Bahrain fiasco had one good outcome

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 April, 2012, 12:00am


Bernie Ecclestone has a job to do so get the hell out of his way, particularly you meddlesome troublemakers in the media. Ecclestone is an 81-year-old British billionaire and Andy Warhol lookalike who runs Formula One racing. Despite the involvement in F1 of some of the biggest corporate brands in the world, Ecclestone is unmoved by public sentiment. He just does not care what you or I think and if there was ever any doubt, Ecclestone's actions last weekend loudly confirmed it.

With the Bahrain government reeling from a worsening political crisis that led to the cancellation of the 2011 event, Ecclestone defiantly led the F1 circus back to the country, despite absolutely nothing having changed or improved since a year ago. The same government, the ruling Khalifa family that has been roundly derided for its use of torture and oppression, is still in power. One year ago they brought in mercenary troops from Saudi Arabia to quell public protests with force. The troops are still there. Visitors, and there are admittedly fewer and fewer, speak of a heavily armed and fortified police state with numerous military checkpoints and helicopters buzzing over the city centre like dragon flies.

A group of Labour MPs in the British parliament tabled a motion calling for the race to be cancelled and appealing to British drivers Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton and Paul di Resta to boycott the event because 'the Formula One race will be used by the Bahrain government as an endorsement of its policies of suppression of dissent'. So who's up for a bit of F1-style corporate hospitality then? Come on, somebody must be because according to the F1's corporate entertainment website 'if you are looking to entertain and impress look no further than the Bahrain International Circuit's corporate lounges where exclusive group bookings start from US$2,800 per person'. I would love to tell you I am making all of this up but sadly, you know it's the truth. It's also true that Ecclestone lectured the media on their responsibility while in the country.

'We're not here to get involved in the politics,' he said. 'There are other countries much higher up the priority list you should be writing about. Go to Syria and write about those things there because it's more important than here.' There are few people in the firmament of international sports that could make a loathsome character like Fifa supremo Sepp Blatter look almost human and Ecclestone is one of them. A ruthless raconteur, he has few peers on the shameless scale. In the 30 or so years of his control over Formula One, he took a sport that was largely run by European amateurs and shook it to its core. He won the sole rights to negotiate broadcasting fees, sponsorships and trackside advertising and took the sport from its roots into emerging markets like China, Malaysia, Abu Dhabi, Singapore, India and Bahrain. Most of those places were largely governed by autocratic groups accountable only to themselves, making it a perfect union. The notion that Ecclestone and F1 would avoid Bahrain because of the inherent controversy is laughable at best. It's the same government he signed the original deal with in 2004, the largely unpopular Sunni rulers presiding over the Shiites, the overwhelming ethnic majority.

Ironically though, this year's Bahrain Grand Prix is one of the best things to happen to the Shiite opposition. When was the last time you heard about Bahrain before the race last week? The heartless assassins running Syria have become the international focal point, not Bahrain. Despite the 14-month-old uprising being the longest running unrest in the protracted Arab spring protests, it has somehow managed to stay largely off the media's radar mostly because the US has 2,300 military personnel stationed on a 40.5 hectare base in Bahrain. That kind of strategic alliance tends to keep the American media largely docile. But thanks to the race last weekend, protesters had a ready-made global audience to plead their case in front of.

Amid the crackdown on human rights protesters, some members of the media got a little more curious than their hosts wanted. They weren't buying the official rhetoric from the royal family and their well-paid flunkies that the race served to unify the country. Despite the presence of several western PR hacks painting a pretty picture of harmony and some police chiefs from the US and the UK imported to keep order, the skies were still burning in protest as the race roared on. While a number of journalists were denied entry into the country, others wrote of not being allowed to film anything other than the race. The particularly intrepid and determined did incur the wrath of Ecclestone though by focusing on the government's ongoing tear-gas harassment campaign instead of Sebastian Vettel's victory. And then, just like that, the circus left town but not before exposing to the world, at least temporarily, the myth that all is OK in Bahrain.