Edge of Sports
A Question of Human Rights: Keeping the F1 Racing
Series Out of Bahrain
By Dave Zirin
April 9, 2012
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
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.
People can email [log in to unmask] and tell them
their feeling. For more information on Bahrain, visit
[Dave Zirin is the author of "The John Carlos Story"
(Haymarket) and just made the new documentary "Not Just
a Game." Receive his column every week by emailing
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