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."
Do not think Vettel unusually solipsistic. His views are mainstream within the paddock and the wider F1 family. This is not a group that places human rights at the top of the grid. Three-time world champion and former team-owner Jackie Stewart revealed how commercial interests have become the only concerns that count: "This is the largest TV sport in the world on an annual basis. What about the sponsors. Whether it's Mobil, or Total or Shell -- they're going to seen by hundreds of millions of people.... If you are a sponsor for that team, do you think it's correct not to get the exposure they have bought as a supplier? It's the responsibility of the race organisers to make the race safe for us to participate in."
Human rights should know their place and, plainly, their place is some way behind commercial rights. Besides, said Stewart, "Bahrain is probably more advanced in creating democracy than any other country in the entire Middle East. Look at Syria and Kuwait and Abu Dhabi, and they are not as advanced in their democracy as Bahrain. But Bahrain does have a problem with religion, just as we did in Northern Ireland. None of these countries have full democracies. But no democracy has been created without time."
Decency is relative. Precedent, apparently, is not. As Stewart argued, "If we don't go to Bahrain how are we going to suggest that we're going to go to Russia in 2014? And we go to [South] Korea. We've got to be very careful."
Quite. According to John Yates, a former Scotland Yard police officer who, despite being forced to resign after being caught up in the phone-hacking scandal that roiled Britain last year, now advises the Bahrain government, the Western media has been gulled by a "distorted picture" of the democracy protests in that country. Writing to Jean Todt, the head of F1's governing body, Yates claimed that "Along with my family, I feel completely safe. Indeed, safer than I have often felt in London."
The protests, he said, are only "criminal acts being perpetrated against an unarmed police force who, in the face of such attacks, are acting with remarkable restraint. These people are intent on causing harm to the police and the communities in which they live. They are not representative of the vast majority of delightful, law-abiding citizens that represent the real Bahrain that I see every day."
Such is the consequence of selling your sport to the highest bidder. Formula One, thanks to its global television audience, has become a plaything for regimes that see hosting races as a way of burnishing their reputations. The Khalifa family are not the only despots to appreciate how useful F1 can be. This year, races will be held in less-than-democratic China, Singapore, and Abu Dhabi.
With the possible exception of soccer, few sports have been as quick as Formula One to appreciate the importance of new and lucrative Asian markets. Once a European phenomenon with outposts in South America, F1 has embraced globalization. This year, fewer than half the races will be held in Europe.
The shift east owes something to European hostility to the tobacco advertising that has traditionally fuelled F1 and much, of course, to the rising middle classes in Korea, Malaysia, China, and India (all of which host races this year). Most of all, however, it is the work of one man: Bernie Ecclestone.
Formula One's pint-sized potentate is a remarkable figure: he makes soccer's Sepp Blatter and FIFA seem almost respectable. Ecclestone may be 82, but he shows no sign of relinquishing his grip on a sport that has made him -- and his colleagues -- some of the wealthiest figures in any sport anywhere in the world.
Ecclestone's rise to control F1 is a murky, fearsomely complex tale that even his biographers have been hard-pressed to explain. Central to it, however, has been his control of F1's global media rights. His motto has been, as he once put it, "You can have anything you like, as long as you pay too much for it." Races are sold to the highest bidder and, even by the standards of cut-throat international business, Ecclestone has been an unusually shameless huckster.
In 1997, for instance, he donated £1 million to the British Labour Party. Coincidentally, Tony Blair's government then exempted F1 from legislation banning tobacco advertising at sporting events.
In 2009, he made another splash with comments praising Adolf Hitler's ability "to get things done." What's more, he suggested, "If you have a look at a democracy it hasn't done a lot of good for many countries -- including this one." Under Ecclestone's dictatorship, of course, F1 has managed to escape the debilitating compromises demanded by democracy.
No wonder this weekend's race will go ahead. Formula One has always been for sale: Bahrain's ruling family owns a stake in the Lotus team while a Bahraini company is also a minority shareholder in the McLaren team.
Zayed al-Zayani, chairman of the Bahrain International Circuit where the race is held, told the BBC this week that "We are a sporting event, we are a social event, we have nothing to do with the political scene, and I think that's better left to sort out between the politicians and government." Nothing could be further from the truth.
The irony is that a race designed to flatter and showcase the Bahraini regime has instead become a focal point for unrest, shining a light upon a repressive government whose actions would not receive nearly as much attention in the European and international press if Bahrain had not purchased the right to host motor racing's traveling circus.
That, however, is small comfort when set beside the moral iniquity of millionaires and billionaires fretting about tire temperatures and race set-ups while pretending that all is sunshine and sweetness. Meanwhile, the Bahraini regime continues to thwart all but the most superficial reforms and has no qualms about using any amount of force necessary -- including tear gas, stun grenades, and birdshot, reportedly -- to do quell the small, but vocal chorus of non-violent dissent. At least, unlike a year ago, they're not using live ammunition. Not that Ecclestone or F1 would care -- or, god forbid, dare to speak up. Formula One may try to paint itself as a glamorous business but the cheap and grubby reality beneath the surface shine is rather different. The sport sold its soul long ago -- and with that any sense of shame as well.