Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Bahrain Grand Prix

Let’s set our stall out straight away, shall we? I am not a fan of Formula 1. I am not a fan of Bernie Ecclestone. I am not a fan of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. Today the three combine in a sickening display of neo-liberal profiteering and political spectacle masquerading as sport. While Bahraini protestors take to the streets calling for democratic reform the BBC have been running trailers for the Bahrain Grand Prix, with F1 presenter and all round non-entity Jake Humphrey proclaiming that the most important thing about the race today is each teams choice of tyre. There is no way in this world that the Bahrain Grand Prix should have been allowed to go ahead.

Since February last year Bahrain has seen a growing movement calling for political change. Over the past few weeks, in the run up to the grand prix, the resistance has stayed on the streets in the face of continued government repression. Two nights ago a demonstrator, Salah Abbas Habib, was found dead after riot police attacked a protest in the village of Shakhura. In Britain there have been protests outside – and on top of! – the Bahraini embassy in London. Bahrain’s record on democratic practices and human rights is so poor that even David Cameron has been pushed into mealy-mouthed calls for reform. Yet F1 chief Ecclestone has refused to call off the race, while the ex-Met assistant commissioner John Yates took time out from denying he was a puppet of Rupert Murdoch to say that he felt safer in Bahrain than he did in London.

Appearing on BBC News 24 yesterday, some anonymous numpty argued that viewing financial gain as the prime motivation behind the decision to push ahead with the grand prix was “overly simplistic”. Well, pardon me for not developing a more nuanced argument than merely pointing out the bleeding obvious. According to the Formula Money report F1 is a global sports brand netting profits of more than $130million in 2010. According to Forbes, Ecclestone himself is worth in the region of $2.5billion. With figures like that who needs cynicism?

But in one respect our news numpty was right. While Ecclestone and his coterie may be dodging protests all the way back to their tax havens, the King is hoping to bank some political capital. Should the race go ahead – which seems a certainty – he will claim it as a victory over the country’s ‘disruptive influences’ and a signal of tacit support from the international community. Of course this is nothing new. Robert Fisk in an excellent article for the Independent makes the point that sporting events have long been used by those wielding political power to legitimise and normalise their rule – referencing the Olympics in Nazi Germany and the role of rugby and cricket in Apartheid South Africa. Anyone who knows anything about the history of the Olympics in the second half of the twentieth century will know that the medals table was ostensibly a matter of Cold War propaganda; measuring sporting success trailed in a distant second. Increasingly of late it seems that sport has become a barometer for social stability – particularly in the Middle East. The deaths of Egyptian football fans in Port Said illustrated the tensions of an unfinished revolution, and the return of football matches to Libya were seen to symbolise the start of a post-Gaddafi nation.

Much like a grotesque hall of mirrors in a F1 circus the race is held up, reflecting back a horribly distorted image of reality. As is commonplace, those with a vested interest will decry the mixing of politics and sport while we are left with a feeling of here we go back around again, much akin to watching the grand prix itself. After the race has finished Formula 1 will leave behind a country divided, a people oppressed, and Bernie Ecclestone will be that much richer - but certainly none the wiser.