In spring 2011, the Arab Spring reached the country of Bahrain. For more than a year, citizens of Bahrain have waged a protracted campaign of civil resistance in the name of political freedom and equality. Even under imminent threat of government retaliation and violence, crowds of protesters have grown as large as 200,000. The brutal police response has led to the arrest of almost 3,000 people to face torture in Bahraini jails. A commission established by King Hamad of Bahrain confirmed the use of torture in Bahraini jails and rampant human rights violations. Many people died.
Amidst all this unrest, the Grand Prix of Bahrain was to take place. Debate about whether the Grand Prix should go on as planned waged behind closed doors and in the media, the safety of the teams being of paramount concern. In March, King Hamad declared a state of emergency in the country, giving Formula 1 organizers an out. The Grand Prix of Bahrain was cancelled.
This year, while civil resistance continues in Bahrain – a protest on March 9th drew a crowd of 100,000 – 250,000 according to various sources – the violent police repression has subsided. But depending on whom you talk to, things are as bad as ever.
But this year, the Grand Prix of Bahrain went on as planned. One the first practice day, three Bahrainis were killed by security forces at a protest outside the track. On April 18th, the Force India team had a close encounter with a petrol bombing. Protesters see the arrival of F1 to Bahrain as an endorsement of the government by Formula 1, while Bernie Ecclestone and F1 organizers see it as a business decision dependent on safety of the teams.
The award of a Formula 1 race has historically remained an apolitical business decision – in terms of national sovereignty, that is. (The Grand Prix of South Africa was staged even in the shadow of Apartheid.) So it is no surprise that the racing resumed in Bahrain this year.
Predicating the staging of a Grand Prix on whether the host country aligns with a political view could spell disaster for the sport. The organizers could decide to cancel the Chinese Grand Prix for China’s censorship and denial of free speech. The French Grand Prix could be cancelled since the French government has outlawed wearing the hiqab in public – another violation of free speech and exercise of religion.
In my opinion, if the staging of a Forumula 1 Grand Prix depended on the political positions of the host country, the reliability of the brand would be ruined and eventually, the prestige of the sport would decline. What do you think?