More Than Meets The Eye: Bahrain’s Background

Bahrain have officially launched their own cycling team this month, with the successful signing of Merida (who currently co-sponsor Lampre-Merida) as a sponsor. However there’s more to the cycling team than just promoting “the Kingdom as a premier business and tourism destination” as stated on their website.

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The newly formed Bahrain Merida Pro Cycling Team was launched by Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa. On the surface, he appears and powerful figure for sport. He led the Bahrain National Endurance team in at Portugal’s 2007 European Open. [1] He came 8th in the individual race while the team won silver. As Chair of the Olympic Committee for Bahrain, he represented them for the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony. Yet there were calls to block his entry from the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights and the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights, who sent a dossier packed full of witness statements surrounding torture allegations. [2]

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“The King of Bahrain declared a state of emergency and a first wave of repressive actions by government’s forces took place. At this time, two oppositional leaders of Bahrain, when detained in the Manama Fort prison clinic Al-Qala’a (seat of the Ministry of Interior), alleged being flogged, beaten and kicked by the son of the King, Nasser bin Hamad. Both opposition leaders were sentenced to longtime imprisonment”

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In 2011, Bahraini footballers tried to absolve Sheikh Salman (to whom Nasser was a superior) – a potential FIFA presidential candidate. Salman had previously acknowledged government plans for a committee that would expose athletes opposed to the government then single them out for punishment. Nasser was head of this committee. On Bahrain TV, he rang in [3] to state:

“Anyone who called for the fall of the regime, may a wall fall on his head. Whether he is an athlete, socialite or politician — whatever he is — he will be held accountable . . . Bahrain is an island and there is nowhere to escape.”

It was also in 2011 after these anti-government protests and the cancellation of the F1 Grand Prix in Bahrain that he became subject to torture allegations. 3 individuals had reported to human rights groups they had been beaten by Nasser. One, known as ‘FF’, has been granted refugee status and lives in Britain. With Nasser being such a frequent visitor to Britain and the royal family, FF has numerous lawyers writing to the CPS asking for his arrest. [4]

(It’s worthy to reiterate that these are all allegations and this blog post is a compilation of said allegations to assess his involvement in cycling.)

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However, cycling is not bereft of these types of powerfully rich characters with calls about their involvement in sport. Another man in cycling Oleg Tinkov. Recently in his blog, [5] he stated:

“This year, Sky (with its super budget) has been splashing out on new, talented riders and this means that they have a very strong team overall. This will give them some edge. But we will kick their ass anyway.”

It’s worth noting Contador went on to abandon the Tour de France, Chris Froome took the Maillot Jaune and Tinkov has stated his wish to return to the sport when Froome is no longer winning.

He has a history of being controversial. On Twitter, July 2015 he called Obama a ‘monkey’.

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He’s also seen to be sexist on Twitter, tweeting Chris Froome was riding “like a girl”, and meaning it derogatorily. What he didn’t know for the reason behind Froome’s tentative riding was down to the fact he had a broken bone in his foot, yet carried on to finish the stage.

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Yet unfortunately, cycling needs money. It’s a fact. You can either perform well in a top team, earning yourself quite a decent living or you can try and participate in the sport you love while struggling to get by. While the Tinkoff team are shutting down at the end of the season, Bahrain Merida are only just beginning. Some you win, some you lose and at the end of the day – we viewers can’t really do anything about someone’s involvement in our sport. We can only watch.

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