A Bahraini anti-government demonstrator wears a T-shirt and carries a placard with pictures of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, as he and others walked toward a sit-in. Picture: AP/Hasan Jamali

Nelson Mandela’s views on sport, that it has the power to change the world and to unite people like little else, has been oft-quoted around the world.

The former president’s use of the 1995 Rugby World Cup to unify South Africans has been well documented. It was particularly effective in the wake of the country’s sporting isolation during the apartheid era, as the world united to show its disapproval of the regime.

One of the major events lost was the South African leg of the Formula One world champion-ship, a loss that has never been regained.

Right up until the red lights went out yesterday to start the Bahrain Grand Prix, there had been global pressure to cancel it as pro-democracy protesters fight for human rights. The majority Shia population claims the kingdom ruled by the Sunni minority denies it basic human rights, access to education, jobs and homes.

There have been arrests, claims of torture, at least 80 deaths and there are fears for the life of hunger-striker Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, one of 14 jailed for leading the uprising when it began last year, as his health fails after more than 70 days.

The Formula One organising body, the FIA, and the country’s rulers insisted that the race go ahead as a symbol of the country’s success. The irony is that the world’s eyes have been turned towards the trouble in the kingdom as a result.

Last year’s race was postponed, then cancelled. After this, the world press paid little attention to the unrest. This week, however, a sports event has become a main item on television news channels, newspapers and social media around the world, even though news reporters were barred from entering the island state while their sports colleagues got the nod.

But with nearly half a billion TV viewers, it was impossible to keep the unrest quiet: Again, sport proved a powerful tool to allow the world to hear the angry voices, unified – and amplified – over the cheers of sports fans.