Sports Racism: The Stain in Spain

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Manu Fernandez / AP

Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton.

It certainly wasn't the first time that racist abuse rained down from the stands of a Spanish sports arena. But when spectators at Barcelona's Montmeló track greeted Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton wearing blackface and chanting ugly taunts this past weekend, they may just have provoked an unprecedented official response: sanctions with teeth.

According to Marco Canseco, a reporter for the sports paper Marca, fans of Spanish driver Fernando Alonso booed his archrival (and former McLaren teammate) "fanatically" every time he moved between his mobile home and the pit at the Circuit de Catalunya testing session. Those seated over the British driver's quarters, included some men wearing painted faces, Afro wigs, and t-shirts bearing the word's "Hamilton's Family," went even further, loudly calling Hamilton a "negro de mierda" (or "black shit") and other offensive names.

The Circuit de Catalunya took quick steps to halt the bad behavior, removing some of the offenders and fencing off the area above the British box. On Monday, the track issued a statement saying, "The Circuit de Catalunya will not allow even the smallest incident to repeat itself within its facilities, and new measures are currently being taken into consideration in addition to those implemented." Likewise, the Royal Federation of Spanish Auto racing sharply condemned the acts, noting that it has "zero tolerance" for hooligans.

But outside Spain, some authorities have been unimpressed with that response. The International Automobile Federation, which oversees Formula One, warned that it may impose sanctions against Spain, including possibly removing the country's two Grand Prix races — including one at Montmeló — scheduled for later this year. Calling the events "sickening," British sports minister Gerry Sutcliffe told the BBC that the events "bring in question whether the Grand Prix should be held at this track." He also said that he would be writing to his Spanish counterpart, Jaime Lissavetsky, to express his outrage. "Racism should not be tolerated and this is not the first time British sportsmen have been racially abused in Spain," Sutcliffe said.

He has a point. Although Saturday's insults were a new phenomenon for Formula One racing, Spanish soccer has an unfortunate recent history of spectator racism. In 2004, Spanish national team coach Luis Aragonés publicly applied the same "negro de mierda" epithet to Arsenal striker Thierry Henry and Spanish fans bellowed monkey chants at black players in a "friendly" match between Spain and England later that year. FIFA fined the Spanish Football Federation $77,000 on that occasion. In 2006, FC Barcelona's Cameroon-born striker Samuel Eto'o walked off the field in protest after Zaragoza fans repeated the noises whenever he took to the pitch.

In response to incidents like those, the Spanish government passed legislation last summer that imposes stiffer penalties on those who foment racism within sports. But even this new law may not be enough to combat a larger problem. "The real issue is that Spaniards have a habit of not taking this kind of thing seriously," says Esteban Ibarra, president of the Movement against Intolerance, a watchdog group. "There's a banalization, a permissiveness in the face of racist incidents that worries me more than the incidents themselves. As long as society as a whole continues to see these crimes as insignificant, they're going to recur."

There are signs that the dismissive attitude Ibarra fears is occurring in this case too. Spanish Formula One officials have taken pains to emphasize that only a few among the 55,000-person crowd participated in the insults ("Maybe ten," says a Circuit spokesperson, when asked how many were involved). And online comments left on Spanish websites that have published news of the abuse display a notable lack of concern. "The insults to Mr. Hamilton aren't racist because they aren't insulting him for being black, they insult him for being a Formula One driver [who is] giving it to Alonso," writes one Marca reader.

Still, with the threat of losing the Grand Prix scheduled for Barcelona on April 27 hanging over it, Spanish officials in both sports and government are promising to take new steps to ensure racism doesn't make the same inroads into car racing that it has into soccer. "That's what we're missing," says Ibarra. "Firmness."