Bahrain: from celebration to tragedy; and the IOC turns a blind eye!

Two months ago I wrote about the coincidence that the Tunisian and Egyptian teams met each other in the preliminary round in the World Championship in Sweden, at a time when the public uprising was a reality in Tunisia, but had not yet started in Egypt.  Little did I know that the third Arab country in the group, Bahrain, would very soon be similarly affected.  And little did the Bahrainis know what would be in store for them, when they celebrated their first ever participation in the highest level handball event.  They won their games against Egypt and Australia, much to the delight of all Bahraini handball fans.

When the public demonstrations started in Bahrain in February, undoubtedly somewhat inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, there were no early hints of violent clashes or a brutal response from the government.  First of all, the demonstrators, in their quest for increased political freedom and economic equality, seemed to avoid serious confrontations, and the government showed restraint.

Bahrain is in many ways ‘caught in between’.  It is located off the coast of Saudi Arabia, almost as a buffer directly across from Iran, a Saudi enemy.  It has been ruled with iron fist for about 200 years by the royal family Al-Khalifa, who are Sunni Muslims, while the majority of the population at-large are Shiites, just like in Iran.

The royal family itself is clearly divided:  the old ‘strong man’, the King’s uncle, has served as Prime Minister for 40 years in a retrograde and unyielding manner.  But the Crown Prince is modern in his outlook, with an American education and a sense for the changes that are inevitable.  I spoke with him at length during the 2007 World Youth Championship in Bahrain, and I noted his pride in the Bahraini educational system and the role of sports as a uniting force in the social fabric of his country.

So it was not surprising that the Crown Prince was at the forefront when the government appeared determined to reach out and achieve an appeasement.  Reforms were promised and things seemed to calm down.  But in sharp contrast to these conciliatory tones, and an earlier restraint by the military, it was becoming apparent that regime was nevertheless losing its patience with the continued manifestations of mistrust and dissatisfaction on the part of the people.

Reports of brutal and indiscriminate shooting by police and security forces, arrests and jailing were beginning to be heard through foreign media.  The hard-liners, through the Prime Minister, were winning out, strongly pushed by the heavy-handed Saudi neighbors.  The Saudis are obviously concerned about any gains for the Shiites (and indirectly for Iran) and do not want to have a democratic, constitutional monarchy next-door, as a ‘bad’ example for their own population.

Saudi troops were ‘invited’ across the causeway into Bahrain and participated in the violent quelling of any continued demonstrations and protests.  The true intentions of the government were no longer concealed.  In a TV broadcast on April 4, Prince Nasser, a 24-year old son of the King and also President of the Bahrain Olympic Committee, gave a merciless and hateful speech, stating that “everybody who had participated in protests would be punished; we are an island and there will be no escape”.  Mass arrests were reported and groups well-known and popular to the people, such as artists and athletes appeared to be targeted.  Handball players and athletes in other major sports started observing the arrests and jailing of their teammates and colleagues.  Much larger numbers have been suspended from all sports activities and have been fired from their civilian jobs, according to Al-Jazeera.

From handball, where I have relatively more information, it is known that so far at least three of the players in the World Championship have been arrested and jailed (Ali Mirza, Mohammed Mirza and Jaafar Abdulqader).  Among those who have met the same fate are one of Bahrain’s four international referees, council members of the federation, and several others.   The message is clear: athletes and sports officials are being singled out; ‘we do not allow citizens who are athletes to express political views or to be disloyal to their government‘, was the gist of a message from one of Bahrain’s senior sports officials.  In other words, when added to the TV speech of the president of the Olympic committee, it confirms that the beatings, arrests and jailing are not the punishment for violence or other crimes but simply the way of silencing the voices.

All this happens at a time when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is proudly, and almost as a matter of obsession, using every opportunity to preach its insistence on the autonomy of the sports movement and the absolute prohibition against government interference in the managements of national sports federations.   This of course comes in addition to the fundamental role of the IOC in protecting the rights of athletes everywhere to participate in their sports.  But we do not hear any attempts on the part of the IOC to use its clout to speak up and condemn what is happening in Bahrain.  It must be known to the IOC that athletes and sports officials are being severely punished for their ‘audacity’ as private citizens to express political beliefs, and as a minimum they are prevented from all participation in sports, not just on national teams but at the grassroots level.

The IOC (and federations such as FIFA and IHF) have been quick to step in and take punitive measures, suspending national Olympic committees and/or national sports federations, as a way of pressuring them into compliance with the fundamental principles of the IOC.  Much to everyone’s surprise, this happened in the case of Kuwait last year, although (as I wrote at the time) the Kuwaitis more or less seemed to trigger the action for their own internal purposes.  But perhaps it is otherwise more awkward for the IOC to interfere in a region from which it proudly and conspicuously ‘collects’ IOC members from the respective royal families, who are also the un-democratic regimes of their countries:  the Crown Prince of Qatar, a Prince of Saudi Arabia, and a Sheikh of Kuwait (the nephew of the Emir)??

Such membership may in itself seem to fly in the face of IOC’s strong insistence on governmental non-interference in the management of sports.  It seems that IOC should go out of its way to find its members from well outside these regimes.  But let us at least hope that the IOC uses the public knowledge of what is happening in Bahrain as a basis for stepping in and taking strong action. In the meantime, Bahraini athletes and sports officials are being subjected to brutal treatment and are disappearing into the prison system.

Relevant Links

Video of celebrations when Bahrain qualified for the World Championship:

Report in the Washington Post about government action targeting athletes:

Report from the International Sports Writers’ Association, including an indication of the contents of the speech by the Bahraini president of the Olympic committee, in the subsequent link:

Speech (in Arabic) by the President of Bahrain Olympic Committee, stating the intention to seek out and punish all demonstrators as enemies of the state:

Three TV videos (incl. CNN and Al Jazeera) on the recent developments in Bahrain:

List of current members of the International Olympic Committee: