Speed’s Bob Varsha offers his insight on F1 Bahrain situation

One of the oldest adages in coaching says that you never look past your next game. Yet you could hardly blame anyone in the Formula one paddock this weekend in Shanghai for thinking beyond the Chinese Grand Prix to the race scheduled for the following weekend in Bahrain. Postponed, and finally canceled, last year due to the lethal violence that followed the Bahraini version of the ‘Arab Spring’ pro-democracy movement, the tiny, oil-rich middle- eastern monarchy (and home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet) was placed back on the schedule for 2012. And, despite ongoing brutality as the ruling Sunni minority resists the effort to gain a greater political voice for the Shiite majority, F1 has again left the decision whether to race or not to the very last minute.

Leaving aside the gruesome details of the more than 50 Bahrainis killed, including seven police officers in a bombing just last week, plus hundreds more injured or tortured by their own government, the status of the Bahrain Grand Prix has been a roller-coaster ride for more than a year. A laughably one-sided inquiry by a representative of the FIA (who, reassuringly, found no problems whatsoever wherever his government hosts took him) was quickly made irrelevant by reports from international relief organizations that told a starkly different tale of the carnage. To their credit, the monarchy launched an investigation which produced a set of resolutions aimed, they say, at dialogue and political change. Yet, as recently as Tuesday morning, there are further stories of violence, and specific threats of disruption at the Grand Prix should it go forward. You don’t have to be a CIA analyst to figure out that when the world’s most-publicized annual sporting circus comes to town, it becomes an inviting target for getting a message in front of a global audience.

So, without taking sides, but knowing that the unrest in Bahrain has not stopped, the protesters have made it clear the Grand Prix is squarely in their cross-hairs; and the government has shown no reluctance to use force to suppress the protests. The question is: What to do?

The F1 teams have publicly referred all questions to the FIA in Paris, insisting that they are bound by contract to participate in every race, and that the governing body should handle any decisions. For their part, the FIA has said only that it is monitoring developments. Series boss Bernie Ecclestone, ever the master of nuance, has couched his comments in terms of whatever the Bahraini organizers choose to do, emphasizing the home country’s responsibility to put on a safe event. FIA president Jean Todt will be in Shanghai on Saturday to discuss the matter with the teams, many of which, we are told, have double-booked itineraries out of China that alternatively include or ignore Bahrain. Ominously, on Monday an unnamed team principal was quoted as saying teams were checking with their insurance carriers to make sure their catastrophic health coverage includes injuries from violence abroad.

The bigger question, of course, is whether Formula One can allow itself to be perceived as being on either side of a national conflict, particularly while blood is being spilled. Now, please don’t tell me that sports and politics should not mix; that there can be something useful accomplished by holding international sporting spectacles in countries with poor histories when it comes to freedom and human rights. Is China any more open, free and democratic a society in the wake of the 2008 Olympics? Was Germany after the Berlin Games in 1936? I have a little personal history with this kind of thing: I was a qualifier for the United States team trials for the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, the year President Jimmy Carter kept the team home to protest the ongoing Soviet military action in, of all places, Afghanistan. I supported the Olympic boycott then, and I would today, knowing full well that supporting it or not are BOTH political statements. The simple fact is that politics and big-time international sport cannot be separated. Ask the organizers of any F1 Grand Prix, virtually all of which involve public funding, why they do it and the answer you’ll hear is some variation of “To bring us to the attention of the world." What is more political than that?

Here’s the point: Formula One cannot just fly in, take a check, run a race, hand out the trophies and then leave town in those parts of the world where there is political repression, officially-sanctioned violence or economic exploitation. We are told that the Bahrainis are trying to work through their problems, and hopefully that is true. If there is a race, we will broadcast it. But to go to Bahrain as things stand right now only enforces the worst possible image of a sport that is supposed to be thrilling, inspiring, and conducive to national pride. SpeedTV.com

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