The weekly spin: The intersection of pro cycling and basic human rights

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It’s always been difficult for me to embrace WorldTour racing in what amount to repressive, police states. And as the professional peloton heads to the Middle East this week, this annual conflict resurfaces anew.

The tenth edition of the Tour of Oman begins Saturday and runs through February 21. A few days later, the six-stage United Arab Emirates Tour —a new WorldTour event merging the former Abu Dhabi and Dubai tours — begins with a team time trial on Al Hudayriat Island.

The Tour of Oman will feature stars such as Greg Van Avermaet, Niki Terpstra, and Alexander Kristoff, while Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali, Tom Dumoulin, Alejandro Valverde, Rohan Dennis, Elia Viviani and Marcel Kittel are all confirmed to compete at the UAE Tour.

These two events are what’s left of what was once a four-race early season swing across the Middle East, with national tours of Oman, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Qatar, which ran from 2002 to 2016.

I had these upcoming events in mind over the weekend as I read a New York Times article about Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum, the 33-year-old daughter of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, ruler of Dubai and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, who allegedly escaped from a life of detainment and involuntary drugging last year, only to be seized by armed men from a yacht off the coast of India and returned to her family against her will.

I recommend reading the story, so I’ll spare you all the details, other than to say that Sheikh Mohammed and the Emirati embassy did not respond to requests from the New York Times for comment, a lawyer working with activists left the sheikha’s case without explanation, and several of her friends in Dubai said they were too frightened to speak. In a 39-minute video filmed before her escape but released after her capture, Sheikha Latifa said, “If you are watching this video, it’s not such a good thing. Either I’m dead, or I’m in a very, very, very bad situation.”

There was another, similar story in the news over the weekend, about Hind al-Bolooki, a 43-year-old Emirati mother of four, who is currently trapped in a detention center in North Macedonia after fleeing the UAE in October of last year upon seeking a divorce.

Her asylum application was rejected on the grounds that she did not face danger if she returned home to the UAE, and included a 15-day grace period to leave the country — something she is unable to do while detained. A close friend of hers told The Guardian he is worried al-Bolooki “will be locked away or killed if she goes back.”

https://twitter.com/HAlbolooki/status/1092711025466437632

Which brings me back to the UAE Tour.

National tours backed by governmental funding are, by nature, intended to put nation states on display for an international audience. Traveling from city to city, often starting or finishing in the capital, they’re meant to attract tourism while highlighting specifically chosen cultural values and traditions. Basically, they’re a PR exercise.

But what happens when the totality of these cultural values runs counter to the values of the sport itself?

Cycling, in its purest form, represents freedom. Professional cycling, at the highest level of governance, has promised to make gender equality one of its top priorities over the next five years. So what are we to believe when that same international federation sanctions events hosted by nations that enforce laws counter to basic freedoms and gender equality?

Issues surrounding the “sports-washing” of countries with abhorrent records of human-rights violations are not new. These same questions were raised when the UCI selected Qatar — an oil-rich Gulf state credibly accused of sponsoring international terrorism — as the host of its 2016 Road World Championships. These questions were raised again last year surrounding the decision to host the Giro d’Italia’s Grande Partenza in Jerusalem, where issues surrounding settlements, restrictions, and basic human rights are contested regularly.

It’s a topic that transcends cycling; look no further than the awarding of the 2022 FIFA World Cup to Qatar, where soccer stadiums are being built by alleged slave labor, Sharia law remains the primary source of legislation, and floggings and stonings are regular forms of punishment.

And now, given the many recent news stories of women fleeing the UAE, fearing for their lives if they are returned — in the context of these upcoming stage races — has me questioning this all over again, particularly contrasted with UCI president David Lappartient’s insistence that gender equality is one of his top priorities.

Speaking of soccer, on Monday, Thailand officials finally released Hakeem al-Araibi, a Bahraini soccer star who fled the Gulf nation in 2011 during a crackdown on Arab Spring protesters; he claims to have fled after being tortured by government security forces.

Since fleeing, al-Araibi has played for a minor team in Melbourne; he was convicted in absentia and sentenced to 10 years in prison for the burning of a Bahraini police station, which he said occurred while he was playing in a televised match. Al-Araibi had been detained since November, when he was arrested at an airport in Bangkok while on his honeymoon.

The decision to drop al-Araibi’s case came after the Thai foreign minister traveled to Bahrain to meet with Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa; soon after, Thai diplomats were told Bahrain did not wish to pursue extradition.

If that name sounds familiar, it’s because the crown prince is the elder half-sibling of Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the 31-year-old president of the Bahrain Olympic Committee and chief sponsor of the Bahrain-Merida WorldTour team, who has been accused of torturing dissidents during those same 2011 anti-government protests that ensnared al-Araibi.

According to The Guardian, more than 150 professional sportspeople were reported to have been arrested, detained, tortured, imprisoned or excluded from their sports for taking part in the 2011 pro-democracy demonstrations. Sheikh Nasser has denied taking part in any torture.

Tom Dumoulin speaking with the owner of Bahrain-Merida, the controversial Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, in 2017.

Like the Kingdom of Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates also sponsors a WorldTour cycling team. Last year, Italian Vincenzo Nibali crossed the finish line first at Milan-San Remo wearing a Bahrain-Merida jersey, while Norwegian Alexander Kristoff took the biggest sprint win in pro cycling, on the Champs-Élysées at the Tour de France, wearing the UAE Team Emirates kit. Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa is apparently a big fan of the Bahrain-Merida team.

By most accounts, Oman is a bit more progressive than Bahrain, UAE and Qatar, though according to Human Rights Watch, Oman’s laws “restrict the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association… authorities target peaceful activists, pro-reform bloggers, and government critics using short-term arrests and detentions and other forms of harassment.” And though Oman’s laws state that all citizens are equal, and ban gender-based discrimination, women continue to face discrimination under the law “in matters of divorce, inheritance, child custody and legal guardianship.”

What’s clear is that it’s impossible to separate the sociocultural and political backdrop of these races from the events themselves. National boundaries that define national tours are, quite literally, geo-political. And amplifying these events in any way feels like a tacit endorsement of systemic injustice.

NATIONAL TEAMS vs NATIONAL TOURS

There are currently four state-sponsored teams in the WorldTour peloton: Bahrain-Merida, Team UAE Emirates, Astana, and Katusha-Alpecin.

The Astana team is primarily sponsored by Samruk-Kazyna, a sovereign wealth fund in Kazakhstan which owns a number of major companies within the country including the national rail and postal service, the state oil and gas company KazMunayGas, the state uranium company Kazatomprom, Air Astana, and others.

The former Soviet republic is rich in oil reserves, but fares poorly in human rights. According to Human Rights Watch, trade union leaders have been imprisoned, journalists are routinely targeted, freedom of assembly is restricted, and impunity for torture and ill-treatment in detention persist.

The funding of the Katusha-Alpecin team, which was launched in Moscow within the framework of the Russian Global Cycling Project — and sponsored by Russian petrol businesses Gazprom and ITERA — has evolved, though Russian oligarch Igor Makarov remains a primary backer of the team through ARETI, a rebranded version of ITERA.

At the 2011 UCI Congress, Igor Makarov, president of the Russian Cycling Federation and founder of the Russian Global Cycling Project, was elected as a member of the UCI Management Committee.

Following rebranding exercises, both the Katusha team and ARETI are now headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, rather than their previous homes in Moscow. According to the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington, DC-based institute for research and analysis founded by former CIA director William Casey, as a prominent member of Russia’s energy elite, Makarov has frequently accompanied Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on trips abroad for the purpose of clinching new energy deals.

In 2002, Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash, once the principal conduit for the “astonishingly profitable and legendarily crooked gas trade between Russia and Ukraine,” tried to unseat Makarov as Ukraine’s top gas importer. According to Michael Weiss at ForeignPolicy.com, Firtash told the US ambassador about a Sopranos-style sit-down dinner he attended with Makarov, adding that he “wasn’t sure he’d get through the meal alive.”

So… yeah. Did I mention that since 2011, Makarov has also held a chair on the UCI’s powerful Management Committee — the executive body that runs the federation?

It’s fair to say that in today’s modern world, professional sport is rife with hypocrisy. While the brilliance, magnificence, and miracle of the human spirit is a recurring marketing angle across the Olympic movement, behind closed doors, international sport is often funded and managed by unseemly characters whose priorities run counter to these ideals.

However as fans, as journalists, as consumers, that doesn’t mean we have to accept it. We can collectively make our voices heard. But where is the line drawn?

While the sponsors behind these teams are troublesome in their own way, it’s the national tours that, to me, are truly problematic. At any given race, Bahrain-Merida and UAE Emirates are just two of 20 teams competing. It’s not as though they’re always winning or taking center stage. Well-funded teams are needed to keep the sport alive, another weeklong stage race is not. And while these teams are nationally funded, their riders and staff come from across the globe.

It’s unrealistic to expect the UCI to explore the human-rights record, or scrutinize the business practices, of every potential title sponsor or secondary sponsor in the sport. It’s not even in their best interests. As with the International Olympic Committee, the umbrella organization under which the UCI exists, cycling’s international federation is very much a commercial entity. Qatar wasn’t chosen to host the Road World Championships, the UCI’s marquee property, due to its temperate climate and varying terrain. The check written to the UCI was reported to have been around USD $11 million.

The 2016 UCI Road World Championships were held in extremely hot conditions in Qatar.

But when the professional peloton is thrust into the very land where adultery, sodomy, and blasphemy are punishable by imprisonment or death — inside the very borders were some inhabitants are prohibited from leaving — it takes on a new dimension.

I’d suggest the line be drawn at hosting state-sponsored events, such as national tours, grand departs outside of a tour’s country of origin, and world and continental championships. The UCI could align itself with an organization such as Human Rights Watch, or Amnesty International, and agree to a pre-determined criteria or limit; any country that is ranked below that limit is not allowed to fund or host an event.

For teams, a UCI WorldTour license is granted based on five sets of criteria, including ethics. The small print in the UCI rulebook points to “sporting conduct and the image of cycling” and “the principles of transparency and good faith.” So why is this same criteria not applied to race owners and organizers?

One rightful question to ask would be to challenge why events should be sanctioned in some nations that commit human-rights violations, but not others. For example, what about the United States, where the Trump administration’s treatment of asylum seekers at the southern border, and its controversial child-separation policy, has been deemed a human rights violation by Amnesty International and the United Nations?

It’s a fair question, but the key difference is that races in United States, such as the Amgen Tour of California, are not funded by the federal government. These events are PR efforts for tourism and growth, but they are not primarily used to “sports-wash” human-rights violations. When the funding and organization of an event falls outside national governance, it’s problematic to punish a group for putting on a bike race within its borders. Penalties should be aimed at those making and enforcing the laws.

Depending on the criteria, aligning with an advocacy group would also threaten races like the Tour of Turkey, where journalists are routinely imprisoned, or the Tour of Guangxi in China, a powerful nation where mass surveillance, forced confessions, and torture are commonplace.

However, given cycling’s constant quest to both internationalize its audience and perpetually attract new sponsors, a change in policy from the UCI is unlikely. And that’s a shame. Shouldn’t the international governing body be expected to exhibit a certain level of basic social responsibility and shun governments that oppress its own people?

If you’re looking to Formula 1, the PGA Tour, the Association of Tennis Professionals, or FIFA — all sports on a more solid economic foundation than cycling — the answer is no. Those decisions were made a while ago.

Maybe there’s no reason to look outward. Maybe it’s as simple as looking at the UCI’s Management Committee, which claims both Makarov and Osama Ahmed Abdullah Al Shafar, President of the UAE Cycling Federation, as its members.

And to be clear, this isn’t simply about the UCI. Amaury Sport Organisation, owners of the Tour de France, manage the Tour of Oman and previously ran the Tour of Qatar. The UAE Tour is organized by RCS Sport, owners of the Giro d’Italia. The inclination to abandon principles and follow the money is both strong and universal.

PRINCIPLES OF TRANSPARENCY AND GOOD FAITH

So where does this leave us? Is this a situation without a solution?

Many cycling fans will no doubt follow the upcoming Tour of Oman and the UAE Tour just as they follow every other race on the calendar, focusing primarily on the racing and the riders, with little regard to the geopolitical setting.

Others may boycott these races completely, choosing not to watch, not to click on race reports, not to give them any oxygen at all.

I’ll be somewhere in between. By trade, I’m required to pay a certain degree of attention. But that’s all I’ll give it.

Italian Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors) won the 2018 Dubai Tour.

I don’t fault the riders for competing, or the teams for participating. They’re all cogs in a large machine, though it is sometimes alarming how very few speak out, and it’s even more surprising to see a father of young daughter to take on an ambassador role for one of these events.

But I do fault the governing body, and the race organizers, who have collectively sacrificed the values of equality and freedom in order to profit from these oil-rich Gulf nations.

And to UCI president David Lappartient, who speaks in platitudes about advancing gender equality, I would say this: Either take a real stand, or don’t, but let’s put an end to the two-faced hypocrisy. These events don’t exist without the UCI’s blessing. You cannot simultaneously call for gender equality and align your organization with gross human-rights offenders. It runs against the principles of transparency and good faith the UCI claims to value in its own rulebook.

I’m not against bike racing in the Middle East. But I am for freedom and human rights in the Middle East. I’d like to simply sit back and enjoy the racing, but like so many things in life, it’s not that simple.

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