Bahrain-Merida team’s Participation in Tour De France Represents A “Sportwashing” Case

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UPDATE: In July 2017, the Bahrain sovereign fund Mumtalatak purchased a controlling stake in McLaren and a member of the AlKhalifa family was named as executive chairman. The new restructured company has in the last two years expanded its economic activities in Bahrain notably in Formula 1 and into professional cycling. Its new cycling team – BahrainMerida, founded with the stated goal of “sportwashing” the kingdom of Bahrain, has recently signed the riders OBE Mark Cavendish (UK), as well as Mikel Landa (Spain), Wout Poels (The Netherlands) and former Team SKY coach Rod Ellingworth (UK) as team principal for the 2020 season.

A coalition of unions, NGOs and sporting organisations, including the European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (ECDHR), led by Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, presented a letter to David Lappartient, president of Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), complaining about the participation of Bahrain-Merida team in the next Tour de France.

Under the umbrella of Sport and Rights Alliance, the letter has been consigned by 11 campaign groups in total, the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB), the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (ECDHR), Football Supporters Europe, the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Transparency International Germany, and the World Players Association, UNI Global Union.

The authors express their concern over the human rights situation in Bahrain. The campaign group protests against the decision to grant the team a World Team license. Bahrain-Merida is a cycling team founded in 2017 by Prince Nasser bin Isa Alkhalifa – the son of Bahrain’s ruling monarch – and the 2014 Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali. The team is therefore in close relations with the government of Bahrain, which in the letter is accused of “sportwashing”, namely to divert international attention from the country’s appalling human rights record.

The term “sportwashing” was coined by Amnesty International to describe how repressive governments use their countries’ participation to sport events to build a positive image abroad, hiding the abuses occurring in their countries. Similar examples of “sportwashing” that the Bahraini government endorsed are the Bahrain Grand Prix and the Royal Windsor Horse Show, both highly criticised.

In this letter, addressed directly to David Lappartient, the authors highlight that the Bahrain-Merida team may violate the UCI’s code of ethics. Furthermore, they invite the organisation to reconsider the Bahrain-Merida’s participation in light of their policies and in accordance to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

The Bahrain-Merida team Representatives and Sheikh Nasser, a brigadier-general in the Bahrain army and commander of the Royal Guard, said to the English newspaper The Guardian they reject any accusation mentioned in the letter. Moreover, they denied any direct affiliation with the Government of Bahrain. According to them the team is funded by private sponsors, such as Merida. However, several sponsors are described as “semi-government companies.” Among those there is also the Bahrain sovereign wealth fund Mumtalakat and the oil company Bapco, wholly owned by the government

Furthermore, the UCI spokesperson told the Guardian about his awareness on the “allegations of human rights violation.” Nevertheless, he did not illustrate the approach UCI undertook, either he did not explain the reason why human rights concerns have not been considered during the registration. Regarding the future events he said: “For the upcoming season, the independent licence commission will review the applicable criteria, including ethical, based on all available information pertaining to the team. The assessment … concentrates on the team and its members.

Since the 2011 pro-democracy uprising, the government of Bahrain has brutally repressed human rights. Civil society has been a direct target. Civilians who took part in pacific protests have been arrested, tortured and subject to unfair trials. Athletes were no exception, as the case of the Australian refugee footballer Hakeem AlAraibi shows.

The European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (ECDHR) reiterates the statements addressed in the letter. Furthermore, it urges the Bahraini government to cease repressing human rights while trying to whitewash its international reputation.