On April 22nd, the royal family of Bahrain is determined to stage its annual Formula 1 Grand Prix race. This might not sound like scintillating news, but whether the event goes off as planned is a question with major ramifications for the royal Khalifa family, as well as for the democracy movement in the Gulf kingdom. It will be viewed closely by the US state department and human rights organizations across the globe. From a renowned prisoner on a two month hunger strike to a British billionaire fascist sympathizer, the sides have been sharply drawn.
For the Bahraini royals, staging the Formula 1 race is a chance to show the people that normalcy has returned following last year’s massive pro-democracy protests. In 2011, the race was cancelled to the rage of the royals. Now, the royal family is hoping that the 60 people slaughtered by Bahraini and Saudi forces, as well as the thousands arrested and tortured can be forgotten in the roar of the engines.
For those protesting in the name of expanded political and personal freedoms, the return of the F1 racing series as a slap in the face, given all they’ve suffered in the last year and continue to suffer today. Now the protest movement and human rights organizations are calling upon Bernie Ecclestone, the CEO of Formula 1 Grand Prix, to cancel the race.
Maryam al-Khawaja, head of the foreign relations office at the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, said:
“The government promised changes last year but no changes have taken place because there is no incentive to make them. And tortures are still taking place. The government want the message to go out that it is business as usual. But today armored vehicles went into residential areas for the first time since last year's martial law ended in June. I have heard reports of protesters being thrown from rooftops and others having legs broken. That it is why Formula One should make a stand and call this race off.”
At a mass anti-F1 rally, Ali Mohammed commented to the AP, “We don’t want Formula  in our country. They are killing us every day with tear gas. They have no respect for human rights or democracy. Why would we keep silent? No one will enjoy the F1 in Bahrain with cries for freedom from the inside and outside of the race.”
Then there is prominent activist, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who has been on hunger strike for more than 50 days. Calls for his immediate release have merged with calls for the F1 cancellation. Protesters are described as holding al-Khawaja’s picture in one hand, and a “no to F1” sign in the other.
1996 F1 champion Damon Hill, who is now a commentator for Rupert Murodch’s Sky News also expressed his concern, saying, "It would be a bad state of affairs, and bad for Formula One, to be seen to be enforcing martial law in order to hold the race. That is not what this sport should be about. Looking at it today you'd have to say that [the race] could be creating more problems than it's solving."
One might think that all of this would pose a moral and ethical quandary for 81-year old Formula 1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone. One would be wrong. The multi-billionaire Ecclestone, the 4th richest man in England, has done little more than roll his eyes. In February, when hundreds were arrested and tortured for protesting on the anniversary of the 2011 uprising, he was asked if the F1 race would be pulled, He said, “I expected there was going to be a big uprising today, with the anniversary. But I think what happened, apparently, was that here were a lot of kids having a go at the police. I don't think it's anything serious at all.”
In March, Ecclestone said of the plans for Bahrain, "It's business as usual. I don't think the people who are trying to demonstrate a little bit are going to use anything to do with F1. If they did they would be a little bit silly…The good thing about Bahrain is it seems more democratic there than most places. People are allowed to speak when they want, they can protest if they want to." There is no word as to what color the sky is in Ecclestone’s world or if at the conclusion of this interview, he released the hounds.
Not to shock anyone, but this 81 year old British billionaire has in the past expressed sympathy for Adolf Hitler, and by “past” I mean 2009. During an interview in July of that year, Ecclestone said, "Apart from the fact that Hitler got taken away and persuaded to do things that I have no idea whether he wanted to do or not, he was in the way that he could command a lot of people able to get things done…..If you have a look at a democracy it hasn’t done a lot of good for many countries — including this one.”
This is an ugly twisted old brute, but say this for him: at least he commented when asked about Bahrain. That’s far more that we can say for President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. As Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, a consultant to Human Rights Watch, wrote,“President Obama... loses his voice when it comes to Bahrain.” This isn't just oversight or happenstance. Bahrain happily houses the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, and has pledged to do so for another 50 years. It appears that this favor has bought silence and that’s exactly why we need to be loud. The call has gone out form inside of Bahrain to call upon Formula 1 to cancel this race. We should do our part.
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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to email@example.com.
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