Controversy grows over Bahrain's Grand Prix

British McLaren-Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton drives at the Sakhir racetrack, 15 April 2007 in Manama, during the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix.

Tess Vigeland: In Bahrain today, dozens of doctors and nurses went on trial for treating injured anti-government protestors during clashes in March. Those protests also had consequences beyond the political.

Another casualty was going to be the Bahrain Formula 1 Grand Prix. The race has been held there since 2004, and it's the kingdom's most profitable international event. But a few days ago, organizers said the event will now go ahead in October. Human rights groups are calling for a boycott of the race because of what they see as the government's "repressive" policies.

From London, Marketplace's Stephen Beard reports.


Stephen Beard: Since the protests began in Bahrain four months ago, 20 protesters have been killed and hundreds jailed.

Saeed Al-Shehabi runs the Bahrain Freedom Movement in London. He says the Formula 1 organizers have failed to take the suffering of the people into account.

Saeed Al-Shehabi: They should have taken the plight of the people, those who are behind bars in jail, those whose sons have been killed. It seems to me that money is the main motivation for those who have taken the decision.

There is a lot of money involved. The Bahraini government paid $60 million to host the event. The race could pump half a billion into the Bahrain economy. Bernie Ecclestone, whose company owns the Formula 1 rights, stands to earn $35 million from the race, although the billionaire insists that money was not his motivation.

Bernie Ecclestone: Nothing to do with money at all. Nothing in any shape or form.

His critics are not persuaded. A former World Champion condemned the decision as "moneygrubbing." The editor of Formula 1 Racing magazine, Hans Seeberg, says there seems to be widespread unease within the sport about staging the Grand Prix in Bahrain.

Hans Seeberg: To go there and to celebrate there with a multi-billion-pound sport, with lots of glamour and -- just doesn't seem to fit. I think a lot of people find it pretty unpalatable. And I have to say I agree.

But Professor Stefan Szymanski, who specializes in the economics of sport, says that millions who follow Formula 1 are focused on motor racing -- not politics, or even morality.

Stefan Szymanski: Perhaps one might wish that people in general took a more moral view of the sport. But I think, sadly, it's not really true that they do.

He says staging the Bahrain Grand Prix makes perfect commercial sense. But the drivers may yet throw a spanner in the works. Given Bahrain's political volatility, they want a safety guarantee before they agree to take part.

In London, I'm Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

About the author

Stephen Beard is the European bureau chief and provides daily coverage of Europe’s business and economic developments for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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