Bahrain and the situation of the athletes: do not think the problems are gone!

Partners in efforts to achieve change?

In recent weeks, much of the focus of the world has been on developments in Libya, Syria and Yemen.  By contrast, events in Bahrain have received comparatively much less attention.  One could easily be deceived to think that all the problems there are gone.  Then on June 1, the Bahraini government lifted its martial law decree, an action that was intended to signal an end to the violent crackdown against the Shiite opposition.  Conveniently, some people took this a sign that one could adopt a ‘business as usual’ attitude in the relations to Iran.

For instance, the Federation of Motorsports (FIA) quickly announced that the Formula 1 Grand Prix race that had been cancelled would now be reinstated in October, although there is some hope that the racing companies may not play along.  This may not be such a big issue for the racing world, but it certainly is a big deal for the Bahraini government.  This event is a matter of great pride for them, and very symbolic for their acceptance in the world of sports and business.  When I was visiting there, I was taken to the racing course, which for them is one of their most famous attractions. 

Both international observers and human rights activist within Bahrain have reacted with dismay.  Things are not suddenly back to normal, not even by Bahraini standards, just because of the June 1 decision.  Yes, a number of people have been let out of jail, many with physical and mental scars for life after brutal treatment.  A number of well-known athletes and sports journalists are among those who have been set free.  But many others remain in prison, like some national team players and top referees in handball and football, together with their counterparts in many other sports.

Of course, the Vice President of the Football Federation argued that those who remain in jail are not just protesters but criminals.  Accordingly, FIFA should have no business trying to inquire or get involved.  This football VP happens to be a prominent member of the ruling royal family, so he should know…  But my sources in Bahrain suggest that those who remain in jail are actually kept their almost as hostages or symbols, as a deterrent to the rest of the population.  Of course, as I have noted earlier, the regime has nothing to fear from entities such as IOC or FIFA.  Their habitual interference at the national level does not appear to extend to the countries or regions where the members of the ruling families are well entrenched in the IOC and international sports federations. 

On June 23, we are yet again supposed to have a global celebration of Olympic Day, a reminder to everyone around the world about the importance of the Olympic spirit.  This involves major sports and cultural events intended to ‘spread the Olympic ideals to every corner of the world’.  A map on the IOC web site shows that apparently no such events have been scheduled on the Arabian Peninsula.  Perhaps this is appropriate in the circumstances.  I have no disagreement with the notion of having an Olympic Day.  But perhaps it behooves the IOC also to set aside a special day in commemoration of those events and places where the Olympic spirit has been egregiously abused.

Clearly, just as I noted in my earlier article, athletes and sports officials are far from the only categories singled out for harsh treatment. What seems to me as especially outrageous is the persecution of medical doctors and nurses who lived up to their professional oath during the uprisings, treating people on both sides to the best of their ability, both in the streets and in the hospitals.  For their decisions to treat those who protested against the government, they are now imprisoned or mistreated in a highly targeted fashion.  Some of them are facing secret trials accused of treason.

So when President Obama met with the Crown Prince of Bahrain at the White House a couple of days ago, there were indeed serious matters to be discussed.  The U.S. government has been observed to tread very gingerly in the case of Bahrain.  And of course, it is ironic that the dialog was with the Crown Prince.  I am sure that he was delighted to back in Washington, despite the reasons and circumstances.  This is the place where he attended university and enjoyed the environment, as he enthusiastically told me some years ago.  And I am convinced of the veracity of everything that has been said about him as the member of the royal family who is a person of reason with a sense for democratic principles.  But he remains a ‘junior’ member of a family seemingly dominated by his retrograde uncle, the Prime Minister.  So it was appropriate, but nevertheless remarkable, that the Prime Minister’s attitude was openly subjected to criticism during the Crown Prince’s visit.

One can hope that both the open criticism and what is undoubtedly being conveyed behind the scenes will have some impact.  But it is naturally far too early to tell.  And in the meantime, representatives of the worlds of sports, business and politics would do well to refrain from prematurely resuming their affairs with the Bahraini regime.  On the contrary, it is necessary to keep up the pressure and show that their behavior is not tolerated.  At least there is a slight hope that this might have some positive effect for those still being persecuted!