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Despite Death, Protests, Bahrain Grand Prix Goes On

Anti-government protestors calling for political reform burned tires as a controversial Formula One race was held in Bahrain on Sunday.

Authorities pressed ahead with the contest, with King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa in attendance, despite repeated clashes overnight and the death of a 36-year-old man.

Security was tightened another notch around the circuit ahead of the start of the Grand Prix, adding to the existing unease felt by most of the F1 paddock. Motorsport journalists, usually caught up between analyzing lap times and debating overtaking strategies, found themselves reporting on clashes over the past few days.

But the tsunami of tweets online, and heated discussions on message boards, showed that many fans were left disappointed. Although usually a rare dilemma in its long history the question was whether F1 should be taking the moral high ground.

Robert Fisk, a leading commentator on Middle East affairs, argued in a much-cited article in The Independent that “the days have gone when sportsmen and sportswomen can dissociate themselves from the moral values in which we claim to believe in the 21st century”.

Bahrain’s government has promoted the GP as a unifying event. Before the race, King Hamad declared his “personal commitment to reform and reconciliation”, with Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad adding that “having the race allows us to build bridges”.

The outcome of the race was further overshadowed after Bahrain’s Interior Minister confirmed it found the body of Salah Abbas Habib in the village of Shakhoura on Saturday, and launched an investigation. Al-Wefaq, the largest opposition group in the country, accused security forces of killing Habib during a crackdown on protesters.

International groups such as Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have criticized the decision to host the race. But Zayed Rashed Al Zayani, Chairman of Bahrain International Circuit (BIC), fired back, suggesting that other venues on the racing calendar had a worse human rights record.

The event is an important source of revenue for the small island country, bringing in an estimated $500 million every year. Bahrain has a deal with F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone to be on the racing calendar until 2016.

Jean Todt, the President of the FIA, the sport’s governing body was “not sure that all that has been reported corresponds to the reality of what is happening in the country”. He also felt there would be no damage to the sport.

"I feel F1 is very strong. I think it is a very strong brand, and I think all the people among the teams to whom I have been speaking are very happy,” he told reporters.

Sebastian Vettel went on to win the fourth race of the season in what turned out to be an exciting 57 laps. It’s hardly a victory for Bahrain however.

Companies value their brands, and sports usually provide an ideal platform because of their perceived neutrality and often global reach.

Looking at the track record of sponsors in sports, there will be even more resistance to a Bahrain fixture for 2013 if Molotov cocktails and tear gas canisters are still making the rounds then.

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Yousef Gamal El-Din is CNBC's Middle East Correspondent and contributes to the channel’s flagship shows, as well as analysis for CNBC.com.

Stay in touch with him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/youseftv @youseftv

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