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Hanging out the laundry: Sportswashing in cycling

George Bennett NZ Jersey UAE Emirates 2022

A tweet set the gears in my head in motion: “I like how everyone drew the line at UAE Team Emirates because of their inability to produce a decent national champion kit and not everything else.” It spoke to me: while it was a bit of an oversimplification, the cycling sphere’s outrage of the day was indeed focused on George Bennett’s ugly new jersey. While it could also be about how one more rider was seduced by big oil dollars to sell his labour & image to promote an oil sheikh for the duration of his contract. The concept of “sportswashing” has been in the peloton for a few years in the form of teams such as Ineos, UAE, Bahrain or Israel Start-Up Nation. Recently, even the Australian Team BikeExchange caught flak for its prominent jersey sponsorship of AlUla, a recent Saudi-Arabian initiative for sportswashing. Sportswashing seems here to stay in cycling. Let’s talk about that.

First of all: what is sportswashing? Wikipedia states that it is the practice of an individual, group, corporation, or nation-state using a major or prestigious international sport to improve its reputation, through hosting a sporting event, the purchase or sponsorship of sporting teams, or by participation in the sport itself. It’s a practice that is almost as old as modern sports itself: An early example includes the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany which was intended to show the world the German superiority over other nations. We can also think back on the Cold War era, where the Olympics were a soft battlefield for prestige between the USA and USSR, or where dictators paid good money to have events such as the Muhammed Ali fights against George Foreman (in Zaïre) and Joe Frazier (in the Philippines) hosted.

Today, sportswashing seems ubiquitous in professional sports. We can look at Russia and Qatar hosting the football World Cups, numerous World Championships in diverse sports being hosted in Middle Eastern countries, or the numerous investments in and sponsorships of football clubs such as Manchester City, PSG, Arsenal, FC Barcelona and since very recently even 50%+1 fan-owned Bayern Munich. The main criticism is that countries are using sportswashing to obscure or negate their record of human rights violations.

Going into detail of each involved country’s track record seems beyond the scope of applying it to professional cycling, but generally, the countries involved are guilty of widespread, state-supported practices of denying women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, ethnic or religious minorities’ rights, being involved in active (civil) wars, repressing political and journalistic opposition, slavery, and/or a long list of other human rights violations. By using the soft power associated with sportswashing, these countries want to appear as “normal” to the general public, while also using the diplomatic opportunities of large events to boost relations with other nations.

In cycling, there’s a few waves of sportswashing to point out in the sport’s relatively recent history. If we roll back the time to 2002, we encounter the first edition of the Tour of Qatar. Up until its demise in 2016, the February race on the pan flat, dusty highways of Qatar was a yearly staple for riders getting in their sunny racing kilometres in preparation for the spring classics. The organisation imploded in 2016, after organising the World Championships, but it was for sure one of the first nations to dip its toes in sportswashing in cycling.

The next leap came in 2007. After the demise of the Liberty Seguros-Würth team in the wake of the Operacion Puerto doping scandal, a consortium of Kazakh state-owned companies freed up the funds to create Team Astana. Its obvious goal was to build a team around local legend Alexandre Vinokourov, who’d just won the Vuelta, but also to improve the image of Kazakhstan (and its capital of Astana, today Nur-Sultan). Over the years, the team won several Grand Tours and monuments with riders such as Alberto Contador, Vincenzo Nibali, Fabio Aru, Maxim Iglinsky, Jakob Fuglsang and Vinokourov himself. Despite a rocky last season, the Kazakh conglomeration that finances the team has reaffirmed its commitment following the reinstatement of Vinokourov as the manager.

The following sportswashing wave came crashing down on cycling in 2017: The collapse of the Italian Lampre-Merida squad led to the creation of the UAE Team Emirates, while the end of Swiss Team IAM gave the newly created Bahrain-Merida squad the chance to start the season in the World Tour. While both teams might seem similar, Bahrain had a strong start with Vincenzo Nibali managing Lombardia and Milan-San Remo wins in the first 2 seasons, whereas Team UAE had to wait for their second year to get some smaller successes with Alexander Kristoff and Dan Martin. Team UAE’s success really kicked off with the signing and breakout performances of Tadej Pogacar, netting them back to back Tour de France wins in recent years. Both teams are staying busy on the market, with both teams signing both young potentials and experienced domestiques.

In the squads of Astana, Team UAE and Bahrain the structure is very similar: the team management is in the hands of experienced ex-cyclists who’ve been in the sport long enough to know all the ins and outs, and the bills are bankrolled by a conglomerate of state-owned businesses.

The last example of sportswashing to be created follows a slightly different path. Israel Start-Up Nation was created at the Procontinenal level in 2014 as Israel Cycling Academy without excessive investments from the Israeli state and was pushed into the limelight in 2018 when their Israeli-Canadian owner and billionaire Sylvan Adams got the Giro d’Italia to start in Israel, with the Israeli team on the start list. During the 3 stages, the Giro peloton races across the country despite their active oppression of the Palestinian people, with the murder of Palestinian protestors at the Gaza border in that same period. Since 2020, when the team bought the World Tour license of Team Katusha, Adams has only ramped up his investment in big-name cyclists. Despite his lack of performances since a bad fall in 2019, four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome was signed on a multi-million contract. Other big signings include André Greipel, Dan Martin, Mike Woods and Giacomo Nizzolo.

The state sponsorships have varying influence and direct meddling. While Israel Start-Up Nation & Astana place a focus on having a core of local riders in the squad, UAE and Bahrain only have one rider representing the nation their team is sponsored by. A common occurrence however is the pre-season and off-season training camps hosted by the country in question, often accompanied by a range of photoshoots & video productions showcasing not only the team and its riders but also the country sponsoring it. During this off-season’s PR camp in Israel, Chris Froome and co had themselves a rather controversial mountain bike ride in the occupied Golan Heights, still formally Syrian territory, but de facto annexed by the Israeli state. Covid-19 provided another opportunity: while the whole world was waiting for vaccine rollout in early 2021, Team UAE proudly announced they got their whole squad vaccinated on January 8th thanks to the Emirati government. All PR opportunities follow the same format: the cyclists spend a week or so doing rides in the most developed areas of the country, the most pristine bits of nature the country has to offer and mingle with some local young cyclists in a few short rides, all accompanied by a rotating cast of government officials who are eagerly shaking hands and getting in on the photo opportunities.

There are not just nations to point the finger at. INEOS, a company best known for turning fracked-up gas into plastic beads, took over Team Sky a few years ago. Ironically, the squad has been branded INEOS Grenadiers now, after the sort of 4×4 car that recreational cyclists dread to see behind them on the road. We could also discuss Gazprom, UNO-X or Total (fossil fuel companies are very interested in cycling, as it adds an element of greenwashing) or the loan sharks at Cofidis. It’s not a new phenomenon at all: Orica was in the business of blowing up mountains for mining, Omega Pharma was trying to advertise its pseudo-pharmaceutical products and let’s not forget the long-standing sponsorship of national lotteries like FDJ and Lotto. However, for companies, the line between advertising and sportswashing is a bit vaguer. A “problematic” sponsor might still mainly be involved in the sport in order to boost sales, with the added benefit of a bit of sportswashing to soften up their image.

This varies wildly from the goal of countries trying to get involved in the sport through sponsorships, or even race organising. At a superficial glance, you might think that hosting races in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar or Saudi Arabia might be intended to showcase those nations as tourist destinations. However, I doubt a lot of people were feeling inspired to book tickets after watching yet another stage go through a desert on an 8-lane highway. Most starts & finishes were at least displaying the dazzling display of grandeur by passing over the megalomaniac megastructures built over the last decades, just as is done by those countries in Formula 1 for example. All footage is carefully shot to show the “glamorous” side of these countries, and are carefully cropping out everything undesirable: appaling human rights abuses against women, LGBTQ people or ethnic minorities, de facto slavery for an imported workforce, or the military power propping up their leaders who’ll be shaking hands on the podium at the end of the race. A recipe that is even finding its way back to Europe. Orban’s Hungary wasn’t only very eager to host Euro 2020 matches, but will also function as the backdrop of this year’s Giro start. A valuable boost to the prestige of the government, which was planned for the 2020 edition but was pushed back due to the ongoing pandemic.

Criticism of the practice isn’t unheard of, but journalists, commentators and pundits are remarkably silent about these issues. Despite having to fill hours and hours of broadcasts, producing a continuous stream of articles, videos and podcasts, the topic is rarely broached. It’s a risky thing: The big-budget teams bankrolled for sportswashing purposes often have some of the most desirable personalities in cycling for journalists, be it Grand Tour winners, the stars of the spring classics or the superstars of the coming years. And thus, journalists who are a bit too daring take a huge risk. A lot of presswork relies on close-up journalism, and getting denied exclusive access to riders is a death sentence to your employability, doubly so as a freelancer. In a sport that is rooted in an omerta-culture, the jump from punishing annoying questions about doping to punishing annoying questions about sportswashing really isn’t that big. And when your livelihood is on the line, can you really fault freelancers for producing another human interest story of the person behind the cyclist?

Does this mean we should be critical of the riders themselves? I feel like it depends on how much agency they have in the choice for a team. It would be almost absurd to blame guys like Reto Hollenstein, Jenthe Biermans or Mads Wurtz Schmid for riding for Israel Start-Up Nation when their running contracts were included in the license purchase of Team Katusha by the Israeli squad. These riders simply had no other options lined up. But riders like Chris Froome, Dan Martin or Jakob Fuglsang, who are willingly signing for ISN for the inflated wage they are offering in return for the publicity they bring the team and the sponsor, should be held to a different standard.

With 4 out of 18 WT teams being sponsored by countries with a dreadful human rights record, that means nearly a quarter of top-tier professional cycling gigs are out of the question if you as a rider decide to not participate in sportswashing. The reality for a lot of domestiques is that they can’t afford to be picky. And in a way, the same goes for the leaders of these teams: there just aren’t a lot of WT teams without questionable sponsors with the budget to build a GT- or Monument-winning squad around riders with the qualities of Pogacar, Mohoric or Colbrelli. However, this calibre of riders does potentially have the option to ride for other teams if they would desire to do so, albeit at a possibly reduced wage. And cyclists could take inspiration from other sports: Formula 1 riders Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel used the platform they had while riding in countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE to speak out in favour of the human rights violated by those nations, raising awareness in the general public.

In the end, it’s still money that talks: Teams, and by extension their cyclists, rely on the sponsorship money to pay their bills every month, and the paid opportunities to race bikes for a living are scarce enough without bringing in geopolitical ethics into the mix for individual bike riders. At this point, envisioning modern cycling without sportswashing seems borderline utopian. The reality is that teams struggle massively to find sponsors to pay the bills, and I can’t fault team managers who try to guarantee the employment of 30 cyclists and 50-odd staff members, possibly more if the deal also involves a development or women’s team.

The prerequisite to being able to deny sportswashing sponsorship money would be that the whole cycling industry has a stable and self-financing business model. A model where teams, race organisers, the UCI and cyclists manage to work together and combine television rights, merch sales, VIP tickets, smaller sponsorship deals and other possible income streams into an income for each person involved in the sport that allows them to thrive in life. Alas, it would seem we’re far away from this.

Human Rights activists have been using the sportswashing itself as leverage to raise awareness around the human rights violations committed by the hosts & sponsors of large events. The Qatar 2022 World Cup is already hotly debated, not just for the obvious corruption that was involved in assigning it, but also over the reports by various NGOs of 6.500 deaths amongst the largely foreign construction workers since the assignment. Likewise, it was stunning to see how many people brought out the largest Palestinian flags to the Giro’s roadside after the race made its way back from Israel to the Italian peninsula in 2018.

The Palestinian civil society suggests showing solidarity through BDS: Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. A simple tactic that was also utilised against South Africa in its Apartheid era, and could offer a solution for the conscientious cycling fan as well. While divestment from investing in the offending countries’ economy will require pressure on banks and pension funds, and sanctions are reserved for states, boycotting events and teams used for sportswashing could offer a way fans can have their voices and opinions heard. It could be made concrete in no longer uncritically sharing press releases or social media posts from involved teams about the local events & training camps, it could involve no longer buying merch or gear from the team or associated brands, or you could link up with activist in your region to see how they are campaigning on human rights issues and seeing how you could get involved.

Next season we’ll all once again cheer for riders sporting a dubious sponsor on their jersey, racing in a Middle Eastern desert to prepare for a Grand Tour Départ bought by a despotic country outside of its borders. And we’ll try to suppress the nagging feeling in the back of our mind to enjoy the racing. One way to do that is to talk about it. And to talk about the human rights violations, the campaigns organised by activists and to amplify the stories of the people being harmed in it all.