Has The Bahrain Grand Prix Reignited The Sports Vs Politics Debate?

The 2011 Bahrain Grand Prix was originally scheduled to open the season on March 13th, but was called off. In early June it was reinstated and then called off again. Has this incident reignited the debate about the relationship between sport and politics? This article digs into that question…

In the world of Formula 1 racing, the very arena of this subject, I think the answer is no, probably not.

Bahrain has never been a shining example of human rights, let’s face it, and no-one had any qualms about racing there before. The original decision to cancel this year’s race was based on the safety of the teams, rather than any stand against the regime which has used armed force against protesters.

Then, when it was reinstated, words like ‘reconciliation’ and ‘harmony’ were used. Little mention again of the protesters, with F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone going out of his way to say it had nothing to do with the millions the sport would lose by not staging the race.

The race was then taken back off the schedule after the teams did not agree. Their main reason for complaint though, was the resulting loss of their December holiday rather than continuing concern over the unrest in the country.

Red Bull driver Mark Webber has been fairly loud in voicing his ‘discomfort’ about the race, but that’s about it from inside the sport.

The most famous example of sport entering the world of politics and human rights was South Africa. Various non sporting boycotts and sanctions placed on the South African apartheid regime put pressure on the world of sport.

Various sporting bodies introduced their own boycotts, and South Africa was expelled from both FIFA and the IOC. It was only after the ending of the apartheid system that these boycotts were lifted.

It could well be suspected that money talks in the modern world, maybe more than it ever did, and you only have to go back a few years to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The Chinese government made it abundantly clear that it did not expect to be grilled over its human rights record during the games, and in fact journalists were told in no uncertain terms that if they asked any such questions, they would be barred from further press events.

With the Chinese economy overtaking Japan in 2011 to become the 2nd largest in the world, it’s an easy question to ask whether the threat of economic reprisals hung over the event.

Yes, I think it’s clear that they would.. The communist government has never been afraid to flex its muscle on the economic stage, and that was more important to the IOC and other governments than the human rights of a country staging the Olympics.

I can see the arguments both ways in this age old debate…

On the one side, there is a case that sports people should be allowed to compete in that arena, sport, with no importance attached to their government’s policies. After all, if someone is the best in the world at their sport, and they have no control over their government’s decisions, then why should they be punished?

On the other side, it’s precisely that isolation and punishment which has the aim of influencing a government, and the will of its’ people, to change policy.

Whichever side of the fence you are on, I suspect in this day and age, taking the high moral ground will appeal when there is little threat of financial repercussions. If there are potentially huge financial implications involved, then the blind eye will continue to be turned.

It looks like the Bahrain Grand Prix 2011 debate is over – the race is not on. The more general sports versus politics debate? That will rumble on I’m sure.