Is sport above human rights?

Just hours before England secured a place in the Euro 2012 quarter finals, sports enthusiasts and free expression advocates gathered at the Free Word Centre on Tuesday, discussing whether human rights has any place in the world of major sporting events, from Bahrain’s Grand Prix to the Olympics.

On the panel was award-winning sports journalist and author Mihir Bose, Chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association Clarke Carlisle and historian Martin Polley.

The evening began with a discussion of Euro 2012 amid reports that racism is rampant among the host countries’ football culture.

Northampton Town footballer Clarke Carlisle said that, with Euro 2012, Uefa failed in its duty of care to minority players and supporters. He was a great believer of football’s power to get messages across, he said, but it was important to understand the realities of the situation, ­including that football, along with most other sports, had been corrupted by money. Most players have other priorities: when asked whether players would notice the absence of UK government ministers’ (a protest at Ukraine’s human rights record), Carlisle answered: “Not one iota.”

Uefa, the International Olympic Committee and other sporting bodies have become big businesses. They view racism as society’s problem, not something they have to deal with, said Mihir Bose. “Are these organisations fit for purpose?” he asked. If sport wants to operate as a big business, it must adhere to the rules of corporate governance that other companies must accept.

Martin Polley railed against what he referred to as the “psuedo-religion” of the Olympics, ­ where governments, sporting body officials and others celebrate the so-called “good” implicit in the Games, the idea that the Olympics can somehow benefit society. Reminding the audience how sport can be used to support political aims, he pointed to the 1936 Berlin Games, where, after a brief attempt to bring the “bourgeois” event to an end, the Nazi party took full advantage of the propaganda opportunities at its disposal.

The panellists reflected on the ways corporate sponsors will dominate the London landscape during the Olympics, mocking Coca-Cola’s “pouring rights”, the prospect that an individual could be fined for wearing clothing featuring logos outside the Olympic “family” of sponsors and the London 2012 bidders’ promise of a “clean city”, free of any billboard featuring a non-Olympic sponsor.

With the legacy of the Olympics looming in Londoners’ minds, the acknowledgment that racism was still prevalent in British football and the bleak picture of East London trampled over by the Olympic’s organising committee (Locog) ­ as described by the Counter Olympic Group, members of which were in the audience, there were more than a few reasons to be a little gloomy. But with such informed and fascinating panelists and fantastic audience engagement, there was also a feeling that there was a lot more to do and a lot more to learn.

And then England won 1-0.

Please register here to receive invitations to future magazine launches.

Click on The Sports Issue  for subscription options and more.

Bahrain roundup: Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, heightened tension and Formula 1

Increased anger within Bahrain’s opposition over the continued detention of well-known activist Abdulhadi Alkhawaja has renewed concerns over whether Formula 1’s organising body should allow the controversial race to go ahead on 20-22 April.

Over the weekend, F1 teams expressed safety concerns, and called on the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) to postpone the race. Last week, former champion driver Damon Hill also called on the body to reconsider the race. Hill said that it would be “bad for Formula 1, to be seen to be enforcing martial law in order to hold the race” and that allowing the race to continue “could be creating more problems than it’s solving.”

However, Bahraini officials have dismissed reports that the race will be canceled. Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) chief executive Shaikh Salman bin Isa Al Khalifa told the Gulf Daily News that “the race is going ahead — there is no doubt about that”.

FIA has only said that it is “monitoring” the situation, but some believe that a contingency plan already in place could mean that a decision to cancel could be made as late as this weekend.

Despite repeated calls for Alkhawaja’s release from international rights organisations and the Danish government, the activist remains in prison. Bahrain’s Supreme Judiciary Council on Sunday rejected a request from the Danish government to transfer the activist, who has Danish citizenship. According to the state-run Bahrain News Agency, officials denied the handover because Bahraini law does not allow for “accused and convicted persons” to be transferred to another country.

Activists and family members have expressed concerns over Alkhawaja’s deteriorating health, as he is now entering his 62nd day on hunger strike. His daughter Zainab told Al-Jazeera that her father sounded “weak” when she spoke to him on the phone on Saturday. Mary Lawlor, executive director of Front Line Defenders, said that the activist is “at serious risk of imminent organ failure”. She reported that he has “shed 25 per cent of his body weight.”

Family members and officials have been unable to see Alkhawaja since 7 April, leading Alkhawaja’s lawyer to speculate that his client might already be dead. Danish Ambassador Christian König Feldt has also been denied permission to visit the activist. Despite alarming reports, Bahraini officials are denying that Alkhawaja’s health is deteriorating. They have said that he can converse normally and is “in good health.”

The UN has urged Bahrain to reconsider transferring Alkhawaja to Denmark on humanitarian grounds.

Following the government’s decision to reject the transfer of Alkhawaja, tensions have flared within Bahrain’s protests. On Monday, a blast from a homemade bomb during a protest for Alkhawaja in the village of Eker resulted in the wounding seven Bahraini policemen.