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Kamis, 09 Juli 2009

Ecclestone: I was an idiot, but I won't resign

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Bernie Ecclestone has admitted that he was 'an idiot' for the misguided remarks he made that suggested tyrants Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein were 'strong leaders' able to 'command a lot of people' and 'get things done' – but the F1 commercial rights-holder is adamant that he will not step down in the wake of the international furore prompted by his comments.

Ecclestone was greeted with global condemnation for claiming that Hitler's undoing came when the Nazi leader 'got lost' during his dictatorship – during which six million Jews and other victims of his regime died in concentration camps – and denigrating the merits of democracy, describing the 2003 toppling of Hussein at the hands of Britain and the United States as 'terrible' in removing 'the only one who could control' Iraq.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews responded in terming the 78-year-old billionaire's words 'bizarre', with Stephen Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chronicle, rebuking him as 'either an idiot or morally repulsive'. Labour MP Denis MacShane similarly reproached him for having displayed 'an ignorance of history', with Conservative counterpart John Whittingdale admitting to being 'appalled'.

Ecclestone, however, has since sought to play down what he said as 'all a big misunderstanding', blaming not The Times – the newspaper in which the interview was published – but rather his own maladroitness in being so 'unwise [as] to articulate my points so badly that [they] should have been so widely misunderstood' and insisting that he is in no way 'an admirer of dictators, who rule by terror.'

“It was never my intention to hurt the feelings of any community,” he urged in a subsequent interview with German newspaper Bild. “Many people in my closest circle of friends are Jewish. Anyone who knows me knows that I would never attack a minority.

“In the interview we were talking about structures, and that it can sometimes be good to act and make strong decisions without reservation. I did not put Hitler forward as a positive example, but simply noted that, before his appalling crimes, he acted successfully against unemployment and the economic crisis.”

“I unreservedly apologise for the remarks I made regarding Hitler in a recent interview,” he added in an official statement. “I am extremely distressed and embarrassed that these remarks have been used as suggesting that I support Hitler or Saddam Hussein. I would never support such people.

“I should never have been so foolish as to have been drawn into discussing these people but the fault was entirely mine, which I deeply regret.”

There have been repeated whispers – always denied by Ecclestone – that he is himself Jewish, and he argued in an apologetic interview with the Jewish Community Online that his remarks had been misconstrued, in that following a discussion about how difficult it is to make democracy adequately work, he had been asked for his views on dictators and Hitler. He also confessed to having been horrified at what he saw at Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.

“It takes quite a lot to make me cry, and I cried when I came out of that place,” he revealed. “I'm just sorry that I was an idiot (in saying what he said). I sincerely, genuinely apologise. I said I suppose he (Hitler) did, [in his] early days, a good job. He took Germany from a bankrupt country to a superpower in five years, so he probably couldn't have done that unless he made things happen. All sorts of people have done that in the past.

“The problem is we shouldn't use the word dictators; we should use the word leaders. It's a leader you want, not a dictator, because most dictators get things done by terrorising people, whereas a leader like Mrs Thatcher gets things done because people think what she's doing is leading them in the right direction and people support her.”

The reason for Ecclestone giving the interview in the first place remains unclear, but it has been mused that he was perhaps trying to state the case for the retention of a leader in F1 like the President of the FIA, rather than risking the anarchy that might result should the Formula One Teams' Association (FOTA) pursue its threat to break away and form its own, democratically-run championship.

Whilst there has been no reaction from within the paddock, the timing could scarcely have been worse. A meeting aimed at safeguarding the future of Hockenheim as an enduring venue in the top flight had been scheduled to take place over the weekend of the upcoming German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring, but that has since been cancelled in the wake of the scandal.

Against the backdrop of the uneasy truce in the FIA/FOTA civil war, Germany's Central Council of Jews has called upon F1's teams to boycott the sport, with the organisation's vice-president Dieter Graumann telling the Handesblatt daily newspaper: “If Ecclestone says he was an idiot, I will certainly not contradict him. Apologising is better than not apologising, but the glorification of a mass murderer is not a trivial offence. No team should work with him anymore.”

The World Jewish Congress, meanwhile, has called for Ecclestone to resign from his post, citing his apology as inadequate, but the Formula One Management (FOM) chief executive has insisted that its president Ronald Lauder does not possess the necessary authority to make such a demand.

“Mr. Ecclestone's comments were crass, ignorant and insensitive,” added Jon Benjamin, chief executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, in a statement issued to CNN. “There is no excuse for praising one of history's most evil men for being good at being bad.”

What's more, the incident has re-awakened uncomfortable memories of the News of the World sex scandal into which Ecclestone's long-time friend, ally and business partner Max Mosley found himself plunged early last year, when the Sunday tabloid falsely accused the FIA President of having introduced 'Nazi elements' into S&M fantasies in which he participated.

The Times interview is not the first time Ecclestone has courted controversy with his comments of late, having suggested that the racist abuse directed at McLaren-Mercedes' world champion Lewis Hamilton during testing in Barcelona in 2008 was merely 'a joke', and having only earlier this year opined that 'it would be fantastic to have a female driver who is black and Jewish' in F1, whilst quipping that 'they might take maternity leave'. Rarely a shrinking violet, he previously suggested that women should wear white 'like all other domestic appliances'.

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