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Thursday, April 19, 2012

A matter of conscience

There has been a Formula One grand prix in Bahrain since 2004. This makes it a relatively recent addition to a race calendar that is increasingly turning its back on the traditional circuits - the heartland of motorsport - in favour of chasing the new money. The big stories about Formula One in recent times have been about money: about how to make more of it more quickly, and how to divvy up the spoils between its owners and participants. The people whose bank accounts end up replenished through this process call this 'globalising the brand'.

Against this multi-billion pound business backdrop, the actual sporting spectacle becomes a bit of a sideshow, a dancing bear at the boardroom circus. Yes, it's loud and glamorous. In recent times it has even become exciting again. However, the real overtaking and fast cornering is largely done in private. Much of the three-cornered relationship between (in broad terms) the rights owners, the teams and the regulators is cloaked in secrecy.

In the context of this juggernaut of commercial progress, human rights issues in the sport's host countries become a bit of an elephant in the room. Whatever else Formula One does, it puts its hosts in the global sporting spotlight for one week in the year. It's time to hide the dust under the carpet, give the windows an extra polish and get the best crockery out. The rich relatives are coming to visit with their video camera and we wouldn't want anything to spoil it.

Unfortunately for Bahrain, there is the little matter of its pro-democracy campaigners and government oppression. A little local difficulty, most of the time. It's not as if this is Syria, after all. Last year, Formula One had to withdraw from its commitments in Bahrain. Not that anyone but race fans cared - the circuit owners still paid up the full fee.

This year, the race goes ahead amid a gale of hand-wringing and very visible concerns. Does Formula One, as a sport, care?

I would argue it does not.

What Formula One worries about is not caring, but being seen to care. If abuse of human rights was an issue that Formula One had a moral conscience about, there would not be races in China, the US or the UK ... in fact, which nation comes out of that particular question with a spotless record?

As for the fans, I doubt many of us could point to Bahrain on a map, or have anything but the shallowest wiki-ed knowledge of the country. We didn't care pre-Formula One and we're only pretending to care now. We certainly didn't care about human rights abuses in Bahrain 2004-2010.

There's too much money at stake for the decision to race there or not to be anything other than a commercial one. So here's an idea. Run the race behind closed doors. Don't televise it. If Formula One really, REALLY cares about human rights issues, let it donate the £multi-million race fee to Amnesty International.

Better yet - Mercedes-Benz and Ferrari et al, close your showrooms in Bahrain ...

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