In defence of sport washing
Until it isn't fine, it is fine
The phoney racing is upon us. The myriad of sunny, pacey Spanish Trofeos compete with 2.something French regional races for our attention. Meanwhile, the sprinters and the grands garçons of the peloton race for eastern riches. The Tour Des Centres Commerciaux that the Saudi Tour, Tour of Oman and UAE Tour make up sees riders gracefully move from their luxury shopping mall accommodation to racing in between shopping malls, with the occasional shopping mall intermediate sprint and climbs to offer riders and cameras spectacular views of the shopping malls. No one is particularly bothered about this early stage of the season — except, of course, for Lotto Soudal and Alejandro Valverde. But fans, DSs and cyclists all agree to an unspoken suspension of reality — that any of the racing before Het Nieuwsblad matters. Who won out in Canary-Wharf-in-the-desert? I don’t know, care or have the energy to pretend I do.
But there was one thing I noticed as I lazily watched Maxim Van Gils power away on Stage 4 of the Saudi Tour. And, in fact, on every other stage I watched. During these races there was one thing notable by its’ absence — mention of sport washing. It’s a topic that’s hotter than a spoon at a crackhead’s house and 2022 may be its’ watershed year. With a Winter Olympics hosted by an authoritarian regime that is based entirely on mass repression and a World Cup in a petrostate that is more concerned with building completion dates than the lives of immigrant workers, people are starting to ask whether it is right that when money talks, sport listens.
The issue of how to balance states using sport for their own ends against the shedloads of cash they can offer is one that cycling has been struggling with for longer than most; Mussolini may have been more of a football man, but he still sought to leverage the triumphs of Gino Bartali. Because of cycling’s need for changing geographic locations, it is a natural target for states that want to reinvent themselves, or just show a softer and prettier side. After just a few years, hosting races in middle eastern petrostates seems to raise few eyebrows. Have cycling fans, so used to the constant river of sponsors, races and teams going west, accepted that perhaps, morality is a privilege reserved for the comfortable?
Well, no. It’s just that the condemnation and outrage is not metered out equally. The cycling community’s decisions as to when sports washing is and isn’t acceptable seems as unreliable as a 1980’s Fiat. Races continue in Saudi Arabia, (civil rights score 7/100, not free), Oman (civil rights score 23/100, not free) and the UAE (civil rights score 17/100, not free), whilst races are removed from other regimes not much worse. Last year’s UCI Track World Championships was held in Roubaix, not Turkmenistan (civil rights score 2/100, not free), after an outcry about the country’s civil rights. The same year, the Elite Track European Championships was moved from Minsk in Belarus (civil rights score 11/100, not free) to Switzerland, after Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenko forced a commercial aircraft down in order to arrest a dissident. The decision to host the Grande Partenza of the 2018 Giro in Israel (civil rights score 76/100, free) was met with fierce criticism. Meanwhile, Rwanda (civil rights score 38/100, not free) is fast becoming the darling of the cycling world. Its’ national team has been featured in The New Yorker, pros are heading to training camps there and the Tour du Rwanda is the continent’s biggest race, attended by national, as well as UCI World Tour, Pro & Conti teams. Kigali is also set to host the 2025 UCI World Championship. Should the UCI decide to pull out of the race due to concerns about assassination of political opponents, arbitrary arrests, suppression of democratic opposition, the violence, torture and murders committed by police forces or the huge limitations on freedoms of the press, assembly or religion, it is unlikely to affect President Paul Kagame. Having never received less than 90% of the vote in the three elections he has contested since 2000, he has democratic room to manoeuvre.
The imbalance is not solely applied to events but to teams too. Israel-Premier Tech, Sylvan Adams’ 8 year old team, have received much criticism on the grounds they only exist to sport wash Israel’s reputation or, more specifically, their foreign policy. Even more specifically, their foreign policy towards Palestine. The team is actually not backed by the state and only receives a small amount of funding from the national tourism board. That’s interesting but, since Israel’s name is right there in the team name and on the jersey, it’s also largely irrelevant — the team serves to promote Israel de facto, if not de jure. Jonathan Liew argues that ‘the primary objective of Israeli sporting diplomacy is that when you hear the country’s name, you won’t think of any of this. You won’t think about military checkpoints or the bombing of Gaza or the Palestinian occupation, or really Palestinians at all. Instead you’ll think about golden beaches, rooftop cocktails, Lionel Messi and Chris Froome bathed in a glorious sunset.’ Why, he asks, do we think of middle eastern nations engaging in sports washing, but never Israel?
Liew is right in his fundamental conceit, that the whole sports washing conversation revolves more around middle eastern petrostates more than it does Israel. But that argument is based on a fundamental miscalculation — the sports washing projects of other middle eastern governments have targeted football, which dominates the national sporting conversation. Hosting a World Cup and buying two Premier League teams, as well as PSG, is far more high-profile than a cycling team — even if IPT does have the man who used to be Chris Froome. The question is wether cycling fans think of Israel when they think of sports washing — and the answer is they do.
Liew writes that cycling is ‘cycling is the ideal sportswashing partner: a sport with no real tradition of political activism’. Again, he is right. The cycling community didn’t seem to show similar levels of concern about state backing for Bahrain Victorious (civil rights score 12/100, not free), Astana Qazaqstan (civil rights score 23/100, not free), UAE Team Emirates (civil rights score 17/100, not free) or Gazprom-Rusvelo (civil rights score 20/100, not free). BikeExchange’s partnership with the Saudi state, too, barely raised a murmur. Perhaps in the wake of the first Saudi Grand Prix and the buyout of Newcastle, we are becoming inured. Saudi has lavished $1.5bn on sport, and it is certainly a strategy that works. The takeover of Newcastle United is a particularly brilliant bit of PR; not only will the ownership issue distract from discussions around actual Saudi abuses, but next time the regime murderers a dissident journalist there will likely be an army of Newcastle fans to defend them on the perfectly reasonable grounds they’ve bought a new Chilean striker for £30m and he’s banging in goals.
The truth is that when ideological purity faces up against reality, uncomfortable compromises must sometimes be made. For cycling, pursuing a policy of active avoidance presents a problem. In many developing countries, the only operator that has enough capability and capital to launch a pro-sport campaign is the government. This is especially a problem for a cost-heavy sport like cycling that requires investment. Suddenly, that policy of active avoidance becomes a major restriction on the growth of the sport. Look at the cancelled UCI track events. Would the events in Turkmenistan and Belarus have exposed more potential fans to the sport than two more in Belgium and Switzerland? The actions of their governments are not the fault of everyday Rwandans, Emiratis or, indeed, Israelis. New fans, teams, participants and pros should be welcomed, wherever they are found.
But that does not change the fact that these governments are using cycling, and that should make us feel uncomfortable. It certainly does me. But is it entirely inconceivable that cycling could use them as much as they are being used? Yes, there are benefits to Israel in having the bold, blue ‘ISRAEL’ emblazoned on the IPT kit prominent in the day’s break. That is, in fact, the whole point of sponsorship. We are not about to ban Quick Step on the grounds that they are only there to sell more flooring rather really believing in Patrick Lefevere’s mission to deliver a winner at Kuurne–Brussels–Kuurne. But state sponsorship is different to commercial sponsorship, and is not necessarily a zero-sum game; with enough impact, state participation could promote a good cycling culture that may outlast the government that pursued it. That would certainly alter the balance of payments when we make the cost-benefit analysis of allowing states to become involved in cycling.
The uncomfortable truth is that sport washing is not going anywhere, and we have allowed it to happen. The moment you allow one nation to benefit, you lay down both your rights and your means to defend them. Worse, we have been selective about who receives criticism for it and who does not. This doesn’t help protect the sport; it merely amplifies the success of the projects that manage to fly under the radar. As long as there’s a greater ghoul, then it’s a practice that states will continue to find useful. But it is not all bad news. Even if, in a lapse of moral clarity and courage, we continue to allow sport washing to continue, all is far from lost. Sometimes, it can backfire beautifully. Didn’t the triumph of Jesse Owens over Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy make hosting the 1936 Olympics Games in Berlin a worthwhile endeavour?