Froome, Israel and ‘Sportswashing’: The Controversial Side To Chris Froome’s Move To Israel Start-Up Nation

It’s hard not to be set back by the news that 4-time Tour de France victor Chris Froome is upping sticks to the revitalised, and newly promoted UCI World Tour team, Israel Start-Up Nation after a career mostly spent in the Ineos, formerly Team Sky, manufacturing line. 

It emerged that Froome himself had changed his Twitter header image at a similar time to that of the initial rumours surrounding his future at the Israeli team. The Twitter account La Flamme Rouge broke the news, exposing the new and old header pictures which reveal to cover up any affiliation to controversial iconography, notably the Palestinian flag. This may sound trivial and surface level, but in my opinion, this subtle move is starting to uncover the darker side to Israel Start-Up Nation and other ‘national teams’ like it.

La Flamme Rouge posted this picture following the confirmation of Froome’s signing

Israel Start-Up Nation is not the only team to bear the name of a sovereign state in the UCI World Tour, far from it. Since 2017 we have seen the emergence of 3 new ‘satellite teams’ from nations in the Middle East.

The question of ‘sportswashing’ is always thrown about when simultaneously discussing politics and sport, especially when it covers geo-political issues and economics. This can be seen in football especially where the names of national state-owned airlines and oil refiners are plastered over the jerseys of the world’s best players. Gazprom, in particular, has been very cunning in their sponsorship endeavours, using them as a ploy to sway the support of sports fans, a large subsection of society, in an almost Orwellian manner. As a key ally of the Russian state, the issue of ‘sportwashing’ therefore arises as sport, politics and influence become entangled.

Cycling is no different. We have seen efforts from countries that operate mercantilist state-driven economies who see cycling as a way to bolster a newfound national image on the world stage, but particularly in Europe, cycling’s main market. In an attempt to cultivate a new audience, we now know Bahrain more for Vincenzo Nibali rather than their poor human rights record. We know that Israel-Start Up Nation sits firmly in this category. By keeping up appearances through sporting sponsorships, the image of the image is carved by the squad rather than the nation itself and its own political agenda which is placed in the subconscious of the audience. This is a dangerous line that is being crossed by all of these satellite teams.

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Pro-Palestinian protests became common on the roadside after the Giro’s visit to Israel in 2018

In terms of Israel, this issue is only amplified by the complexity and ideological divide caused by their own internal geo-political debates. I am, of course, referring to the question of Palestine. The squad have evolved alongside a developing global political, and humanitarian, debate centred around Israel and its actions towards Palestine (the West Bank and Gaza Strip). 

To any other team funded by private enterprises such as Sunweb or Jumbo-Visma, the riders would be free to express their opinion on such a matter or any other major humanitarian crisis (in Israel’s case: airstrikes, forced displacement and political persecution). Froome’s entry into the team, alongside the ‘clean-up’ of his Twitter page, therefore, shows us that there is more to the team than just sport. 

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Chris Froome alongside Sylvan Adams, Canadian-Israeli billionaire and owner of Israel Start-Up Nation

Although the team does not directly post anything condemning the ‘two-state solution’, the team’s financier and owner, Sylvan Adams, has a clear cut standpoint. 

In an interview with Cycling Weekly, Adams describes Israel as a ‘peaceful nation’, also stating that ‘there’s no slaughter of anybody’ in Israel. This is a naive perspective as statistics show a concerning number of deaths on both sides of the large fences separating Palestine from Israel. This is a disturbing comment from the owner of this team. By not acknowledging death at all, or the clear military force being used to control the conflict, cycling fans are left to believe that this geo-political issue is not an issue, contradicting all that is reported by media outlets across the world.

The paradigm of a two-state solution or Israeli occupation will no doubt rumble on for years to come, but it’s hard to deny that the focus on the debate has changed a lot within Europe, a region that has been allied to Israel since its creation. With widespread pressure being placed on the European Union to recognise Palestine, there is a need for the state of Israel to reinforce and de-toxify its image in Europe where many are starting to see Israel as a hegemonic regime. 

Alongside Adams’ new endeavours into F1 and the Williams team, it is becoming evident that Europe is becoming a battleground for Israel on a diplomatic front, just as it is for UAE who need to upkeep relations to keep its oil industry afloat. 

The sport we all watch with such apolitical fondness is becoming a vicious political tool to ascend a new sub-section of people, the cycling fans.

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Froome set off from Jerusalem when he claimed he 2018 Giro d’Italia title

So, this is where Froome comes into this. This seemingly coincidental Twitter header change is far more than a ‘change of social media scenery’. This is the beginning of his role as a pawn to the Israeli state in order to promote a certain political agenda to strengthen international relations within Europe. Although I doubt we will ever hear Froome discuss Nettanyahou’s administration in a pre-race interview, his affiliation to the squad will surely influence millions of cycling fans into believing that Israel is the ‘peaceful nation’ that Adams wants to convey.

Chris Froome is the UK’s headline act when it comes to cycling, possessing a large sphere of influence within the cycling industry in the UK. I’m sure that Froome is a hugely lucrative figure for any marketing team as he has the thriving British market, one that sees cycling as a more affluent sport and pastime, under his thumb. Therefore, this decision to move to this new satellite team and by removing any imagery linking him to an alternative view looks like what political theorists describe as inducement and coercion. These values do not sit well within the world of cycling.

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Israel Start-Up Nation will compete at cycling’s most competitive races following their promotion to the UCIWorld Tour

Yes, I am aware that this is essentially marketing for a country. If Israel were a private enterprise this would not be an issue. However, Israel is not a private enterprise. Nevertheless, companies who have poor humanitarian records or contentious ethical backgrounds or even a prevailing ideology would be met with discontent in the sport. States should be held to the same accountability. 

In an apolitical arena such as professional sport, especially cycling, it should be worrying that the sport is evolving into a more political forum where states are competing for political and economic kudos instead of race wins and sporting excellence free from these implications. Let’s hope for the sport’s sake that this move is the last we see from the politicisation of our sport, otherwise, we could see the roads of France turn into something much darker when July 2021 comes around.

ALL VIEWS ARE THOSE OF THE WRITER

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