Analysis: racism back in Spanish sport

It is not the first time that the spectre of racism has visited Spanish sport and the abuse directed at British Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton shows the country is still struggling to come to terms with the issue

Analysis: racism back in Spanish sport

The insults made by spectators at the Circuit de Catalunya to Hamilton at the weekend were reminiscent of similar incidents that have marred Spanish sport in recent years.

National soccer coach Luis Aragones hit the headlines just over three years ago for derogatory comments about French player Thierry Henry although he has always denied they were racist.

Large-scale racist abuse against visiting black players took place at a subsequent friendly international against England, while monkey chanting and racial insults went on to become frequent at matches.

Two seasons ago, fed up with the abuse, Barcelona striker Samuel Eto'o even threatened to walk off the pitch after being racially insulted by fans in a match against Real Zaragoza.

When the first incidents occurred the initial reaction of sporting authorities was to try to sweep them under the carpet.

But negative media coverage from abroad, particularly in the wake of Madrid's unsuccessful bid for the 2012 Olympics, and the intervention of international federations meant the issue began to be taken more seriously.

The Spanish government moved to introduce a new law dealing with racism and xenophobia while football authorities and many clubs have backed initiatives to combat the problem.

Although many official institutions have become more sensitive to the issue, there has also been a backlash amongst some sections of the media and the public against what they see as an imposition of political correctness.

Many Spaniards fiercely deny racism is a major problem and point instead to what they see as hypocrisy from British media and politicians who condemn them but fail to see that the behaviour of many of their soccer fans is often tinged with xenophobia when they visit Spain.

They say that sportsmen like Hamilton and Eto'o are being insulted because they are rivals and not because of their race and that the use of the word "black" is merely descriptive.

A quick glance, however, at the web page of the country's best selling paper, the sports daily Marca, reveals a different picture.

Marca doesn't moderate racist insults of Hamilton that appear in the comments section made by readers of its website and the McLaren driver has been referred to as a "black monkey" on several occasions.

Estaban Ibarra, spokesman for Spain's Movement against Intolerance, said these manifestations of racism were a reflection of worrying trends in Spanish society and the lack of institutional action.

"Racism and xenophobia are present in Spain just as they are in the rest of Europe, but our observations show that they have grown in Spain in recent years as evidenced by the proliferation of racist Internet sites and the activity of ultra groups," Ibarra told Reuters.

"It is not just racism, it is xenophobia too directed against people from Eastern Europe or North Africa for example and people of different religions such as Muslims.

"In sport it started in football but it has spread to other arenas. We've observed that a patriotic excitement in motor sport, for example, can lead to a lack of respect to competitors from other cultures or countries.

"The government has introduced new laws but the problem is their enforcement has largely been limited to football. What we need is a more rigorous and energetic application of the laws. We need a specialist prosecutor to deal with the issue of racism and xenophobia."

Only 30 years since the death of right-wing dictator Francisco Franco and the subsequent transition to democracy, Spain is still coming to terms with resulting social, political and demographic changes, according to Ibarra.

"Spain now is a bit like Britain in the 1970s and 1980s," he said. "The country is experiencing widespread immigration and some people are struggling to adapt, while the institutions are behind the times."

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