Cycling World Tour Events are Sportwashing Human Rights Abuses

Cycling World Tour Events are Sportwashing Human Rights Abuses

If you want to start a pro-cycling team with a UCI WorldTour license, you have to adhere to five sets of criteria, one of which is ethics. The UCI rule-book  expands on the topic of ethics, a few parts standout for today’s discussion:

Art. 5 General principles
Persons bound by the Code are expected to be aware of the importance of
their duties and concomitant obligations and responsibilities.
Persons bound by the Code shall show commitment to an ethical attitude.
When discharging their duties and responsibilities they shall behave in a
dignified manner and act with complete honesty, credibility, impartiality
and integrity. They shall fulfil their duties with due care and diligence.
Persons bound by the Code may not abuse their position in any way,
especially to take advantage of their position for private aims or gains.
All persons concerned shall at all times act in compliance with the principles
below in any activity related to cycling and shall immediately report any
potential breach of this Code to the Secretariat of the Ethics Commission
(cf. Article 13.1).

Art. 6 General rules of integrity

Art. 6.1. Non-discrimination
The persons bound by the Code shall not undertake any action, use any
denigratory words, or any other means, that offend the human dignity of
a person or group of persons, on any grounds including but not limited to
skin colour, race, religion, ethnic or social origin, political opinion, sexual
orientation, disability or any other reason contrary to human dignity.

Art. 6.2 Duty of neutrality
In dealings with government institutions, national and international
organisations, associations and groupings, persons bound by the Code
shall remain politically neutral, in accordance with the principles and
objectives of the UCI, whenever expressing themselves on behalf of the
organisation they represent.

That’s all good and for the most part riders and teams are held to fairly high standards. The questions, then, is why aren’t race owners and organizers treated the same?

The rise of ‘Sportswashing’

Sportswashing isn’t new, nor is it exclusive to cycling. In the lead up to the  1978 World Cup in Argentina, the media reported that some national teams considered withdrawing from the tournament to protest the military dictatorship of the host country. Once the coverage moved to the action on the pitch, however, the controversy subsided as no-one wanted to spoil the party. Times have not changed, soon enough the eyes of the world will turn to Qatar, a country rife with human rights violations, and the 2022 World Cup.

When the UCI selected Qatar  as the host of its 2016 Road World Championships, questions were raised but were quickly laid aside for racing. Again last year, questions arose surrounding the decision to  host the Giro d’Italia’s opening days in Jerusalem, where the occupation of Palestine and basic human rights are contested.

Now, the tenth edition of the Tour of Oman began Saturday and runs through Thursday (February 21). A few days later, the star-studded six-stage United Arab Emirates Tour will kick off.

As the professional World Tour peloton moves to the Middle East this week, it’s worth asking the question, why?

Sportswashing = Money

The most obvious immediate answer to why World Tour events are held in places with terrible human rights records is money.

Israel reportedly paid north of 10 million euros to host the first stage of the 2018 Giro d’Italia. Qatar wasn’t chosen to host the Road World Championships for its beauty, the check written to the UCI was around $11 million USD.

Major sporting events operate as a form of soft power, allowing host nations to promote themselves on a global stage. “Soft power,” a term coined by the US political scientist Joseph Nye, is defined as a way of reaching objectives through the power of attraction rather than military and economic force. One powerful source of soft power is sports.

Many have argued that hosting the Olympic Games, a bike race or football World Cup represent ideal opportunities for countries to try and  attract investment and promote tourism. I’d argue for an even more attractive alternative effect: sporting events tamper down, at least temporarily, critical views of a government.

Sporting events operate as a means to launder a national government’s global image. For places like Russia, Israel or the UAE writing a check for around $10 million dollars is hardly a heavy lift. So for what amounts to a blip on the financial radar, human rights violating countries can buy a month or two of media silence.

What do we do about “Sportswashing”

Should we be concerned about the ability of some pretty odious regimes to rinse their reputations by bringing in a World Tour event?

The prevailing – and I’d argue naïve – attitude of most pro-cyclists and fans is that sports are politically neutral. Once competition begins, so the trend goes, World Tour events and the achievements of athletes should not be tarnished by these sorts of political considerations. By taking this line are we as cycling fans not also complicit in this sportswashing? If so, what can players, observers and the media do to ensure that cycling isn’t used to absolve states of their human rights abuses?

I don’t fault the riders for pedaling along, the teams for participating or fans for following events. No, I fault the governing body of cycling, the UCI. And I fault  the race organizers, who have sacrificed basic human rights in order to increase financial profits.

It’s time the UCI and its  president David Lappartient stop being hypocrites when it comes to ethics abuses and stated campaigns like advancing gender equality in the sport.  You cannot make calls for gender equality while aligning your organization with countries that disappear women who try to escape them. Instead, the UCI needs to put serious thought into aligning itself with the likes of Amnesty International and/or Human Rights Watch  to make better decisions about which locales deserve the chance to host a World Tour event. Allowing rampant “sportswashing” won’t only hurt the sport in the long run, it damages our collective humanity.