Editorial: A kingdom for a sport

Last updated 14:02 23/04/2012

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OPINION: The Bahrain Grand Prix was scheduled to begin just before midnight last night, so by now Bernie Ecclestone's Formula One travelling circus will either have blood on its hands, or it will have gambled on the ability of the kingdom's security forces to quell protest and won. Either way, it's a black day for motorsport.

The race has been a symbol of pride for Bahrain's ruling royal family since Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa brought the first Formula One Grand Prix to the region in 2004. Last year's race was cancelled after a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protests that formed part of the Arab Spring, during which leaders were toppled from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya.

Even before drivers took to the track for yesterday's practice sessions there was a funeral to plan. Salah Abbas Habib was found dead on a rooftop in the neighbourhood of Manama after Friday night clashes between police and several hundred protesters. Bahrain's opposition party Wefaq said Habib was among a group of protesters beaten by police after the clashes.

Habib's funeral was to have been held overnight, coinciding with the running of the grand prix and providing yet another flashpoint for protest.

Major sponsors of Formula One include Royal Dutch Shell, Vodafone, Unilever, Total, Siemens, UBS, News Corp, Hugo Boss, ExxonMobil, Deutsche Post, Daimler and Thomson Reuters. As the tempo built at Bahrain International Circuit, there were reports that some of those companies had scaled back their client entertainment at the race venue in an attempt to put some air between their brands and any further bloodshed.

Human rights groups and protesters have called on the sport's sponsors to go much further and to withdraw their support for the race, without success.

Motorsport in general, and Formula One in particular, has long been the darling of what was once called the jet set. Glamour drips from the series' race crews like diamond earrings at a Monte Carlo casino – this is all a long way from the pits at the Riverside speedway. Through its 20 events, Formula One racks up an annual revenue of US$2 billion. Bahrain's embattled royal family would desperately love some of that prestige to rub off on their troubled rule; instead their $40 million spend-up on hosting the event is blowing up in front of their eyes like the molotov cocktails that had streets ablaze on Friday.

There was a time when New Zealand was ripped apart by those who thought sport and politics shouldn't mix, and those who thought a racist South African regime needed to be punished for its crimes by being denied contact with the rest of the rugby-playing world. Time showed the succour the South African state derived then from the few countries, principally this one, that would still play them. Time has also showed the tremendous contribution to the overthrow of apartheid made by ordinary New Zealanders who took to the streets against sporting contacts with the white-ruled regime.

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Maybe it once was, but sport is never just sport these days, and certainly not when it is at the level of Formula One. Money, power, prestige and corporate glad-handing are the hallmarks of such events. The pit crew, the managers, even the drivers are mere pawns in this world. A revolt from these quarters is unlikely but not unthinkable.

More likely is that corporate sponsors will get cold feet as they feel pressure from their customers. If last night's race triggers more bloodshed on the streets of Bahrain, not even Bernie Ecclestone would be putting money on the running of another grand prix there.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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