A sideshow to Bahrain's political protests is the ongoing debate within the International Automobile Federation on whether or not to hold the upcoming Formula One race, the Bahrain Grand Prix. Considering the recent political uprising, there should be no debate; cancelling the race is the only option. Any other decision would mean the federation will be choosing entertainment over protecting human rights.
While not as high profile as other nations, the island nation of Bahrain has seen its share of turmoil in recent months, punctuated by massive demonstrations, the institution of martial law, and police action that resulted in the deaths of 20 peaceful protesters. Sports, in this context, could be used to bring further attention to the political crisis and put pressure on the international community to push for a solution to an ongoing humanitarian issue.
There is a long history of sports' superseding political and human concerns; the debate over the Bahrain Grand Prix is only the latest example. From the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany up to Beijing’s 2008 Olympics, human rights abuses and controversies have swirled around sporting events. In each case, most notably in Beijing where authorities removed “undesirables” from the city and imprisoned activists leading up to the Olympics, citizens’ rights were put aside to benefit the sporting community and give international fans a short period of entertainment.
Rather than ignoring human rights violations and focusing solely on sports, the sports community should use its popularity to expose such injustices to wider audiences around the globe. For example, the Phoenix Suns organization used its influence to raise awareness of Arizona’s controversial immigration law last year. Both the basketball team’s management and players spoke out against the law and wore alternative uniforms with the name “Los Suns” to show their solidarity with Arizona’s immigrant population. This demonstration brought additional scrutiny to lawmakers, exposed the law’s inherent issues to a larger demographic, and furthered debate in other sports leading to increased awareness of the controversial issue.
However, even this example of athletes' taking political action only brought fleeting attention to issues outside the field of play. More drastic measures are needed to highlight the idea that sports are a secondary concern to protecting peoples’ rights and privileges. Cancelling events, like the Bahrain Grand Prix, or banning participants who do not meet human rights standards sends a message to both the sporting community and everyday citizens: Human rights matter more than a few hours of entertainment. If direct action is not taken and the games go uninterrupted, sports will continue to be the focus with human rights as a mere distraction to sports fans.
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