Never ones knowingly to take the easy side of an argument, Badger’s been having a look at whether the Bahrain GP really is a special case.
Imagine for a second you’re Bernie Ecclestone. Not only do you struggle to reach the middle shelves in a supermarket, you also have in your hands the future of the Bahrain Grand Prix. It’s a decision not to be taken lightly. You have to weigh multiple factors: disruption for the teams and the potential loss of income for Formula 1 as a whole against the legitimate demands of the local protesters and the potential reputational damage to the sport.
We at Badger have been driven (no pun intended) to ask: why shouldn’t F1 go to Bahrain? To do this, we’re going to compare Bahrain with a couple of other countries involved in the F1 circus.
The background to the potential postponement/cancellation is pretty much exactly the same as last year. Bahrain, like many countries in the region, has a mixed population of Shia and Sunni Muslims. Out of a population of 500,000, two thirds are Shia. However, as in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, the royal family (and most of those in positions of influence) are Sunni.
The protests stem from this gap between demography and political representation – Shias are underrepresented in a society in which they are the majority. This led in early 2011 to a large protest movement attempting to turn Pearl Roundabout into Bahrain’s version of Tahrir Square (the focal point of opposition protests during the overthrow of Egypt’s president). The response from the Bahraini regime was robust; after initially using their own security forces, reinforcements were called in from powerful allies in the region, notably Saudi Arabia. A bloody crackdown then ensued. Now, a year after the initial protests, things are hotting up again.
The big one. The daddy of repression, if you will.
China is still a one-party state grappling with the pressures of a rapidly expanding economy, a nascent middle-class, vocal ethnic minorities, disgruntled migrant labourers and human rights activists. In recent months (and to coincide with a leadership change) repression has increased.
In Tibet, self-immolations by Buddhist monks have set off a new wave of protests that, in turn, have led to a flood of military personal into these areas. This has been accompanied by reports of those personnel opening fire, protesters being ”disappeared” and media and communication blackouts (phone and internet cut off, no media or independent observers allowed in). Free Tibet estimates that up to a million Tibetan nomads have been forceably resettled over the past decade.
More widely, there is also what’s known as The Great Firewall of China, the all-encompassing web-filtering system designed to stop people from communicating about “difficult” topics for the government. We’re not sure if Badger makes the cut.
A venue for F1 in 2014, Russia is one of the most influential countries in the world. It also suffers with a moribund political system, corruption and an economy based largely on energy exports.
The Kremlin controls political life in Russia – state-owned media and controlled “opposition” parties mean Russia is not a fully functioning democracy (or, in fact, anything close). Protests, such as those about the widely condemned recent Presidential and Parliamentary elections, have been put down with the use of violence.
As Vladimir Putin begins his second run as President, many wonder how he will continue to control a country whose ability to rely on energy exports for economic stability and growth is waning.
Where does this leave F1?
So, what’s the difference between Bahrain and the other examples we’ve cited? On the face of it, very little - restrictive or repressive political systems and the use of violence to quell dissent are unifying factors. If we were being cynical we might suggest that we, as F1 fans, have decided that pictures in the media of people being attacked by security forces in Bahrain are worse than other violence that is far less well publicised. Pictures garner an immediate response and have an impact with which words cannot compete.
Indeed, it could be said that Bahrain’s problem is that the government hasn’t been successful enough in quietly suppressing internal dissent and keeping out the international media. Or is our media partly responsible for our feelings? Have they adequately covered the problems in Russia and China, leaving us only to care about Bahrain?
This brings us to a broader problem – the co-existence of a respect for human rights and global sport. F1, historically-speaking, is a European export. With this in mind, should it uphold the same human rights standards that many European countries and their governments have written into law?
As a commercially focused enterprise, this would be difficult for F1 – it must reflect the current alignment of the global economy. Many could also point to how European governments engage, for the most, in positive relationships with the countries we’ve mentioned - themselves possessing extensive economic and trade ties that they cannot afford to endanger.
Nonetheless, sport can be a flag bearer when it comes to promoting certain agendas (e.g. the ‘Show Racism the Red Card’ campaigns in UK football). For Bernie F1 is, first and foremost, a brand and many teams who participate do so on the integrity, reputation and reach of that brand. Careful consideration needs thus be paid to Bahrain and its ability to shape how the F1 brand is seen the world over.
Should F1 stop being hypocritical or just get on with it? Let us know your thoughts below.