June 4, 2011

Octogenerian Formula One commercial rights holder and CEO Bernie Ecclestone on the decision by FIA to hold the F1 race in Bahrain, despite the recent crackdown on protesters calling for democracy in that Gulf nation. It was originally scheduled for March but was postponed due to the unrest.

"Nothing to do with money at all. Nothing, in any shape or form," the 80-year-old said as he arrived in Barcelona. "This has to do with whether people … I don't know, to be honest, with this occasion whether people are concerned with their safety if they go or whether people are concerned with what has happened in the past. What has happened in that whole area, in all those countries, is not good in any way, so we will have to wait and see."

There's a truism in business and in sports that when someone says "it's not about the money" you can almost be certain it is about the money. Formula One is a huge worldwide business, one which will net $2 billion in 2011, the Bahrain race alone worth about $100 million to F1. So take what Mr Ecclestone says here with the requisite grains of salt.

More details on the dispute, via The Guardian:

Bahrain has been granted permission to stage the most coveted event on its calendar, the Formula One Grand Prix, in a move that has drawn condemnation from human rights groups angered by a three-month crackdown against anti-regime protesters.

The event will be held in October.It had been originally scheduled for March but was postponed as clashes intensified between Bahrain's majority Shia population and the Gulf kingdom's security forces, heavily backed by the forces of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

Pressure on organisers to not reschedule the motor race had been intense, with a Facebook campaign calling for cancellation getting 320,000 signatures. At least a quarter of staff from the Grand Prix's organising committee, Bahrain International Circuit, all of them Shia, were sacked in April after being accused of taking part in anti-government demonstrations.

Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone had earlier indicated that staging the race in Bahrain would be difficult if widespread allegations of discrimination and torture against civilians were proven. Sports teams had lobbied Ecclestone and Formula One executives not to hold the event, citing numerous human rights violations.

None of the teams want the race, both for the obvious moral reasons and the fact that it extends their season into December, a time when teams prepare for the upcoming season. Racer Mark Webber of team leading Red Bull made his feelings plain about the matter today on his blog:

“My opinion is unchanged since I was first asked about this in late February. Even though a decision has been made, I’ll be highly surprised if the Bahrain Grand Prix goes ahead this year.

“In my personal opinion, the sport should have taken a much firmer stance earlier this year rather than constantly delaying its decision in hope of being able to re-schedule it in 2011. It would have sent a very clear message about F1’s position on something as fundamental as human rights and how it deals with moral issues. It’s obvious that the parties involved have struggled to reach a decision but sadly I feel that they still haven’t made the right one. Like it or not, F1 and sport in general isn’t above having a social responsibility and conscience. I hope F1 is able to return to Bahrain eventually but now isn’t the right time.

“As a competitor I do not feel at all comfortable going there to compete in an event when, despite reassurances to the contrary, it seems inevitable that it will cause more tension for the people of that country. I don’t understand why my sport wishes to place itself in a position to be a catalyst for that.”

The business-as-usual, look-the-other-way approach may have worked for these sports moguls in the past. Today it's just embarrassing and sad for all concerned.

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