The first Formula One race in Baku will take place this weekend. The city is the capital of Azerbaijan, a former member of the Soviet Union that is anxious to show its best face to the world. Races don’t get on the Formula One calendar unless somebody pays Bernie Ecclestone a lot of money for the privilege. The series is seen as a way for nations and cities to showcase themselves in front of a global audience.
But sometimes, questions are raised about whether Formula One should be carrying water for governments that have less than stellar records regarding human rights. People have been complaining for years about Bahrain, which a few years ago saw armed troops from Saudi Arabia swoop across the narrow causeway that separates the two countries to quell domestic disturbances prior to a race weekend.
Azerbaijan has its share of detractors as well. In a story in The Guardian dated June 15, Amnesty International is calling on Ecclestone to exert his influence to make human rights at least a talking point with the local government. Kerry Moscogiuri, director of campaigns at Amnesty International UK, said: “The arrival of Formula One in Baku must not steer attention away from the Azerbaijani authorities’ human rights crackdown. Behind the glitz, the authorities are locking up their critics, have shut down NGOs and arrested or harassed their leaders. The recent release of some of those jailed on trumped-up charges should not fool anyone into thinking that the wind in Baku is blowing in a different direction.
“Azerbaijan has courted big international sports events to improve its image abroad and the Grand Prix is no different. While the world’s fastest drivers take to the streets of Baku in this spectacle of speed, there are many who will not be able to enjoy the show. F1 is in pole position to influence positive change in Azerbaijan. We would like to see them publicly urge President Aliyev to end this crackdown and free all prisoners of conscience.”
Azerbaijan has been constantly criticized by human rights bodies for its policies of arbitrary arrests, indefinite detentions, beatings, and torture. None of that bothers the imperious Ecclestone, whose attitude is and always has been, “If you’ve got the money, I will bring you the show.” Last year, he offered this casual response when the new race venue was first announced. “I think everybody seems to be happy. Doesn’t seem to be any big problem there.” Bernie thinks everyone in Bahrain is happy, too.
Recently, Rebecca Vincent, head of Sport For Rights human rights group, met with two representatives from Ecclestone’s marketing group. “We have called on Bernie Ecclestone to publicly speak out on human rights issues in Azerbaijan,” she said. “We wrote him an open letter and there has not been a public response yet. I do emphasize that it was a constructive meeting compared to our engagement with other bodies, (but) Ecclestone himself has been making some unhelpful comments and we might be expecting some more of that because that seems to be his nature,” she added.
Another human rights campaigner has also urged Ecclestone to “make a stand.” Phil Bloomer, of the Business and Human Rights Resource Center, tells Grand Prix.com, “We’re not asking them to cancel the race, we’re not calling on people not to go. We are asking Mr Ecclestone to use it to make a stand instead of enabling repression. He said last year that there was no big problem with human rights in Azerbaijan, and people seemed happy. It takes just five minutes on Google to see what is really going on,” he added.
In the end, none of it will matter. Formula One will go to Baku. It will race and then it will leave to go race somewhere else. Ecclestone will not utter a peep that might in any way interfere with the flow of petro-dollars from the government of Azerbaijan into his ample coffers. Over the past 30 years, he has made himself and the leaders of the sport fabulously wealthy.
Nothing will stand in the way of the further enrichment of Bernie Ecclestone and those who kowtow to his edicts. If Idi Amin were still alive and wanted a grand prix in Kampala, Bernie would be glad to make it happen — for the right price. A race in Pyongyang would be no problem, if the terms were right.
Azerbaijan’s sports minister, Azad Rahimov, said this week that the race in Baku will be on the F1 calendar for at least 5 years, with an option for another 5 years after that. But the enormous fees demanded by the sport won’t be paid for by ticket sales. The official Azerbaijan news outlet (of course, there is no independent press in the country) says only 18,500 tickets were printed for the race and “not all of them sold.” Maybe the government will order citizens to attend future races or face incarceration if they refuse.
Photo Credit: Sky Sports
UPDATE June 17: In case you think my criticism of Bernie Ecclestone is in any way excessive, we now have this quote from a press conference in Baku that took place this morning as Formula One arrived in Baku. Asked about Azerbaijan’s international reputation for violating the human rights of its citizens, the toxic troll had this to say, according to Road & Track:
“The minute people tell me what human rights are, you can look at how, why and when it applies. Does anyone know what human rights are?”
No Bernie, least of all you. While he had the microphones in front of him, he compared Baku to North America, which he called “shithole.” Very classy, Bernie, but exactly what we have come to expect from a low life like you.