While a handful of multi-millionaires drove their logo emblazoned cars over the tarmac inside a tightly secured perimeter evoking memories of the Green Zone in Baghdad, peaceful and not so peaceful protests erupted outside. The Bahrain Grand Prix was supposed to showcase an island that had returned to safely, stability and transparency, instead it will probably be remembered as an international sporting PR disaster as both citizens and foreign journalists were detained, including the Sunday Telegraphs Colin Freeman who had only just described the scenes as "more reminiscent of a war zone then a spectator sport".
Since the 14 February 2011, when a peaceful protest at Pearl Roundabout (a national landmark) was interrupted by a brutal and bloody police crackdown, a wave of pubic insurrection and military retaliation has swept the nation. Last year, in a move somewhat reminiscent of the Anschluss of 1938, the Saudi Arabian military has occupied the island by invitation with troops and tanks engaged in daily patrols of the rebel Shiite villages.
So did the arrival of Formula One lend legitimacy to King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and his ruling Sunni regime? The case certainly wasn't helped by the sinister presents of Bernie Ecclestone; a man as synonymous with corruption and greed as a bulging brown envelope addressed to Peter Cruddas. Last year when the 2011 race was cancelled Bernie told BBC Sport that "Hopefully there'll be peace and quiet and we can return in the future" but one year on and Bahrain was not peaceful and nor was it quiet. This year on the eve of the event Bernie insisted that the political situation had "nothing to do with Formula One"; this sentiment didn't seem to have been shared by the Bahraini authorities, who optimistically touted the race by plastering the slogan "UniF1ed - One Nation in Celebration" on every other street corner. What's troubling is that Formula One and the FIA didn't seem to care about appearing as a shill to a king and his desperate attempts to re-brand himself. Perhaps it naive to even expect to them exhibit responsibility?
One argument that continues to re-emerge in dilemmas such as this must be addressed and it too was raised by Mr Ecclestone who told the press that the race had given the protesters "an incredible platform". This is the old media truism that states that we wouldn't be talking about the protests or the subsequent crackdowns if it were not for the race and as true as that might be I believe it to be more of a reflection on the nature of our news editors and the market that now drives them.
Surely we should have been paying attention to Bahrain anyway but perhaps that's wishful thinking, I probably wouldn't be writing about Bahrain and you probably wouldn't be reading about it without the involvement of Sebastian Vettel. The major trouble with this conjunction is it's deceptive ability to appear mutually beneficial.
To the eyes of the world everything can appear to work out perfectly, the drivers get to race, the audience get to watch and the protesters get a voice, so everybody should be happy. However the Bahraini protesters did not want to see the race take place in there country. The reason being because the international attention gained by there cause could have easily been outweighed by the credibility gifted to their autocratic king and this would have depended on how the event was reported.
In instances like this history falls into the hands of visiting journalists who might, in the absence of loud protests, have been tempted to define the political climate of the country by the taking the temperature of one weekend. Luckily, if only from a PR perspective, the protesters won this roll of the dice as the news media ran with footage of protesters setting fire to tires. The stadium was almost empty and the protests were significant enough to attract the camera lenses of the western news media. Those cameras have been all too easily distracted in the past, just as the 2005 G8 protesters who will be quick to tell you that Bono's head can obscure almost anything.
In the end the decision to hold the race in Bahrain was far from mutually beneficial. The achievements of the drivers were overshadowed by violence while the protesters suffered from policemen liberally deploying British-made tear gas. While Bernie Ecclestone counts his earnings the opposition will count its wounded and until the media spotlight returns for the next Bahrain Grand Prix the struggle will most likely continue in the dark.
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