Saudi Arabia’s ‘sportswashing’ further facilitated by new Australian cycling deal

Saudi Arabia’s ‘sportswashing’ further facilitated by new Australian cycling deal

Sponsorship announcements by professional sports teams rarely make for compelling reading. Team A needs money to fund the salaries of their well-paid athletes. Company B wants the prestige and visibility that comes with sponsoring a global sporting powerhouse. Representatives of each say nice things about the other in quotes ghost-written by public relations staff. A new logo is added to the team kit. While the press releases may be bland, the commercial relationships that sit behind them make the modern multi-billion dollar sporting landscape a reality.

Yet early on Thursday morning, when Australian World Tour team GreenEdge Cycling issued a statement announcing a major new sponsor, there was a line that immediately stood out. Brent Copeland, the team’s general manager, was quoted as praising “the mutual respect and alignment of values” between his outfit, currently known as Team BikeExchange, and the sponsor.

In most sponsorship announcements, such sentiment would barely raise an eyebrow – the hyperbole may be forced, but that is the price of deal. Yet on Thursday, Copeland’s comments were conspicuous. His team’s new sponsor is an arm of the Saudi Arabian government, the Royal Commission for AlUla, an ancient city in the country’s north-west and home to a world heritage site.

The commission was established in 2017 by royal decree and is chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS), the head of Saudi Arabia’s authoritarian government. The regime is known for executing dissidents, including journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was assassinated three years ago at the Saudi consulate in Turkey. American intelligence agencies have concluded that MBS approved the murder; Khashoggi was reportedly dismembered with a bone saw.

At home, the Saudi monarchy restricts “almost all political rights and civil liberties”, according to watchdog Freedom House. The Crown Prince “relies on extensive surveillance, the criminalisation of dissent, appeals to sectarianism and ethnicity, and public spending supported by oil revenues to maintain power”. Women face oppressive inequality and were only permitted to drive in 2018. The Saudis are fighting a proxy war in Yemen, which has left thousands of civilians dead and precipitated a humanitarian crisis.

In its latest rankings, Freedom House gave Saudi Arabia an overall score of 7/100 for political rights. That made it the second lowest-ranked country in the Middle East, behind only war-torn Syria, and one of the worst in the world. The Saudis are barely ahead of North Korea (3/100).

It is against this backdrop that Australia’s sole World Tour team, which will celebrate its 10-year anniversary in January, has agreed to take Saudi money. So much for an alignment of values.

Top-tier professional cycling is an expensive sport, with large rider salaries and – thanks to the global racing calendar – enormous travel bills. Without lucrative TV money (which is pocketed by race organisers), teams are left to scrap for sponsorship dollars. In 2018, BikeExchange’s then-general manager Shayne Bannan told Guardian Australia that the average World Tour team budget is about $28m per year. For BikeExchange, he said, 90% came from sponsors.

BikeExchange has long been searching for new sponsors. Since its inception, the team has been owned and backed by wealthy Australian businessman Gerry Ryan. For the team’s first five years, explosives giant Orica was a title sponsor (hence “Orica-GreenEdge”). But since Orica’s departure, Ryan has been largely self-funding – via his winery, Mitchelton, and now an online marketplace, BikeExchange, of which Ryan is a major shareholder.

In the search for sponsorship dollars, the team first tried China, even setting up a Chinese-registered development team. But no cash was forthcoming. Last year, Ryan’s staff thought they had secured a Spanish sponsor – before the deal fell through in bizarre circumstances. Throughout, the Melbourne businessman has ploughed more money into the team.

Ryan’s total investment in GreenEdge is hard to calculate, but across the past decade it has probably exceeded $50m-60m. He is easily Australian cycling’s most generous benefactor; since first giving Olympic hopeful Kathy Watt $10,000 to train at altitude ahead of the 1992 Olympics (she won gold), Ryan has poured his personal fortune into the sport. He has arguably done more for cycling in this country than anyone else.

All of which makes it hard to begrudge Ryan’s attempts to offset his expenditure on BikeExchange. But in a sport where sportswashing is increasingly common – other World Tour teams include Astana–Premier Tech (bankrolled by Kazakhstan – 23/100 on Freedom House’s index), UAE Team Emirates (17/100) and Team Bahrain Victorious (11/100) – BikeExchange’s deal with the Saudis takes the cake.

While this is not a phenomenon unique to cycling, the sport’s decentralised governance provides few checks and balances. A Saudi-linked takeover over Newcastle United, in the English Premier League, has so far been stymied. While privately-owned, BikeExchange is the de facto Australian national team on road cycling’s grandest stage. If Collingwood or the Sydney Roosters were to be sponsored by the Saudis, there would – one hopes – be uproar. Since this announcement on Thursday, there has barely been a peep.

“This is really concerning,” says Sophie McNeill, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. “We know that the Saudis like to jump on prestigious international brands to whitewash their image, but this is the last kind of government you want to be associated with. This is a government that is accused of torture, that is accused of war crimes. To be associated with MBS in this way – for fans of cycling, it’s just disappointing.”