Until recently, sports fans had little cause to pay attention to Bahrain. The tiny Arab state, unlike its neighbors Dubai, Abu Dhabi, or Qatar, with their mega-purchases of British soccer clubs or extravagant plans for hosting the 2022 World Cup, rarely featured on the international sporting calendar. But Formula One (F1) changed all that. In 2004 Bahrain, a Shiite majority kingdom ruled by the Sunni Al Khalifa family, won -- or paid for, frankly -- the right to become the first Arab country to host an F1 Grand Prix race, an event in the world's pinnacle motorsport series, watched annually by over 600 million people.
For the first time, Bahrain had a place on the sporting map. The race was a publicity coup for the country and a boost to the ruling family's prestige. Then came the Arab Spring.
Last season's race was, eventually and reluctantly, cancelled in a storm of controversy as teams pondered the ethics of racing in a country wracked by protests and a violent government crackdown that left dozens of protestors dead. Damon Hill, a former F1 world champion, observed that racing in the "blood-soaked" kingdom would be akin to racing in South Africa at the height of the apartheid regime.
How quickly we forget. A year later, F1 has returned to Bahrain -- kicking off a gaudy three-day extravaganza that begins on Friday, April 20 -- though the political situation in the country is as fraught as it was in 2011.
According to Amnesty International, "Despite the authorities' claims to the contrary, state violence against those who oppose the Al Khalifa family rule continues, and in practice, not much has changed in the country since the brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters in February and March 2011."
Amnesty's concerns are widely shared. This week, the hackers collective Anonymous attacked the official F1 website to highlight the regime's crackdown on dissent and F1's complicity in pretending all is well in Bahrain. As the hackers put it, "the regime persists to deny any meaningful reform and continues to use brutal and violent tactics to oppress the popular calls for reformation. Not only is the Human Rights situation in Bahrain tragic, it becomes more drastic with each passing day. For these reasons the F1 Grand Prix in Bahrain should be strongly opposed."
The hackers' solidarity with the protesters may be a useful gesture, but the reform movement remains under the cosh of the government. And though there is less overt violence now than there was a year ago, it's a difference of degree, not of kind. So why the F1 flip-flop? Why will they race on Sunday in Bahrain when they would not a year ago?
The answer is simple: money. Formula One is a business cunningly disguised as the planet's most glamorous sport. Once a minority hobby enjoyed by dedicated petrol-heads and Eurotrash flotsam and jetsam, it has become a global entertainment circus worth billions of dollars annually. Consider this: the annual budget to field a competitive F1 team these days costs upwards of $300 million dollars. And that's for two cars. But the circus makes a lot of people a lot of money -- and that counts for more than trivial concerns about human rights.
The drivers, without whom the carnival cannot take place, seem unconcerned by the ongoing repression in Bahrain. According to Sebastian Vettel, the German 24 year-old reigning world champion, the security situation is "not a big problem." Vettel said he looked forward to Friday's practice session as a means of distracting attention from off-track issues and onto "the stuff that really matters -- tire temperatures and cars."