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Bernie Ecclestone’s dismissal of this week’s street violence as ‘a lot of kids having a go at the police’ had horrible echoes of Mike Gatting’s infamous remark in 1990
When I started this weekly blog I wanted it to be light and fluffy, like freshly beaten egg white, the top of a cappuccino or the economic musings of George Osborne.
But today this corner feels as dark as Pluto’s armpit and I feel in sombre mood. I’m talking about the Bahrain Grand Prix, which is scheduled to take place on 22 April. From this distance the race will probably take place, barring another flashpoint of major significance.
But should it? I mean, all things considered, should it really go ahead? I’m not banging on about human rights now, even morality, because we’d be here all day. No, I’m looking at the Bahrain Grand Prix purely as a sporting event.
I first met John Arlott, the great former cricket correspondent of the Guardian, in 1970. This sounds like a digression, but it’s not. I had just landed my first newspaper job, working on a small weekly in Lewes, and used to mooch about the County Ground in Hove hoping to meet the leviathans of the press box, Woodcock (the Times), Swanton (Telegraph) and Arlott.
Arlott was my favourite, a judgment only partly influenced by the fact that whenever I met him he would give me a pound note. Perhaps he felt sorry for this apprentice, with his scuffed shoes, drip-dry nylon shirts, greasy black hair and acne.
For his pound he wanted me to dictate his typewritten reports to the copytakers at the Guardian. He didn’t like doing this himself because when he read out his own stuff, he was always tempted to revise and rewrite it.
In 1970 the sporting talk, apart from England’s chances of retaining the football World Cup in Mexico, centred on the cricket tour by South Africa, and we longed to see such great players as Barry Richards, Mike Procter and Graeme Pollock.
“It shouldn’t take place,” I will always remember Arlott telling me, rolling his rheumy-red eyes which always looked as though they had been invaded by a bottle of his favourite claret.
“Why, because of apartheid?” I asked. “No,” he said. “Well, yes, of course because of the system of apartheid in South Africa [once, when presented by an immigration landing card and asked his "Race" Arlott entered "human".]
“But what I mean is that if the South Africa tour does take place the cricket will be played behind barbed wire. There will be dogs and police and protesters and violence and not many spectators. And sport should never be played in that environment. Sport is an enjoyment, a celebration, and it should always be played in that setting.”
The tour, of course, was cancelled and Arlott’s profound wisdom survives the test of time. I was reminded of his words when, 20 years later, I covered Mike Gatting’s rebel tour of South Africa by a group of misguided and mercenary England cricketers. At least I covered the tour until I was flung out of the country and banned for life for penning my thoughts on apartheid.
When Gatting was asked about one particular riot he replied, infamously: “There were a few people singing and dancing and that was it.”
I was reminded of that less than appropriate summation when Formula One’s commercial-rights holder Bernie Ecclestone, responding to this week’s violence that marked the anniversary of Bahrain’s “Day of Rage”, told me: “There were a lot of kids having a go at the police. I don’t think it’s anything serious at all.”
Well, I’ve never been to Bahrain, though I may have the opportunity in a couple of months’ time. Meanwhile, though, I feel a deep unease. I know the country is changing, but there are still too many surviving hardliners in the police and military.
I have spoken to people who are out there and their reports of violence and torture are just too vivid to be untrue.
It took me back to 1990 and the terrors of South Africa, to a time when some naive folk still clung to the notion that politics and sport could be kept apart.
South Africa was never going to stay the same, but the country’s sporting isolation played a big part in the changes that took place.
Last year the debate about the Bahrain Grand Prix, which was ultimately abandoned by that country’s government, wounded Formula One. It is doing so once again. It may well go ahead but against a backdrop of protest and repression and few spectators, will it be a true sporting event? I think I know what John Arlott would have said.