British Cycling’s athletes are free to criticise Shell deal – if they wish

Athletes' contracts allow for fair comment but instruct against defamatory remarks.

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Attentive cycling fans watching last week’s Track World Championships may have noticed a subtle change to the kits of the British contingent competing on the boards of the Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines velodrome to the west of Paris.

As the riders gripped their handlebars, shoulders turning inwards, a flash of red and yellow appeared on their arms: the logo of the petrochemical giant Shell. As the men won team pursuit gold and the riders hugged each other in celebration, the scallop emblem of the world’s ninth-largest corporate producer of greenhouse gas emissions was in clear view for all to see.

The beginning of the Track World Championships came mere days after British Cycling’s announcement of an eight-year sponsorship deal with Shell, the oil and gas company promising (without a hint of irony) to help the organisation work towards becoming net zero in its carbon dioxide emissions.

The backlash has been fierce, from environmental organisations condemning the partnership to British cyclists announcing they’d cancelled their memberships. Even cartoonists have entered the fray.

The radio silence from board members and employees of British Cycling is to be expected – commercial director Darren Henry found that out the hard way, having put his foot in it with contrary proclamations taking him from environmental campaigner to Shell shill in the space of a year.

But what of the athletes? Their bodies are their billboards for British Cycling’s commercial decisions, so our thoughts turned to what the riders might be making of it all.

“Important point regarding British Cycling’s new partner,” tweeted retired British Olympic gold medalist Callum Skinner. “Please appreciate that contractually and internally the athletes have zero influence, control or platform to be anything but positive or face dismissal. For many that’d mean the end of their career/livelihood.”

Skinner’s tweet may have highlighted the stance that many athletes perceive they should take, but CyclingTips understands the situation surrounding the British Cycling’s athletes right to comment is more nuanced.

There is a provision in riders’ agreements guaranteeing them the right to make fair comments on British Cycling and the organisation’s partners. There is another stipulation, however, that counsels against making untrue remarks about British Cycling and its partners or levying personal attacks against other individuals.

Katie Archibald’s comments about the transgender policies of British Cycling and the UCI in relation to Emily Bridges’ case earlier this year is a high-profile example of a BC rider exercising their freedom of speech. In the case of the Shell sponsorship, it is understood that British Cycling’s athletes and staff members were given advanced warning of the deal before it was announced and provided the opportunity to ask questions about the partnership.

The situation is a delicate one. For an athlete to tread the line between fair comment and defamatory remarks is a difficult task. To be the lone voice making your opinions heard also requires a certain level of bravery – especially so if you’ve got few other options to compete as an athlete. As Skinner put it, “It’s not like playing for [football teams] United and moving to City. For many disciplines it’s British Cycling or nothing.”

But while many riders will just want to focus on racing their bikes, they now do so with the Shell’s logo emblazoned on them, the company present as the riders receive gold medals on the top step of podiums. The riders, willingly or unwillingly, now represent Shell.

For others, this is not a new situation. The father of Ethan and Leo Hayter, who both represent British Cycling in various disciplines, pointed out that both of his sons also have contracts with the Ineos Grenadiers, sponsored by a 4WD company under the banner of Jim Ratcliffe’s multinational chemicals empire, Ineos – a corporation which has frequently been questioned over its environmental record.

Who knows what the fine-print of an Ineos Grenadiers contract states, but it’s unlikely Jim Ratcliffe would be impressed with employees of his £50 million a year cycling project denouncing the money that pays their salaries.

British athletes at the Track World Championships were apparently asked about the Shell sponsorship by the attendant media. Hopefully we hear their thoughts on the matter soon.

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