Recently, in order to deflect from an obvious shortcoming in my personal comportment, I created a cunning diversion. Having created some slight offence with an ill-judged comment, I tried (rather skilfully, I think) to move the subject along.
“Look over there,” I said, pointing at something mildly diverting. “That’s mildly diverting, isn’t it?” And bingo, the hurt was undone. I had changed the entire direction of the discourse.
Of course, this was a transparent tactic to avoid rightful scrutiny and to present myself in a more favourable light. We all do it, I suspect, in our daily lives and especially our online personas.
This is simply the individualised expression of a wider malaise which is gaining a significant foothold within the fragile world of road racing; the uncomfortable phenomenon known as ‘sportswashing’. The examples of teams selling their carcasses to less and less desirable sponsors (fracking, anyone?) and race organisers cravenly seeking to establish themselves in ever more ethically dubious terrain are piling up around us, like so many oil-flecked sand-dunes.
Full disclosure: I have been hired on more than one occasion to be the mouthpiece of the Dubai Tour. Since the Dubai Sports Council were my de facto paymasters, through the conduit of Giro organisers RCS, I was somewhat obliged to dance to their tune, as ‘world feed commentator’. My job was to sell Dubai.
During a pre-race briefing in 2016, in the course of which I was being advised on what to say over the endless helicopter shots of skyscrapers, I questioned the use of the term “labour camp”, which I was to use over aerial footage of Dubai’s vast complex that houses its poorly paid legion of foreign national construction workers.
“I’m not sure ‘labour camp’ is the best terminology,” I ventured to suggest. “It has connotations.”
My hosts looked stunned. “But it is a labour camp.”
“Fair enough,” I acknowledged, vowing never to come back.
Even if Dubai has an arguably better record than neighbouring Abu Dhabi, there are certainly questions that need asking of the human rights records of Bahrain (a WorldTour team sponsor) and Saudi Arabia, into whose cash-rich arms ASO have just rushed, with the creation of the new Saudi Tour.
Of course, this latest move by the organisers of the Tour de France is part of a long-standing proxy war in the Middle East between RCS and ASO. But it is also a function of road racing’s increasing desperation to unearth sustainable income sources.
The unpalatable truth for us all is that few of the ASO/RCS properties generate income in their own right. With the Giro and the Tour propping them up, much loved historic stage races such as Tirreno Adriatico, the Dauphiné and Paris Nice would simply be cancelled. For that reason, there was never any question that RCS would be in a position to turn down the offer of Israeli money when, in 2017, they moved their biggest showcase to showcase a country that many people consider to be flouting international law.
And certainly, there was no sense that the race was set up to encourage discussion of the desperately important Palestinian question. I have many friends and colleagues in cycling journalism who really struggled with the dilemma of whether or not to turn their backs on the first three days of racing. In the end, cycling somehow muddled through without too much international opprobrium. It is, after all, a small sport, and the Giro a tiny event when set against the FIFA World Cup which is still, shamefully, set to take place in Qatar in 2022.
The truth is that cycling’s heartlands are no longer willing or able to support the sport they created. In order to survive, it has decided to hold its nose, look away and strike ever more audacious deals across the globe; a buccaneering spirit is required to flourish in a deregulated market. The choice is ours; either to tolerate, or protest.
Sound familiar? Perhaps we’re simply taking back control. Let’s get cycling done.
This article was originally published in Rouleur 19.8 with the headline, ‘Money talks’