A dark shadow will hang over the Formula One Grand Prix of Bahrain when the green flag is dropped on Sunday, as the world’s greatest drivers battle it out on the track while human rights activists and thousands of protesters denounce the event just outside.
This is the fourth race of the 2012 Formula One season, a tightly-contested one that thus far has produced thrilling driving and pits six World Champions against each other.
But the host nation has been mired in conflict since last year, when the Arab Spring inspired many to flock into the streets and demand democracy. Formula One canceled the 2011 Grand Prix of Bahrain just weeks before its March date and did not reschedule.
It’s been more than a year since then, but reports from Bahrain indicate that not much has changed. The civil unrest has only grown – public frustrations mounting as civil rights leader Abdulhadi al-Khawaja has undergone a 70-day hunger strike and authorities have cracked down on demonstrators as the race grows near. Rumors and reports of violence and even torture have grown prevalent. This time, Formula One boss Bernie Eccelstone has elected to hold the race as planned and made clear that teams are required to participate.
So far, team bosses have said all the right things. “There have undoubtedly been difficult times here,” said Mclaren rep Martin Whitmarsh, “But from a pure team perspective, we’ve been comfortable with the situation.”
The Force India team even elected to skip Friday practice in order to return to their hotel before nightfall. Outside the track walls, graffiti condemning F1 and the Grand Prix is everywhere, with the oft-used slogan “Don’t Race On Our Blood.” A government-approved protest turned violent on Friday, about twelve miles from where teams practiced on the track. Bahrain has denied entry to journalists that are not covering the Grand Prix.
As race day has finally come, it’s worthwhile to ask whether a sporting event is just a sporting event. Of course, Formula One is not just any sport – it’s perhaps the world’s most popular sport and figures to draw about 100 million viewers on Sunday. Those are viewers that will be asked to ignore the clashes going on outside and focus on the glamour, the sportsmanship and spectacle of what goes on under the green flag.
As race fans we delight in the thrill and intensity of the sport, but in a race overshadowed by real risk and real loss, where even the competitors themselves are not comfortable with the message they are sending and an allegedly brutal government could receive upwards of $800 million in revenue according to some reports, many are forced to ask themselves whether they are supporting a team or a dictatorship by watching.
After all, when the race is over, the teams will leave. But the Shia majority and the Sunni government will remain.
The former pleading for fair treatment, the latter using Formula One exposure to show the world that everything is just fine.
So who are the real competitors this Sunday?
The Grand Prix of Bahrain will air on the SPEED Channel at 7:30am ET Sunday.