The relationship between international sporting events and repressive governments can be truly vile. The latest reminder of this is the decision by Formula One to hold the Bahrain Grand Prix for 2012 this weekend.
The race will be held smack in the middle of daily protests against the Bahrain regime – a regime which is trying to avoid being washed away by the same pro-democracy tide that has seen the end of many of its autocratic neighbours.
Formula One cancelled the event in 2011 because the Bahraini government was violently cracking down on pro-democracy demonstrations. Since then, the regime has tried to rehabilitate itself.
Bahrain wants to stay one step ahead of the Arab Spring. It commissioned an independent inquiry into allegations of torture and violence during the crackdown. The inquiry reported in November last year, and recommended a range of modest judicial and policing reforms.
But Bahrain shouldn’t get off that easily. There are still 14 opposition leaders and hundreds of others in prison for participating in last year’s protests. There are still daily clashes between protesters and police. There are still continuing human rights abuses. Foreign reporters still have their entry into the country strictly limited.
The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights says there have been 31 deaths – including three from torture – since the independent inquiry released its recommendations.
Yet Formula One head Bernie Ecclestone claimed last week: “There’s nothing happening. I know people who live there and it’s all very quiet and peaceful.”
Bahrain’s rulers are using the Formula One race to rebuild their reputation. The race is part of a “normalisation” campaign. It provides the cover by which Bahrain can present a stable front to the world – and avoid serious reforms.
Yet the relationship between Bahrain and Formula One is hardly unusual. Repressive states have long recognised that international sport is a potent propaganda tool.
The granddaddy of international sporting contests, the modern Olympics, has long been a friend of tyranny. Virtually from birth, the Olympics was studiously, and shamefully, neutral about the political environment in its host countries.
During the Berlin Games of 1936, the Olympics’ founder, Pierre de Coubertin, described the “Hitlerian” elements of that event as a merely the happy by-product of Germany celebrating “in accordance with its own creative powers and by its own means”.
Supporters of the Olympics’ bizarre ideology say its political know-nothingism would be better described as “universality” – a belief that all people of the world are entitled to participate in the Olympics, no matter what political system they have chosen.
But as one historian has written: “What this has meant in practice is that the [International Olympic Committee] has turned a blind eye to any sort of political crime committed by a member of the Olympic movement.”
Jean Todt, the president of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, said this week that he and Formula One were “only interested in sport, not politics”.
He might be, but his hosts are not. For repressive governments, the purpose of holding an international sporting event is simple: it confers political legitimacy and the approval of the foreign press.
Todt may imagine otherwise, but for host governments, international sport is entirely about politics.
When Moscow hosted the Olympics in 1980, it was an occasion to impress the world with Soviet superiority; when Beijing did the same in 2008, the Chinese regime used the Games to show off its “socialist modernisation” project.
One infamous example of this phenomenon is how the brutal Argentinian military junta used the 1978 World Cup to solidify its domestic and international position.
The junta had seized control of the country just two years earlier. It immediately directed its propaganda efforts to the Cup, as well as 10 per cent of the national budget. Indicatively, one of the new regime’s first priorities was to improve the foreign journalists’ accommodation for the upcoming event.
The glamorous World Cup was held in the middle of Argentina’s Dirty War, where tens of thousands of people were being murdered by the state.
The protestations that international sport is above tedious national politics are doubly false when we consider the money those governments pay to host major sporting events. States are willing to spend big on premium carnivals. And a cosy relationship with host governments is a key part of international sport’s business model.
When it comes to human rights violations in Bahrain, Formula One cannot pretend to be neutral.
Amnesty International says “the human rights crisis in Bahrain is not over”. The International Crisis Group says Bahrain is “sliding toward another dangerous eruption of violence”.
And it’s hard to disagree with Human Rights Watch when it says the Formula One race gives Bahrain’s rulers “the opportunity they are seeking to obscure the seriousness of the country’s human rights situation”.
If so, Formula One has to take some responsibility.