I'm an F1 fan but I can't watch the Bahrain Grand Prix

The race will put a veneer of respectability on a despicable regime.

Formula One’s decision to go to Bahrain this weekend is a massive mistake. It’s not about the safety of the event itself, or the competitors, though that is a concern; it’s about legitimising a regime that has committed appalling crimes against its own people by holding a three-day carnival of glamour and speed.

The whole thing must jar with everyone involved, to be thinking about petrol bombs rather than petrol heads, to just hope that an event ends safely and with as little harm as possible instead of enjoying the spectacle. And for what? What will F1 have achieved by going to Bahrain in the first place? It’s a big shiny thumbs-up, a stamp of approval from the world sporting community and television audience, to a kingdom whose recent record on human rights is atrocious.

Is it really worth it? Bernie Ecclestone, the tiny grey figurehead of Formula One, thinks it is. While he casts doubts about races elsewhere in the world, he has been determined, it would seem, to press ahead with the sporting circus in Bahrain, despite last year’s event having been called off due to security fears. There is talk of "civil unrest" but this is more than a few protesters. This is a reaction to torture on a widespread scale, and it is being glossed over with a glamorous sporting event. Look at the shiny cars! Don’t look at the teargas and the batons!

I say this as an F1 fan. I’ve watched the sport for years, and loved its twists and turns. Sure, it’s elitist, it’s a massive waste of money, it’s a ridiculous pantomime at times, it can be horrifically tedious and boring at others; it’s environmentally atrocious, yes, I concede all of that – but for me and many others it’s one of the finest sporting spectacles in the world. I was lucky enough to see Senna, Prost and Mansell up close in their pomp back in the 1980s, and from then on I was hooked.

But I cannot bring myself to watch this weekend’s event. This weekend is not about sport; it’s about a huge bundle of cash being handed over in return for putting a veneer of respectability on a despicable regime. Deep down, the drivers, sponsors, teams and journalists must know that something isn’t right. How can you enjoy the thrill of the contest itself when you know that’s going on at the same time?

This whole shabby episode brings to mind those shameful cricket and rugby tours of apartheid South Africa during the 1980s. Sure, a lot of people are going to make a lot of money this weekend – some with a heavy heart, others just doing their jobs and trying to block out what’s going on in the background. But deep down the drivers, sponsors, teams and journalists must know that something isn’t right here. Something is deeply wrong, and by agreeing to participate, by saying that they will be there, they are letting it happen, and letting it continue.

By Sunday night, all will have been forgotten. The celebration rosewater will have be sprayed on the podium, and the fastest cars of the whole weekend will be the taxis back to the airport to get everyone the hell out of there as soon as possible.

Hopefully, Bahrain will not disappear from the headlines, and if nothing else this weekend, the only positive to take will be that more people than before knew about the human rights abuses going on there. That will be some semblance of a success to take from this grubby, grubby mess.

Bahraini children hold up pictures of tortured democracy activists. Photograph: Getty Images.
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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear