From Kipchoge to Chelsea via the Tour de France, Ineos and Sir Jim Ratcliffe are just getting started in sport

Across football, cycling, sailing and athletics, the controversial petrochemicals company is becoming more and more prevalent in our sporting landscape, driven by its obsessive owner who will stop at nothing to succeed

Lawrence Ostlere
Tuesday 15 October 2019 13:00
Eliud Kipchoge becomes first athlete to run marathon under two hours

One of the first moves made by Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s petrochemicals company Ineos, when it bought the historic Swiss football club FC Lausanne-Sport in 2017, was to order a rebrand of the club’s crest. The new image would feature some subtle changes, with the ‘O’ in Sport redrawn to replicate the distinctive ‘O’ in Ineos and a new orange trim pulled from Ineos’s branding.

Naturally Lausanne’s supporters weren’t enamoured with the idea, and their protests eventually forced the redesign to be scrapped. Yet the fact that the plan ever came to fruition seemed at odds with Ratcliffe, Britain’s richest man, and his executive put in charge, David Thomas, both of whom professed to be lifelong football fans. They may like or even love sport, but sprucing up the crest of a century-old football club with corporate imagery did not suggest much understanding of the game.

Ineos ran into a number of difficulties at Lausanne, who were soon relegated, and it would have been enough to put most people off. Instead Ratcliffe got a taste for it, and if anything his forays into the world of sport have become even more audacious. His company has pledged £110m to Ben Ainslie’s attempt to bring the America’s Cup back to Britain for the first time since its inception in 1851, bought cycling’s Team Sky and won the Tour de France in July, and this summer bought the football club down the coast from his Monaco home, Nice.

The grandest of all Ineos’s ambitious plans so far came to fruition this weekend, funding the enormous 1.59 challenge which saw Eliud Kipchoge become the first person ever to complete a marathon in less than two hours. As the world watched, the Kenyan crossed the line in a superhuman 1.59.41 with Ineos’s name on his chest and that distinctive ‘O’ in full view, followed by a pack of Ineos-branded pacesetters.

Ratcliffe is a reclusive figure but perhaps we got a sense of his character here. He has ridden long-distance bike races in his 60s, completed expeditions to both the North and South Poles and pushed himself so hard at the New York marathon he needed a drip at the finish: this is someone driven to the point of obsessive when it comes to achieving goals, and it explains why he would not accept failure at the 1.59 challenge. This wasn’t an attempt, it was a statement of fact: a marathon can be run in less than two hours and Ratcliffe was going to prove it, even if his legs weren’t covering the ground. He found the fastest runner on the planet, the springiest shoes on the market (or off it, in this case), on the flattest ground on the mildest morning with a raft of world-class pace-setters and a green laser beam lighting the path, and he succeeded.

This, it seems, has been the point so far. Grand gestures, big shows of sporting exhibitionism from cycling’s pinnacle to one of athletics’ final frontiers, all played out under the Ineos flag. As impressive as it was, this was more science experiment than running race, with Kipchoge bouncing his way to a time several minutes quicker than his personal best before Nike started putting carbon-fibre plates and airbags in trainers. But then an element of theatre seems to be the one constant in Ratcliffe’s sporting projects.

His move to buy Team Sky drew accusations of greenwashing as he plastered his petrochemicals company’s brand over a cycling team – “I don’t really understand what greenwashing is,” Ratcliffe said – and yet he brazenly launched the new Team Ineos in Yorkshire, where the fracking industry he strongly supports is such a divisive topic for local communities. It drew protesters to the start line but that is par for the course: Ratcliffe has endured confrontation with just about everyone from environmentalists to the government, and even his neighbours.

One of Ratcliffe’s more petty fallouts was with the British Olympic Association (BOA) over the name of his America’s Cup team, which he wanted to call Team GB, a name owned by the BOA. He said he would be promoting Team GB’s name in a “patriotic light”, but after he was refused to use it he wrote to the BOA inviting them to “take a long walk off a short plank”, declaring he had changed the name to “Team UK, which I much prefer”.

Perhaps we should be grateful that Britain’s richest man is spending his fortune in the world of sport. That is certainly one image of Ratcliffe, the benevolent billionaire, founder of the Go Run for Fun charity and all-round sports enthusiast doing what many of us might if we had his bank balance. As Ratcliffe put it: “We make six or seven billion dollars a year in profit, so what’s wrong with investing a bit of that in sport?” But there is also the sense that he is not just here to take part, and expects to leave the Ineos imprint on everything he touches.

What comes next? Despite being a lifelong Manchester United supporter, Ratcliffe has a Chelsea season-ticket and has explored buying the club near his Knightsbridge headquarters, although that appears unlikely any time soon. In the meantime Ineos will fly its flag up the mountains of the Tour de France and over the oceans of the America’s Cup, and you suspect this is just the start. Success in sport can be addictive, and now Ratcliffe has got the taste we are likely to be seeing an awful lot more of Ineos and that ‘O’ in the world of sport.

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