There has been a media uproar at the treatment that Lewis Hamilton, the black British Formula one driver, suffered as he was practicing in Spain two weeks ago.
For those of you who don’t live in the UK and have no interest in formula one, Lewis Hamilton is the 21-year-old racing sensation who captivated the country in his rookie season last year. His entry on to the Formula one stage gave a chance to the British hope of once again achieving F1 glory. He is also the first black driver in the 56-year history of formula one. Though in the end he only managed to come second in the drivers contest, he brought F1 into the limelight again especially among black people, most of who had previously had no interest in the sport.
So what happened to him? Seven fans of Spaniard Fernando Alonso were seen dressed in dark, curly wigs, with blacked-up faces and wearing T-shirts bearing the words “Hamilton’s family” at the Montmelo circuit near Barcelona. Some other fans shouted racist abuse at the him, taunting him. Formula One’s governing body, the FIA, launched an investigation and threatened to ban Spain from holding grands prix in Barcelona and Valencia.
This is not the first time Hamilton has been racially abused by the Spanish. In Oct 2007, following tension between Hamilton and Alonso, then team mates at McLaren, Spanish F1 fans posted racist anti-Hamilton messages on websites. When there were complaints Spain's head of motor racing, Carlos Garcia, claimed Britain was a racist country and said it was paradoxical that British fans were supporting a black driver.
In my opinion it is unlikely that the FIA will do anything about the abuse. After the media have forgotten it we will all just carry on. Why do I say this? Well, this is not the first time that a black sportsman has been abused in Spain.
There was outrage when Luis Aragones, the coach of the Spanish national football team, was caught on camera in October 2004 calling Thierry Henry, the French footballer then star striker at the premier league team Arsenal, a "negro de mierda". For those of us who don’t speak Spanish it was translated in all the papers as “black s***." Aragones was unmoved by the outrage, claiming he had done nothing wrong. Nor did he apologise to Henry.
In November the same year, during England's friendly with Spain at the Bernabeu Stadium in Madrid, Ashley Cole, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Jermain Defoe were subjected to sustained monkey chants and racial insults. In February 2006 Barcelona and Cameroon striker Samuel Eto'o threatened to walk off the pitch after being subjected to relentless abuse in a match at Real Zaragoza. I watched this game on television and I can tell you Eto’o was, rightly, not a happy man. This was not the first time he had been racially abused and he was tired of it and frankly so am I. I cannot imagine how he felt when Zaragoza were fined just £450.
When will FIA, UEFA, FIFA and the other sporting bodies realise that they cannot continue to ignore the problem, they cannot continue to allow this behaviour to go ahead unpunished. And let us not pretend it is just in Spain or Black people who are abused. There have been numerous abuses in France and Italy including an incident in the 2006 Champions league campaign when Dida the Brazilian and AC Milan goalkeeper had a glow stick throw at him in Italy. Indian and Pakistani cricketers suffer the same treatment in Australia and South Africa, some even accusing the umpires of being racist showing that the problem is not simply the ignorance of the fans. What we should be asking now is why are these people allowed to get away with this, why is this not something that is dealt with severely?
I think it is best to look at who runs these sports and therein lies the answer. Essentially in Europe most of the governing bodies are still old boys clubs run by white men, with a few token minorities thrown in for the sake of appearances. And no matter how hard they try white men find it difficult to understand what it feels like to be discriminated against, because it is rare that they experience it in any form. A prime example of this lack of understanding presented itself this morning when one of the men in my office gave a speech stating that he thought Hamilton should just ignore it and carry on, he could not understand why Hamilton would be hurt by this kind of abuse.
If the people making the rules and handing out the punishments cannot empathise with a situation they are unlikely to react to it in an appropriate manner. They may take it seriously but in the end they cannot understand what the best course of action would be, because they cannot understand the feelings of those who are being hurt. So the solution is to strive to change the make up of the governing bodies before we can expect to see them acting with appropriate strength and decisiveness to rid sport of racism.