Can The UCI Stop Team Bahrain?

This week has seen several comment pieces like the one in London’s The Guardian shown above (and here and here) saying the new Bahrain cycling team too controversial and unpleasant for the sport because of the multiple allegations claiming the team’s backer Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, son of the the ruler King Fahd, tortured people. He denies this. Public statements like “Whoever calls for the fall of the regime, may a wall fall on his head” are a matter of record. With headlines like “UCI urged to halt Bahraini-bankrolled WorldTour team over rights abuses” can the team be stopped?

As a rule headlines with question marks in the title can be replied to with the answer “no” but let’s explore the issue here. The UCI has to award the team a licence and will vet the team and those involved in the project. To win a licence a team has to meet sporting, financial, administrative and ethical criteria. Given Bahrain is an oil-rich state they’re unlikely to worry about the first three. But what about ethics and Mr Hamad? Here’s the ethics rule (2.15.011c for World Tour teams, 2.16.013a for Pro Conti):

The ethical criterion takes account inter alia of the respect by the team or its members for:
a) the UCI regulations, inter alia as regards anti-doping, sporting conduct and the image of cycling;
b) its contractual obligations;
c) its legal obligations, particularly as regards payment of taxes, social security and keeping accounts;
d) the principles of transparency and good faith.

As you can the ethics are quasi-legal relating to paying your taxes and respecting contracts. The only hook to catch Mr Hamad on here is “the image of cycling” but note it’s about “the respect by the team or its members for the UCI regulations” so it’s merely a matter of whether Mr Hamad follows the UCI rules rather than wider issues about someone’s character, personal life or public conduct.

Fit and Proper Test
The UCI doesn’t have a “fit and proper person” test. It was the first recommendation mentioned in the wake of the CIRC report but so far there’s nothing. A tweak to the rules does stop convicted dopers from being employed or running a team but comes with several get-outs (has to be heavy doping, only new cases as it can’t apply retrospectively etc) but that’s it.

Given Mr Hamad denies the claims and has London lawyers on stand-by to assert his denial it’s going to be difficult for the UCI to block him given the absence of any verdict such as a court ruling. A sports governing body is not going to be able to get to the truth of what happens in Bahrain. It’d be great if our sport’s governing body could set the world to rights, or even just a part of it, but it’s not going to happen. Aigle isn’t The Hague.

The UCI could call Mr Hamad’s bluff and say “no thanks” in the hope that he would not try to sue his way into the World Tour via the courts which could involve witness testimony. But this is

The London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) has written to the UCI this week and has circulated there message to the cycling media. Here is an excerpt from their letter:

We believe Prince Nasser’s involvement as the head of a team would be in violation of article 2 of the UCI Code of Ethics (CoE), which protects against breaches of principles that include human dignity, non-discrimination against political opinions, non-violence and harassment, integrity and political neutrality. We therefore ask that you reject the awarding of the WorldTour license to the Bahrain Cycling Team.

BIRD refers to “article 2 of the UCI Code of Ethics”. Now the UCI has just announced a new Code of Ethics is coming out soon but until then we’ll work on the current/old one. BIRD is right that Article 2 specifies “human dignity, non-discrimination” and so on. Only Article 1 says the Code of Ethics applies to specified groups: members of the Management Committee; members of the Professional Cycling Council; members of commissions; UCI staff; commissaires; technical delegates. Article 2 doesn’t apply to team owners like Prince Nasser Hamad.

Public pressure
If the rules can’t stop this team then maybe your wallet can? The bike manufacturer is not known, the same for the clothing supplier and all the other sponsors who will enable this team. So if you have more reservations than about this team then as soon as any sponsors are linked to this then go and tell them.

PR 101
As an aside to the ethics and rules let’s note how this new cycling team is looking bad before it’s even fitted a pedal, yet alone turned one. Most team launches combine excitement and intrigue, the Bahrain team seems to be starting with a mix of disgust and negative headlines. For all the talk of a slick new outfit funded by a billionaire it seems to lost control of the message already. Many cycling fans might not be able to point to Bahrain on a map but they now know it rhymes with torture. We’ll probably be treated to an exclusive interview soon with Mr Hamad where he shows his caring, progressive side but the damage is done.

There’s been lots of comment saying the team and more specifically its backer shouldn’t have a place in cycling. Only on investigation it turns out there’s little to stop it happening. You might think the UCI should do something but there’s little they can do. The sport’s rulebook has little to say, even the “ethics” criteria relate to following the UCI rules rather than public conduct. There’s no “fit and proper person” test despite the CIRC pledge. The Bahrain campaigners who say Mr Hamad falls short on the UCI’s Code of Ethics have missed that it applies to UCI staff and not team owners. The allegations against Mr Hamad are serious and worrying but in the absence of a conviction a mid-size sports governing body is unlikely to get to the bottom of them. If someone else can they maybe the UCI will be able to act.

If you don’t like the sound of this guy then the above is not an uplifting read. But there’s still time for things to change. The UCI has promised the “fit and proper person” test so if this does emerge then something could change and similarly we await the UCI’s new Code of Ethics to see if this is applied to team managers. Until then look out for the team’s launch, slated for one of the Tour de France rest days and see which sponsors and suppliers have decided to join.

  • Update – 17 June 2016: the new UCI Code of Ethics is out (PDF here) and it applies to “all licence holders” so team owners do have to abide by it. This raises the bar for Mr Hamad, especially given Article 6.1 says “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“. (my emphasis). Calling for a wall to fall on the head of political opponents may be viewed as part of this or repeated statements while Mr Hamad owns the team could be used against him.

49 thoughts on “Can The UCI Stop Team Bahrain?”

  1. ‘It was the first recommendation mentioned in the wake of the CIRC report but so far there’s nothing.’ – What a surprise – talk, but no action.
    Sadly, we can’t expect that the UCI will take any kind of ethical stance and will instead simply lap at the money bowl.
    Cycling doesn’t need this – despite what the money-obsessives will have you believe.

    • We’ll see if the UCI can do anything. Introducing this selective test is not easy as it involves blocking people who might otherwise be legally entitled to work, for example if Team X want to hire so-and-so then it’s been a private employment matter between the two parties rather than something for the UCI to vet.

      • So I guess my question is essentially, why do they have to provide any grounds for denying his license? To the best of my knowledge an applicant doesn’t have any right of redress to appeal the denial. Shouldn’t something akin to “on balance we don’t feel that this submission meets the appropriate criteria for UCI license,” be enough?

        In the US context pro sports leagues police their ownership and franchise transfer in a similar manner. Its not the most transparent approach but membership in the UCI isn’t some inalienable right available to any one who can cut a check for X dollars.

  2. Agreed – the UCI doesn’t need this long-term hassle.

    My only question is, what would be the unintended consequences of denying a license to Team Bahrain? Would the middle eastern races disappear soon after? Would any other current/future middle eastern teams disappear?

    • Doubtful for any reasons related to the above. Gulf states in general are desperate for positive PR through sport, plus the Emirates are competitive amongst each other too – there’s prestige to be had, they throw money at sport or art/culture to gain it, and quite often it’s as much a case of looking good to their surrounding neighbours as it is to looking good to the rest of the world. Couple this to attempts to divest from producing Oil, and I can’t see any of the surrounding states giving too many hoots about Bahrain. Should the UCI go after them, though, and that would be a different matter. Bahrain isn’t the only recipient of negative articles in Western media re: rights after all. The direct link to personal allegations about the founder isn’t the best of circumstances though. I think it’s more likely the nations to which you refer will get bored of cycling and decide to spend money on other things for the afforementioned PR purposes.

  3. More sad fallout from the UCI’s pitiful efforts in anti-doping along with their ill-advised World/Pro Tour idea combined with the European economic crisis. Otherwise, nobody would touch this guy or take his petro-dollars. Another team I can dislike who will surely employ riders that I do like – since Nibali’s rumored to be going there. The Shark’s seemingly jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire on this one! And I’m sure the bike industry and other potential sponsors will all say, “Well, if they don’t use and endorse our stuff, they’ll just go to our competitors.”
    Very sad situation, but thanks for covering it.

        • Rupert Murdoch….

          Right wing, attempts to control and create massmedia semi monopoly to influence public opinions etc in forring states.

          • News of the World – hacking into email accounts of dead girls, bankrolling Faux News in the USA….ol’ Rupert might not have held the rubber hose that beat anyone, but he’s a scumbag in my book and I wish the UCI could have prevented him from bankrolling a team – but they can’t …anymore than they could Astana, Katusha…or this Bahrain team.
            The riders who take their money shouldn’t take the blame, be they Froome or Nibali…the UCI (and the European economic crisis) has left them little choice in who signs their paychecks, which is why I responded to the nasty claims about Nibali from Sam…as if he is somehow to blame for the current mess.

          • Larry – as has often been stated Sky bankroll the team (and 21st Century Fox). Murdoch owns just over 30% of Sky. The rest is in the hands of pension funds and other institutional investors. Do you check the CV’s of every shareholder of every company involved in cycling or do you just limit your dislike to one?

          • Tovarishch – you write “….pension funds and other institutional investors.” control 70% of SKY, but I’d wager all the real decisions are made by folks with MURDOCH as their last name. So just as there are surely some nice folks in Bahrain, does 100% of the entity need to be bad for me to dislike them? I dislike Astana though I like most of the Italians on the team and I’d guess there are some nice Kazak’s in the country as well.
            Fausto – what Froome has to do with Nibali is the point, BOTH of these guys are taking salary from sponsors I dislike, but certain people here are SKY fans and limit their hatred to Astana as a result and try to paint Nibali as the guy taking money from Satan while Froome is some sort of saint.

  4. Perto dollars coming back into cycling – on the face of it, having gas dollars pay for cycling I like! Human rights abuses are a serious question and the articles are short on details.

    Even in western democracies there are serious human rights issues going on all the time. For example, just look in the US about the rising tide of police shootings of unarmed citizens and the incarceration rate by ethnicity. Yet, no one would have said that US Postal could not sponsor a team because of those stats.

    Not to give Bahrain a pass here, but, unless there are personal ties by the people on the teams ownership charter to crimes, I think it best to not go down this slope. Would banning Tinkoff be next because one of his businesses have ties to the Russian mafia? There just is no end to these types of justice and integrity processes when the evidence is not clear cut.

    Like Steve Miller said, take the money and run. Or, in this case, cycle away into the sunset.

    • You’re right that other teams can have issues. There might be torture in Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan but they don’t get excluded from sport and this August athletes from despicable regimes like North Korea will take part in the Olympics: sport just doesn’t seem to exclude countries and as you say where to draw the line. It’s the direct link with an individual in Bahrain that gives a different angle

      • Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan aren’t excactly on Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch or Transpanency International’s “most loved states” lists.

      • Sports do occasionally ban countries: Kuwait are likely to be out of the forthcoming Olympics for “excessive government interference in the country’s Olympic movement”, and FIFA occasionally suspend federations for similar reasons. I’m not entirely sure where they draw the line for excessive government interference, when some national federations are part of a totalitarian regime, or the personal plaything of a monarch, but there you go.

        I have a suspicion that a royal spending petrodollars does not count as “excessive” interference.

        • sorry, submitted too soon. Meant to finish:

          I have a suspicion that a royal spending petrodollars does not count as “excessive” interference most of the time, so Kuwait must have done something pretty special to get suspended. Perhaps they fell out with the Qataris?

        • Neither the IOC nor FIFA care a rat’s ass what governments do to the great unwashed.
          They only get their noses out of the trough when governments decide to interfere with the local trough.
          Then it’s all full-on ‘you will respect my authoritah’.

          • “Neither the IOC nor FIFA care a rat’s ass what governments do to the great unwashed.”

            You need to add Formula 1 to that group, after the shambles around having the Grand Prix in, you guessed it, Bahrain a few years back when the protests were in full swing. Bernie didn’t give a shit as he got his money. Allegedly 😉

          • The IOC has some institutional blindness to countries and there’s not much money to be made from cosying up to, say, North Korea.

            For BenW surely Formula 1 is in a different league because it actively seeks countries willing to pay for the “prestige” of a race.

            The UCI is in between, as suggested above it will struggle to do much about this Bahrain team but at the same time it’s going to sign the final agreement with Qatar this week for the worlds for a very large sum of money.

    • “Rising tide”?! The only difference is that more people have camera phones, and therefore evidence of police malpractice. You should check out ‘Making of a murderer” or “Serial” which shows you the extent to which local police forces were/are capable of fabricating events and evidence in order to fit up their preferred suspect.

      iPhones have made it possible to show contra evidence and highlight these abuses. Why do you think Knight Rider and the A-Team were full of stories about corrupt local constabulary? 😉

    • +1 (however partially so)

      Just Google “Abu Omar” (latest issue in yesterday’s news because of Sabrina de Sousa, but you could browse for “Stefano Cucchi”, “Genova Diaz”, “Bolzaneto”, or, if you prefer relatively happy end, “Mirko Leone” and so on and on).

      And, no, the “Abu Omar” guy isn’t the villain in the story.

      I smell a whole lot of underlying political campaigning, and I’m not very sure that’s just fine because the guy is *evil* (he very probably is). Are we only going to fight the convenient foes?

      I think people would better struggle in the political fights that are nearer to them, to start with because you’ve got way more information to understand what’s really at stake, who is using who, what’s the bigger picture and so on.

      All that said, I’m *very far* from being happy with (Nur)sultan Nazarbayev and I’ll be equally worried by Prince Nasser. Yet, they’re a typical by-product of capitalism, hence while we expect our beloved sport to work in that framework (and I’ve no fast alternative at hand), it’s a bit hypocritical to focus so much on *them* while (or “if”) at the same time we’re not doing as much as we could to change things in our proximity context.

      A Spanish banker like, say, the late Botín (Alonso anyone?) probably produced through his bank a way bigger amount of suffering to humanity than Prince Nasser, obviously breaking laws or recurring to malpractice without batting an eyelid. His bank has been awarded as best “UK business bank” and her daughter, now head of the company, has been appointed an honorary Dame Commander of the British Empire (DBE), by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth for services to the British financial services sector.
      I didn’t see any army of keyboard warriors wielding their indignation on Twitter.

      • “I didn’t see any army of keyboard warriors wielding their indignation on Twitter”: that’s because the keyboard warriors on Twitter can only digest less than 140 characters, so anything that requires slightly more attention is ignored. Twitter is like 1+1, whereas what you mentioned is (1+1)/1… Too complicated! 😉

      • way bigger amount of suffering to humanity than Prince Nasse

        Let’s not start down this path of comparing human misery.

        I didn’t see any army of keyboard warriors wielding their indignation on Twitter
        Does that mean it didn’t happen? What does it mean?

        Bahrain, Qatar, Kazakhstan is all part of the same problem. IOC and the federations are righteous about their own hegemony, yet happy to take despot money. Pick your federation, (FIFA, UCI, IAAF) it really doesn’t matter.

  5. Even if circumstances were more favourable, the UCI would be afraid to block the new team. Also, as Tinkoff says, there is an existing funding problem and existing teams are more likely to fold than new ones – at least WT level – appear. Even if one looks at the current mainstream teams are things much better: three supported by state sponsored gambling, one moneylender…. It would however be nice – and a miracle – to see some UCI courage on this issue.

    As for the funding problem, why hate Velon and tolerate ASO?

  6. I am quite sure they must be really amused at all of this. Any student of world history will tell you that we have committed more abuse and torture, and still do. So its alright for us to judge?.

  7. I’m always surprised that the sponsors aren’t bike manufacturers. If Formula 1 can have Mercedes, Ferrari etc who cares who the ultimate backers are. Same with football – based on towns. I’ve no idea who is bank rolling Barcelona or Leicester City or indeed care. Why can’t cycling have some sort of system that divorces (at least to an extent) the team name and identity from the sponsoring organisation?

    • F1 also has the likes of Red Bull, Force India and Haas as non-motor industry sponsors/team owners.

      Football has the advantage of income streams from ticket sales and TV rights, as well as sponsorships, so don’t hand over their name to their shirt sponsor. If cycling teams were similarly stable, then System U/Castorama/Bonjour/Brioches La Boulangère/Bouygues Télécom/Bbox Bouygues Telecom/Europcar/Direct Énergie would presumably have been called something like Vendée throughout.

  8. If the UCI can’t reject him directly, there’s nothing to stop them nitpicking every detail about the team.
    IE, The “fit and proper person” test could easily be applied to the likes of Riis if it is drawn up correctly?

  9. re: sponsors

    I’m going to speculate that Specialized will have no problem signing on as bike sponsor with Nibali riding with the team.

  10. Cycling is in a difficult place with sponsors at the moment. If the top-ranked team with the best GC rider of the generation can’t keep hold of a long-term sponsor then there’s little to be gained by the UCI from trying to force out Bahraini dollars. This is the overriding reason why the sport needs the new Bahrain team to receive a licence, and the UCI will of course know this and will support the incoming $$$. As INRNG has mentioned many times before, its unfortunate that our sport continues to rely on (i) individual sponsors who aren’t in it solely for the long-term branding benefits and can decide to turn their backs at any minute (ii) random small to medium sized businesses that benefit from TdF or Giro coverage, (apart from Sky perhaps, their pro team has been their marketing department’s most genius activity in the past 5 years when assessed on the team’s costs v. massive TV coverage) or (iii) industry players who, by definition, have no incentive to invest more to broaden their brands beyond a core cycling market. The result is 2 teams folding, and almost 80 out-of-contract riders looking for teams this transfer season. We need a more sustainable model, but that never seems to be possible?

    • The income from this extra team is not big. There are no huge fees for the UCI. It’s only if there’s a war for talent /points that wages get bid up but otherwise if the riders can find places elsewhere, eg Nibali was talking to Trek etc, then there’s not much change.

  11. When Sagan won the world title last year, he showed an interest in world affairs by speaking out about the plight of Syrian refugees. He wasn’t entirely articulate (speaking in English, not his native tongue, of course), but I think his heart was in the right place. Maybe that gives a glimmer of hope that some of the top cyclists who have other options will think twice before riding for Bahrain.

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