Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Conversation About: The Bahrain Grand Prix

They’ve got penguins in Melbourne. I’m walking along this rocky outcrop, stretching a hundred yards out to sea to get to where they nest and I finally get to this wooden gangway where you can see them up close. There are signs saying, ‘No flash photography – use infra-red instead; penguins don’t recognise the colour red’ and ‘Don’t climb onto the rocks – this is a nature reserve’ etcetera etcetera. I turn to see this Frenchman climbing onto the rocks with a massive camera hanging from his neck...

There’s a murmur of discontent. “He’d better not use his flash,” people are saying. “I can’t believe he’s climbed over the railing,” someone else says. He sets his camera down on a rock, puts it on a timer and crawls right up to a little penguin. The camera goes off with a massive white flash, the penguin dives off the rocks into the sea and everyone starts yelling at the Frenchman; “You tosser! Look what you’ve done!” Then there’s this big commotion because someone in a luminous yellow jacket wades through the crowd and gets the Frenchman to go with her, so I’m left mostly alone with the penguins. I thought I’d seen everything, but then one of them starts talking to me about the FIA’s decision to go ahead with next weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix no less.
            “What do you make of it all then?” he goes to me.
            “It seems a strange decision,” I say.
            “I know.” He’s standing as still as a statue, looking off into the distance. “It seems like a highly provocative move, to hold it whilst there is still civil unrest there.”
            “Provocative in what way exactly?” I ask looking around me for the penguin that was frightened away by the Frenchman’s flash.
            “Don’t worry about Larry,” the penguin says, reading my body language or perhaps my thoughts, “he’s fine. The flashes don’t really bother us that much, we just jump off in protest, like when someone coughs and splutters exaggeratedly when someone lights a cigarette in a public place.”
            “Oh, okay.”
           “Anyway, what I mean is that it will surely be seen by protestors as triumphalism on the government’s behalf. It’s highly likely that this event, which is obviously so critical to the government because it shows the watching world that everything in Bahrain is operating as usual, is going to stoke the already healthy flame of  anger amongst protestors because everything ultimately is not operating as usual. There is an insurrection taking place on the island and the people responsible for starting and upholding it at great cost, have a right to have that fact acknowledged and respected, not swept under the gleaming asphalt of a Formula One track. For heaven’s sake there was an explosion in the capital of Manama as recently as Thursday.”
            “So do you think that they might turn up and do something dangerous at the event to show how angry they are?” I ask. The penguin rotates his skull through 360 degrees like an owl and says:
            “No of course not, security will be far too comprehensive for anything like that to happen. But that isn’t my concern.”
            “What is your concern then?”
            “That the FIA’s decision to go ahead has shown an utterly vulgar disregard for the plight of the Bahrainis and their quest for human rights. I believe sportsmen and sports organisations as public figures have an obligation to demonstrate support to causes such as this and by choosing to ignore the protests, or at least play them down, they have ignored the population of the kingdom at large that is campaigning bloodily to secure fairer and better standards of living for their people.”
            “That’s quite a strong opinion for a fairy penguin,” I say stunned.
            “Oh God, don’t get me started on the whole ‘fairy’ issue,” the penguin says before continuing, “in any case, I think it shows the FIA to be a morally dubious organisation to say the least. They run the risk now of alienating a whole generation of fans who are morally alert and tuned in, thanks to social media and more fashionable news outlets, not only to the Bahraini uprising, but other such causes all over the world.”
            “I guess I see what you’re saying.”
“It’s just preposterous; they cancelled the 2011 race and since then protests have hardly let up in terms of frequency or ferocity so why go ahead in 2012? It’s like throwing a dinner party and just as the doorbell rings to signal that the first guests have arrived, you push the noisy kids down into the basement, lock the door and when someone says they hear a banging sound, you tell them it’s just the old boiler acting up.
“Good analogy,” I say. The penguin flaps his useless wings by his side. Up and down, up and down.
“Yes and imagine how upset the kids are going to be when they’re eventually allowed out again.” A Chinese couple appear next to me and snap a few photos of the penguin, who goes quiet until they move on. “Have you ever read Nineteen-Eighty-Four?” he asks me.
            “It’s a novel.” He tells me, as he rummages his beak in his fluffy white belly.
            “I’m not really into books,” I admit.
            “Well, anyway, this whole Bahrain Grand Prix thing has reminded me of that book, with the almost wholesale denial of what is really taking place there. I mean the official slogan for the race is ‘Unified – One nation in celebration’. Isn’t that terrifying? Doesn’t that just send shivers up your spine? The nation of Bahrain couldn’t possibly be less unified. It’s positively Orwellian.” This is all going a bit over my head so I say to him:
            “And what about the drivers? Have they had anything to say about it?”
          “Well, the only commentary you get about it in the media comes from the angle of: Will there be a disruption? Will anything happen at the race? So, naturally, the only comments you get from drivers and teams are about safety. Red Bull, for instance, has commented only so far as to say that they will be heightening their security for the weekend. Other than that, the drivers and teams have remained pretty quiet about it – something else that might well be interpreted by the more conspiratorial observer as Orwellian.”
            “Right,” I say, which is what I say when I don’t understand something.
            “Bernie Ecclestone has been readily vocal on the subject, saying that it is no different than holding a race in China.”
            “How isn’t it any different?” I ask. The penguin throws his wings up to the sky in a very human display of vexation.
            “He’s basically saying that there is a human rights struggle going on in China also and he’s right, there is a human rights struggle going on in China and there has been for many years. But, there are two issues I have with this comment. One: the struggle in China is nowhere near as concentrated as the one in Bahrain right now and to compare the two as he did shows a terrible lack of political awareness. And two: in that case, they should have shown the Chinese people their support by choosing to boycott their grand prix. Ecclestone said that “F1 cannot be political” but he is so far off the mark with this particular comment, that he’s practically on another planet. F1 can and indeed is proving to be very political. Not in the sense that you’re ever going to see Jenson Button outside the Houses of Parliament lobbying over petrol tax in his racing gear, but in the sense that its very presence, or absence, in a given country can be fairly construed as a political act in itself.” The penguin has worked himself up a bit, so I let him cool off. He waddles from foot to foot and then settles in the same position as before.
            “Bernie is an old man though isn’t he?” I say earning a scornful glare from the penguin. “That’s not to say I’m defending him,” I quickly add.
            “Ecclestone said he’d be “very surprised if we have any problems” at the race next weekend but he’s missed the point entirely. He’s not only missed the point, he’s also missed an opportunity to represent his sport in a positive light, as an example to the ruling royal family of the gulf kingdom that their riches can’t always buy the outcome they desire.”
            “I feel sorry for the drivers,” I say with my head bowed.
            “How come?” the penguin asks.
            “Well imagine how ashamed they’re going to feel rolling into Bahrain with their millions and their loud cars and bright colours whilst all that is going on outside the perimeter fence. It’d be like going to a funeral with a boom box on your shoulder playing S Club 7’s greatest hits full blast.”
            “Good analogy,” the penguin says.
            “Will you be watching the race then?”
            “Don’t think I can after talking to you.”

Just at that moment a camera bulb flashes right behind me. I turn around to scold the photographer but they look Chinese and I can’t expect that they’re able to read the signs. When I turn back the penguin is gone, jumped off in protest, and I know then that the conversation is over.

Written by Andrew Hatch

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