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The team is months away from riding its first race but, already, it seems the Bahrain WorldTour project has mountains to climb.
Rights groups have announced that they have taken active measures to try to hamper the project, with two bodies contacting sponsors to warn them off.
The project was officially announced in May and has been linked to former Tour de France winner Vincenzo Nibali. However the involvement of Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa has proven controversial, due to allegations that he has directly and indirectly been involved in torture.
“We believe that being affiliated with Prince Nasser in a cycling project will cause severe reputational damage to your brand and the sport of cycling as a whole,” stated two rights groups in letters sent to 15 potential sponsors on Wednesday.
“We therefore ask that you reject any economic and technical partnership with the Bahrain WorldTour team.”
The push is led by the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) plus the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR).
These two groups had previously contacted the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) last month about their concerns, urging it to refuse a WorldTour licence.
BIRD and ECCHR are now taking things a step further, requesting that sponsors turn their back on any backing of the squad.
“As a potential sponsor for Prince Nasser’s cycling project, we ask that you deny Prince Nasser any opportunity for a partnership with your brand. A letter has already been submitted to the sport’s governing body the UCI, in which we requested that an appropriate investigation and due diligence be carried out into Prince Nasser, and that his application for a WorldTour licence be denied on that basis.”
The letter sets out the specific mechanism by which it believes the squad should be blocked.
“Article 2 of the UCI Code of Ethics (CoE) protects against breaches of principles that include human dignity, non-discrimination against political opinions, non-violence and harassment, integrity and political neutrality.
“In using his state position to punish athletes in Bahrain on politically motivated grounds, and with regards to allegations of torture, Prince Nasser has breached the principles protected by the CoE.
“In addition, he is also in breach of Article 6 which provides that all parties to the Code must not have relations with any organisations, companies or persons whose activities are incompatible with the principles set out in the Code.”
The companies contacted are BMC, Cannondale, Canyon Bicycles, Cervelo Europe, F.I.V.E. Bianchi, Focus, Giant Manufacturing, Lapierre, Merida, Pinarello, Ridley Bikes, Scott Sports, Shimano, Specialized and Trek.
It is not clear if other companies will also be contacted in the future.
Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, Director of Advocacy at BIRD said that he believes the project has an ulterior motive. “The primary reason behind Prince Nasser’s Bahrain WorldTour team is to whitewash the his past,” he argued. “Sponsors should not be drawn to into Prince Nasser’s intentions to misuse cycling in this public relations ploy.”
Andreas Schüller, Coordinator International Crimes and Accountability Program at ECCHR echoes this. “As long as there is no accountability for serious human rights violations in Bahrain, businesses should refrain from promoting the regime.”
The UCI’s position: ‘We must respect the law’
Thus far, however, it looks like the UCI could refuse requests not to consider the team for a WorldTour licence. UCI president Brian Cookson spoke to CyclingTips at the Tour de France and stated the current position.
“Let’s wait and see if and when we get an application from that new sponsor. It looks like we will,” he stated. “If and when that happens, then they will go through the same accreditation process, the same scrutiny for ethics and governance as all the other teams.”
However, despite a new rule including checks on team owners in the UCI’s Code of Ethics, he suggested the governing body could take limited action.
“If some government, some sponsor is free to do business in the rest of the world, it is difficult for sport to hold that person, that business, that government to a higher standard.
“Until someone is proven guilty of some crime or some offence which stops them taking part in international life, then there is very little that a sports body can do about it.”
Cycling has had its share of controversial team owners in the past. To name just two, Tinkoff owner Oleg Tinkov has infuriated some with racist, sexist and homophobic statements on Twitter.
Further back, U.S. businessman Michael Ball set up the Rock Racing Team and signed several returning dopers. He relished in the bad-boy image, both for himself and his squad.
There is a real danger that the Bahrain project could bring negative publicity to the sport, but Cookson said the UCI was limited in what it could do.
“Let’s be realistic about this” he said. “If we try and act above and beyond the law we will be taken to whatever appropriate court and if we have acted above and beyond the law we will lose.
“I am quite happy to go to court and defend the interests of cycling when I think we are going to win, but I am not going to throw money away at lawyers when we are pretty certain that we would lose.
“As I said, if someone is free to do business, to operate in the wider world, it is very difficult for a sports body to apply some higher standard to them.”
BIRD and ECCHR are unlikely to accept this position and will almost certainly continue their push to block the team.