The Chain that's throttling Bahrain

Forget 6 Music and 1Xtra - since the death of John Peel and Radio 3 Jazz Record Requests’ ill-judged ditching of the excellent Geoffrey Smith, the only regular music on the radio I listen to is ... er, Desert Island Discs.

Hmm. And Desert Island Discs isn’t really about music anyway. The other week the “castaway” was Murray Walker, the motor-mouthed former voice of Formula One. That’s Walker, he of the super-excitable, always a screeching one-gear-too-high voice from Sunday afternoon television (“Fire! Fire!, Diniz in the oven!”). He’s now a spritely-sounding 90 years old, and a decent enough DID guest (if you ignored his terrible music choices ...).

The BBC gamely tried to PR his anecdote about the “oil-and-water” relationship he had with erstwhile co-presenter James Hunt, but what interested me was the way Murray spoke about the fatal Ayrton Senna crash at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994. He talked about the “dilemma” as a commentator of whether to say what he was apparently thinking - that Senna’s 190-mph crash into a concrete wall was “possibly terminal”. He reckoned that on air you don’t give voice to fears that a disastrous-looking crash could actually mean that someone has been killed. But I wondered why not. Isn’t this the reality after all? Isn’t Formula One inherently dangerous and don’t drivers sometimes get killed? Or would this be to allow just a little too much reality to intrude into F1’s “glamorous” world?

Like or not, however, reality has a habit of bursting into the artfully-constructed otherworldliness of major sporting occasions like a Grand Prix race. For example, at last year’s Bahrain race two women were arrested after they tried to enter the race circuit as part of anti-government protests. The two - Nafeesa al-'Asfoor and Rayhana al-Mousawi - have since been put on trial for alleged terrorism offences, charges which they deny, while one of the two maintains she was tortured during interrogations. As yet the torture is an allegation only, though see one of my previous posts on Bahrain for numerous examples of torture and other very worrying human rights abuses in the country (plus see here for other Grand Prix-related abuses, and here for a wider round-up in the Economist's Pomegranate blog).

Now, the sordid business of protesters allegedly being tortured or of teenagers being forced to confess to being “rioters” etc is, to use Murray Walker’s phrase, as antithetical to the hyped-up, big-brands universe of motor racing as oil is to water. They just don’t mix. Except, as Bahrain’s protests rumble on year after year, and as the authorities continue cracking down on street protests with mass tear-gassings and violent arrests, the F1 bubble-world seems never more vulnerable to bursting than when it’s about to be staged in Manama.

When the original “Pearl Roundabout” protests erupted in Bahrain in 2011, the Formula One jamboree gave the Gulf a miss that year. In 2012 there was a concerted campaign by the Bahraini authorities to have the fixture reinstated despite ongoing protests. Now, in the opinion of longstanding Bahraini activists like Maryam al-Khawaja, staging the race in Bahrain actually creates human rights violations, with the authorities pre-emptively rounding people up to prevent protests during the country’s big moment on the international sporting stage.

I’m personally agnostic over this “sporting stage” conundrum - the perennial question about whether a country should be prevented from hosting high-profile sporting events because of its poor human rights record. Certainly activists can sometimes seize such moments to stage protests and journalists may in turn look outside the race/match/tournament and report the bigger picture. On the other hand someone like Murray Walker, I’m assuming, would decry what is often referred to as the “mixing of politics and sport”. But it’s worth remembering that top-tier international sport is nearly always already political in one way or another. What else was the Sochi Winter Olympics? (Sochi, by the way, is due to stage a Grand Prix later this year, the first in Russia for 100 years. After Crimea, how is that not going to be political?)

As I say, I don’t myself think we should “ban the Bahrain Grand Prix” or whatever, but I do take issue with the Walker-esque let’s-keep-reality-out-of-sport tendency. To return to the Ayrton Senna crash, it so happens that another driver - the Austrian, Roland Ratzenberger - was killed during practice the day before Senna’s much more famous death in the race itself. Indeed Senna himself was much affected by Ratzenberger’s death and he’d put an Austrian flag in his own car which he’d apparently planned to unfurl in tribute to Ratzenberger at the end of the main race. A touching story and reality, you might say, intruded more than once into the ill-fated 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. No, you can’t keep reality at bay by not reporting it or by choosing not to talk about it.

Final thought. One of Murray Walker’s musical choices for his desert island was - predictability fanfare! - Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain, the signature theme tune for the BBC Formula One programmes. Supposedly evocative of the excitement of fast cars, instead to me this tired plod-rock tune has always reminds me of the Morrissey-esque boredom of Sunday afternoons in the 1970s. When The Chain's over-praised bass line kicks in this Sunday afternoon though, it will have an extra resonance. Bahrain - where human rights are everywhere in chains.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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