The Tour de France is a festival of ‘sportwashing’ – and cycling is as guilty as the sponsors

The glitz of professional sport can be a useful distraction for those wanting to massage their reputations

Simon Chadwick
Saturday 06 July 2019 12:52 BST
Tour de France 2019 in numbers

The title sponsor of German professional cycling team, Bora, is Hansgrohe SE – one of the world’s largest suppliers of shower heads and hand showers. As the Tour de France begins today in Brussels, one can see the logic of such a deal: hot, sweaty, dusty days followed by a refreshing post-stage soak in the shower.

That should appeal not only to the competing riders, but also to the millions of fans watching the race either from the side of a French road, or on a mobile device or television somewhere in the world. It’s the kind of alignment between team and sponsor that represents a new face of professional cycling, in which business is helping to consign the sport’s greatly tarnished reputation to the past.

It has been some considerable time since Lance Armstrong’s catalogue of misdemeanours began spilling out in dramatic fashion. Even longer still since Marco Pantani staged his sit-down protest on Stage 12 of the 1998 Tour following police raids, as the race organisers hunted down doping products and their associated paraphernalia.

Casting a glance across the 2019 teams, a new and refreshing air of respectability seems to have transcended the carnage of times past. Among this year’s starters, there’s a team sponsored by a Polish shoe store, one by a Dutch supermarket, another by a Spanish mobile phone company. There’s even an international education provider involved with one of the teams. Respectability personified.

Yet in amongst the corporate glitz and commercial bravado of contemporary professional cycling, another story is brewing, and it may reach boiling point during this year’s Tour.

Late last year, Sky announced that it would be withdrawing from its sponsorship of Britain’s most successful ever professional cycling team (Tour Racing Limited). By March, it had been announced that Ineos, a privately owned UK multinational chemicals company, would be replacing Sky. By May, environmental protestors were attending the Tour de Yorkshire to berate the team’s officials and its riders.

Ineos has a controversial environmental profile; the company’s critics accuse it of being responsible for all manner of activities, ranging from the creation of plastic nurdles that pollute the seas to fracking-induced earthquakes that have hit certain parts of Britain. Ineos has said it is investing in equipment and training as part of a “Zero Pellet Loss” strategy, and has argued that UK quake limits are “absurd”. Nevertheless, some commentators have accused it of “sportwashing”, a term used for a company or country perceived to be trying to cleanse its reputation by investing in sport.

Jim Ratcliffe, Ineos’ billionaire owner, has said the sponsorship is “nothing to do with [sportwashing] at all”.

Perhaps just a useful side-effect then. Critics have still raised concern that the Tour de France deflects attention away from the more socially undesirable parts of a business. Ineos is not the only sponsor coming under fire. Fellow fossil fuel sector company Total will be sponsoring a team this year, while many argue that Bahrain-Merida and UAE Team Emirates come with baggage too, perhaps also the likes of the Astana Pro Team, sponsored by Kazakhstan.

Sportwashing is not just synonymous with environmental issues, it is also held to be a political instrument of nations intent on cleansing how the world sees them. Bahrain has long been in the spotlight for its apparent human rights infringements, which is an issue that motor racing teams competing in the country’s F1 Grand Prix have to contend with on an annual basis. Similarly, football clubs like Manchester City are routinely subjected to scrutiny given significant concerns about its owners from Abu Dhabi.

The glitz of professional sport can be a useful distraction from the alleged suppression of free speech, the torture of political prisoners or restrictions on press freedoms. This week the countries and companies with controversial back stories will be associating themselves one of world sport’s biggest events and all the drama, glamour and European continental flair that it brings.

Maybe it’s down to the fans themselves to pause and ask themselves who is doing the sportwashing and why are they doing it.

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Fingers wag most keenly at corporate bad guys and political hardmen, but maybe all of the new teams and their glossy sponsors are complicit. Maybe it’s a communal bath.

As the likes of Ineos and Bahrain join the peloton, they in turn help professional cycling turn the power hose on its own deeply troubled past. Could it actually be the case that the biggest sportwasher of them all is cycling itself?

Human rights abuses and environmental issues can’t be forgotten, but nor should memories of the sport’s drugs history. After years of crisis, accompanied by suspicion and cynicism, cycling somehow seems to have ascended to a level of legitimacy and credibility that, even ten years ago, was unimaginable. And yet, several of those involved in perpetrating cycling’s doping culture remain active in the sport. The communal bath looks very crowded at times everyone hoping the simple purity of human against mountain, against a backdrop of stunning alpine scenery, manages to mask the lingering stench.

Simon Chadwick is Professor of Sports Enterprise at the University of Salford

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