A tussle in Bahrain

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It is often said that politics and sport are a reinforcing mixture. Sporting events compass the capacity to enhance political awareness through the media attention it brings forth, as major competitions are not only a theatre of sport, but also a platform of communication.

Political tension has the power to encapsulate the media attention away from the athletics to the administrative issue at hand. Such is the case in Bahrain where for weeks the media have circled the small island state, condemning the FIA and the Formula One enterprise for allowing the Grand Prix to take place whilst the citizens of the country are calling for democracy and being scrutinised by the government security forces.

The last two years have placed the Bahrain Grand Prix at the centre of international attention. In 2011 the race was cancelled due to the instability within the country at the time. Controversially in 2012 the race was allowed to continue, amidst similar conditions to the previous year. The 2012 race was a nightmare for both teams and fans alike. Many of the teams were unhappy about racing in Bahrain during such a sensitive time. The safety of the teams also became an issue when members of the Force India team were caught in the middle of a clash between protesters and government troops that saw multiple Molotov cocktails explode. Some of the team members asked to go back home, due to safety concerns.

The substance for the protests dates back to the Arab Spring, when the Shi’ite population of Bahrain began opposing the Sunni-run government that has been under the al-Khalifa family for hundreds of years. The majority of the population of Bahrain is Shi’ite Muslim, and for years, they have been discriminated against in terms of employment, living conditions and wellbeing by the Sunni minority. Since the Arab Spring in 2011, more than 40 people have lost their lives and hundreds more have been injured due to clashes with the government forces and protest groups calling for more equal rights for the Shi’ite population. Two years on and the situation is still very tense, something the government officials are trying to downplay.

The recent press release from the chairman of the Bahrain International Circuit Zayed Alzayani states that the protests will not hinder the race, as well as the race organisers showing a 20 per cent increase in ticket revenue. The race is expected to generate gross revenue of over $200 million, demonstrating its profitable nature to both the government and the FIA. However, last Sunday a car bomb exploded near the track, increasing the security forces surrounding the track, and signalling the level of dissidence has yet to be contained.

What is most striking is the FIA’s complete disregard for this issue. Jean Todt, the President of FIA agreed to proceed with the race, but chose not to attend the event itself. When the President of the association that represents motorsports worldwide and regulates Formula One does not attend the race, or give any formal opinion as to why he made that executive decision, signals that his actual contribution to this dilemma is minimalist. Former world champion Damon Hill summarises the impotence of Jean Todt and the FIA.

“His [Todt’s] approach has been to say nothing, because otherwise you’re being critical, and I think that is a mistake. Because he’s being used, or the sport is being perceived as being used, by its engagement in the economy and the reputation of the country.”

Damon Hill goes to further criticise the FIA by saying:

“The vast majority of people in the sport would like to say we don’t want to come here to make life worse for people. We would like you to enjoy Formula One. It has lots of positive things to offer. But please don’t, on our behalf, round people up and brutalise them. I don’t see that being political. It’s more ethical than political.”

It is foolish and ignorant to have allowed the race to go on. There are times when matters of more importance exist than seeing who is fastest. What is even more disturbing is Bernie Ecclestone’s statement before the race. Ecclestone argued that whilst the situation is controversial, the race will remain independent and ignore the politics:

“We don’t want to see trouble. We don’t want to see people arguing and fighting about things we don’t understand, because we really don’t understand.”

Whilst we may not understand the everyday hardships that the people endure, it would be naïve to assume that we do not understand the basic call for democracy and equality. Formula One has the potential to make a statement; as a sport its purpose is to entertain, but as an international programme it has the capacity to move beyond its definitions. When managerial hubris precedes a call for integrity, it ultimately harms the image of the sport, and thus whilst Ecclestone and the FIA pretend to stay neutral in this manner, the simple fact the race took place in Bahrain signals where the governing body of FIA and Formula One stand on this matter.

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