Were I asked, here at the start of 2019, to pick a bike rider to sprint for my life, I wouldn’t hesitate: Fernando Gaviria. Young, dynamic, and Colombian. Winner of four Tour de France stages in 2017. Not unbeatable, but the man most likely on a level playing field.
I would, however, have additional follow-up questions.
Like, who is trying to kill me, and why? Is pro cycling really an appropriate instrument with which to administer capital punishment? Will the race be televised?
Suitable answers (hopefully) provided I would then go back to musing on the qualities of Gaviria.
I think he’s the fastest sprinter in the pro peloton. He could go on to win a frankly implausible number of career Grand Tour stage wins. The only problem is, I don’t like him. Once he’d saved my life I would go back to ignoring his calls and blocking him on social media.
It’s not his personality – which remains a closely guarded Spanish speaking mystery to me – but what he represents. And what he represents, courtesy of the chaps who pay his wages at UAE Team Emirates, is a bit murky, to say the least.
The United Arab Emirates, you see, is a federation of absolute monarchies. They’re not big on democracy. They definitely enjoy religion. So much, in fact, that if you live there and denounce it they’ll punish you with death. They’ll do the same if you’re gay.
Though, in the interests of balance, they might go easy on you – they’re not complete monsters – and just settle for a public stoning.
What’s this got to do with Fernando Gaviria, you might ask?
What it’s got to do with him is that every time he wins a bike race, jersey neatly zipped and emblazoned with ‘UAE’, he is splashed all over the media.
And the message those glossy high-definition images communicate is: hey guys…yeah!…UAE…it’s really a very normal place…as normal as the flooring made by Quick Step or the showers made by Hansgrohe…Fernando Gaviria thinks so, and you love him, right?
It’s called sportwashing.
It’s the use of sport to subtly ‘rebrand’ a county’s image. You might familiar with it from such exciting events as the Bahrain Grand Prix, the football World Cup in Russia, and every football match ever played by Manchester City in the service of Abu Dhabi and its reputation.
Maybe you disagree?
Perhaps you think that sport is sport and politics is politics. That the two are mutually exclusive. You’re perfectly entitled to that opinion, but it’s the opinion that King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain, Vladimir Putin, and the chaps from Abu Dhabi will be very happy to hear you holding.
On balance, I tend to morally pit myself against those guys until I’m convinced otherwise.
I am hoping that Gaviria will see sense at some point and press himself into service selling flooring, or hire cars, or African charity bikes. Same applies to the frantically combative Dan Martin – a lovely chap, also a UAE rider – whose loss to the cult of sportwashing I regularly mourn.
Come back Dan…head for the light Fernando…I want to like you again.
(Gaviria Image: El País. [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)