The tiny island kingdom of Bahrain is something like a smaller Qatar: extremely rich, friendly with the United States, and run by a single family. While Qatar (allegedly) purchased the World Cup—bringing with it thousands of dead slaves—Bahrain, being smaller, appears to have set its sporting ambitions a notch lower. Rather than try to buy an Olympics or a World Cup, Bahraini royalty appears to be headed towards professional cycling.
Rumors started popping up in February that Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa (the head of Bahrain’s Olympic committee and the eldest son of the King of Bahrain’s second wife) was planning on adding disgraced former cycling team owner Bjarne Riis to a freshly-announced, mysterious cycling project and try to start up a new WorldTour team for the 2017 season. This week, a report in Italian paper Corriere della Sera linked Italian superstar Vincenzo Nibali to the team, and Lampre officials confirmed to Cycling News that the Italian team was in talks with the Bahrainis regarding a takeover. It appears that Prince will get involved to some degree, bringing much-needed cash to a sport seemingly locked in an existential crisis. Professional cycling is cash-strapped and might very well embrace him. This is a mistake. Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa has been credibly accused of personally torturing pro-democracy dissidents, and he’s not the savior the sport needs.
In the aftermath of 2011's pro-democracy protests in Bahrain, several demonstrators accused Sheikh Nasser of a litany of abuses. During the protests, he went on state-sponsored TV and threatened protestors, telling them they had “nowhere to escape to.” According to the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, he was also personally involved in the torture of prisoners, including elderly people and foreign citizens.
Mohammed Hassan Jawad (64 yrs old) was blindfolded and handcuffed when Nasser Bin Hamad asked him “do you know who I am, its Nasser with you” Then the son of the king started interrogating Mr. Jawad about the Safriya protest and accusing him of organizing the protest. To force him to confess, Nasser beat Mr. Jawad with a hose on his head until he fell to the ground. Then Nasser started kicking him mostly on his back, while swearing at shia clerics and imams.
In another case, three of the activists arrested and sentenced for attempting to overthrow the regime also reported that they had been beaten by members of the royal family. The first, Abdulla Isa Al-Mahroos, said he was beaten by Nasser Bin hamad Alkhalifa, and that Nassar forced him to open his mouth then spat in his mouth
The second is Swedish citizen Mohammed Habib Al-Muqdad, who was detained in an underground prison in the National Security Apparatus in the Fort. Al-Muqdad recalls that while being tortured suddenly everybody was silent. He heard his torturers say “your majesty” someone asked him “do you know who I am?” When Al-Muqdad said no, his blindfold was removed and the man in front of him said “I’m Prince Nasser Bin Hamad Al-Khalifa. When you protested outside our castle in Safriya, only a wall separated us”. Then Nasser asked Al-Muqdad what chants he had said that day at the protest. When Almuqdad said “Down Down Hamad” Nasser slapped Al-Muqdad who fell to the ground, then with the help of torturers beat him severely.
The BCHR has more, and their report paints a picture of a man who seemed to enjoy violently squashing dissent. This isn’t out of character for a nation who imprisoned journalists, had one of the leaders of the movement executed by Saudi Arabia (another U.S. ally), and straight up killed protestors while they were sleeping. Sheikh Nasser was briefly prosecuted by a British court and had his diplomatic immunity stripped, but it doesn’t appear that he’ll face any penalties or be confined to the island (he was riding horses in France a week ago).
Given cycling’s tumultuous financial situation, he probably looks like a necessary evil.
At the end of the cycling season, at least two WorldTour teams will fold. IAM Cycling benefactor Michel Thétaz announced Monday that he was shuttering the team after four years of racing, two of which came at WorldTour level. Thétaz runs IAM Funds, a Swiss investment firm, so his sole sponsorship of the team represented a break from cycling’s traditional financial model, where consumer products use riders as billboards from which to sell goods and services. IAM surely had clients and attention to gain if one of their riders won a Tour de France stage or something, but the team was a vanity project as much as a pure business venture. Thétaz said he was leaving the sport because IAM couldn’t find a co-sponsor, which sounds like he got sick of losing money on a bad team for four years just so he could own and operate a cycling team.
Oleg Tinkoff is a richer, crazier version of Thétaz, and he too is shuttering his long-running Tinkoff team after this season. His team has been amongst the most successful squads in the sport, with mega-stars Peter Sagan and Alberto Contador consistently winning classics and Grand Tours. Tinkoff is worth almost a billion, and he cited both financial and personal reasons for why he was shutting his team down:
“I’ve decided to sell the team and quit the sport because I’ve realized nobody wants to work with me to help change the business model of the sport. In the last two or three years I’ve tried to fight with ASO and the UCI, I’ve tried to find new revenue streams via TV rights, merchandise sales and tickets sales but nobody really supported me and wanted to take a strong stand with me.
“During 2015, I started to feel like Don Quixote de la Mancha. It’s perhaps a philosophical feeling because Don Quixote tilts at windmills but that’s how I feel. I’d tried to save the managers, riders and staff from themselves by trying to get everyone together, to change the revenue sources and improve things for everyone. It would make the sport more sustainable.
If there’s a link between Tinkoff and Thétaz’s frustrations, it’s an exhaustion at the meager financial and personal returns on large investments in quasi-luxury projects. To be clear, there is ample turnover among more traditionally-run teams, but teams who are run and managed outside the traditional business apparatus of the sport seem to be more finicky and prone to sudden swings. Fernando Alonso never could get his project off the ground, and it looks as if cycling will not be able to sustain itself by getting billionaires to lose money every year propping up a sport out of the goodness of their hearts. After all, Tinkoff’s team has the biggest, most visible star since lance Armstrong, and he’s still not getting what he wants.
Whether or he takes over Lampre, Tinkoff, IAM, or just spins a new team out of thin air, Sheikh Nasser’s new team will also be a personally-financed luxury project, somewhat akin to a much-less visible version of Qatar sponsoring Barcelona for propaganda reasons. If 28 more riders get stable jobs and a new part of the world gets into the sport, that’s good! But the Prince is a credibly-accused torturer, and he’s not going to save cycling.
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