, Ashe recalls, “Golfers all have their heads in the sand. They are all 5ft 11, blond, right-wing Republicans. They do not care.

When, as in the past two weeks, there has been talk of politically motivated sports boycotts, it is the example of South Africa’s ban that is most relevant, especially in view of these incentives. who change life who have been rejected. The seemingly disturbing treatment of tennis player Peng Shuai since her sexual abuse allegations against a senior Communist Party official has personalized the Chinese government’s horrific human rights violations, just as broadcasters around the world prepare to bow down to the Beijing hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics in February.

Amid the general reluctance to sanction the largest market on the planet, the determined stance of the Women’s Tennis Association to boycott tournaments in China until Peng Shuai’s security is properly established is a rare example of an organization willing to put its money where its mouth is. (The WTA event will cost him several million yen in sponsorship). It also makes the International Olympic Committee, which seemed too willing to take President Xi Jinping at his word on staged talks with Peng Shuai, appear cowardly, as one would expect.

Such is the poisoned love triangle between world sport and world money and repressive governments that comparable ethical conflicts are now systematically built into the sporting calendar. One of the questions that all athletes and competitors face is: What battles are worth fighting? Lewis Hamilton has been among today’s most vocal sports heroes in the promotion of Black Lives Matter. Today in Saudi Arabia, he will compete for the F1 World Championship wearing a rainbow-colored helmet in support of LGBTQ + rights in a country where same-sex relationships can be punishable by death. This strong and proud commitment is admirable, but it is also remarkable that Hamilton, one of the elite influencers in the world, so far has nothing to say about his new Mercedes team sponsor, Kingspan, the manufacturer. coatings industry which was involved in the ongoing Grenfell Tower fire investigation.

Hamilton has in the past posted on Instagram his support for Grenfell survivors, many of whom now feel rightly betrayed by his team’s lucrative association with Kingspan. There is no doubt that if he does come to the issue, Hamilton will suggest that he has little control over the names Mercedes chooses to put on his car (and, if he goes down that route, could He would add, he would certainly have reason to examine the story of Petronas, his team’s main sponsor.) What his silence on Kingspan does, however, is to invite critics to cry hypocrite.

Michael Gove was quick to bring the accusation against the Hamilton team, demanding that Mercedes reconsider his deal. This is, once again, to say what cultural wars politicians choose to wage. While Gove may have found the time to make innuendo about the double standards of perhaps this country’s most prominent black athlete, he had nothing to say when confronted, by example, at the announcement of the death of the Saudi royal family. redeem Newcastle United FC (feeling no doubt, silently, an easy victory for their ‘leveling’ plans).

Such is the pervasiveness of sport, such is the attraction of “sportwashing” to toxic diets and dubious businesses, that no chair fan is entirely immune to these kinds of ethical dilemmas. How many subscriptions have been returned to St James’ Park in Newcastle in the name of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi? Or, on a lesser scale, how many Christmas stockings will contain replica shirts that will make every fan a traveling advertisement for offshore betting companies?

Every sports fan has principles until an oligarch throws money at his team. This is usually when they make the argument that sport shouldn’t be the only brutal instrument with which to hold rogue states or companies to account. Or, rather, that it represents an invaluable source of soft power, of “quiet diplomacy” to use Lord Coe’s slightly sinister phrase on Peng Shuai’s predicament. These arguments have merit, but it should also be borne in mind that these were the same formulations used by those who went to apartheid South Africa – golfers, tennis players and others. the rebellious cricket tourists – just as they were pocketing their “guilt bonus”.

In the age of gestural politics, one thing that has been emphasized in recent weeks is that, at the very least, ethics does not always need to dissolve in the face of a financial penalty. Sport has come to appreciate the big political gesture almost as much as the millions of sponsors. Taking the knee is a commendable thing, but taking a hit in your own pay or that of your organization to protest something you believe in will always carry more weight. Sometimes, as the WTA has tried to argue, as John McEnroe and Arthur Ashe once argued, the real symbolic power is just in insisting: our principles are not for sale.

Tim Adams is an Observer columnist


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