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Commentary: Stay out of cycling, Sheikh Nasser

As cycling fans, we’ve welcomed some questionable tycoons into our sport’s ownership ranks over the years. There was Rock Racing team owner Michael Ball, of course, who packed his refrigerator with PEDs, filled his roster with former dopers, and tried to sell us hideous $300 jeans. There was Leopard – Trek owner and investment mogul Flavio Becca, who is accused of a laundry list of financial misdeeds, from embezzlement to bribery.

And who will ever forget this guy?

The latest money man hoping to join cycling is Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa of Bahrain, who has repeatedly stated his plans to launch a WorldTour team this coming year. You’ve probably read the recent news clippings about Sheikh Nasser’s attempts to court Italian star Vincenzo Nibali. According to CyclingWeekly, Sheikh Nasser’s Kingdom of Bahrain Cycling Team would have a budget of between $13.1 million to $16 million.

What you may have missed, however, is that multiple individuals and groups have accused Sheikh Nasser of human rights abuses during Bahrain’s 2011 uprising. The charge is that Sheikh Nassar participated in the torture of political opponents.

OK, I have a scorching, volcanic-hot take coming your way: I just don’t think we need this guy in our sport. I know, it’s a real shockeroo of an opinion.

Bad jeans, fraud, and racist Twitter rants are one thing. Allegations of human rights abuses are something far more serious, and they come from respected groups, including the Human Rights Watch.

Since 2013, Sheikh Nasser and his family have been accused of torturing activists during a pro-democracy uprising against the royal family in 2011. The allegations stem from a 55-page document titled “Citizens in the Grip of Torturers,” which was written by the human rights group Bahrain Forum for Human Rights.

The document launched a series of trials in Bahrain in 2013, which led to the conviction of several police officers for torturing prisoners to death. Thus far, the royal family has eluded any serious repercussions, even though the UK courts ruled in 2014 that they were not covered by diplomatic immunity.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the royal family has dismissed the allegations as political propaganda.

The allegations contain some really heinous stuff. Regular citizens have accused the prince and his family of clubbing people, piercing their limbs, forcing them to eat painfully hot chili peppers, and other forms of physical and psychological torture.

Whew, that was a lot to digest, right?

Look, I understand why our sport welcomes rich guys into its upper echelon with open arms. Cycling is a sport of haves and have-nots, where the slightest gap in performance separates a million-dollar salary from having to pay your own way. Waving stacks of cash can buy you a team of talented, hungry cyclists almost overnight.

And historically, cycling’s business model has largely been built on patronage. Nearly every team has some patron who acts as a financial backstop, or an outright sugar-daddy. The buy-in is actually quite small when compared to other mainstream sports. How big of a stake will $20 million buy you with Manchester City or the St. Louis Cardinals? A pathetically minute share, that’s how big.

But Sheikh Nasser is not the patron our sport needs. I also believe in giving people a fair shake to defend themselves. If the good Sheikh wants to prove his innocence, then I suggest he submit to a thorough investigation into 2011, carried out by a country other than Bahrain. Perhaps the UK would volunteer?

Without further clarity on Sheikh Nasser and the allegations against him, I just don’t see any way in which his inclusion in cycling can be seen as anything but the blackest of black eyes. Yes, our sport openly welcomes shady hucksters, PED freaks, racists, and people with godawful fashion sense. Human rights abuse is a bridge waaay to far, even for cycling. Sheikh Nasser’s inclusion would be a public notice to the world’s most nefarious fat cats that cycling is so desperate for cash, anybody can join the club.

Already, human rights groups are lobbying the UCI to reject Sheikh Nasser from the sport. The Bahrain Institute for Human Rights and Democracy and the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights have written the UCI asking the governing body to deny Sheikh Nasser.

Nicolas McGeehan, a researcher for the Human Rights Watch, told The Guardian  that the UCI needs to take a serious look into Prince Nasser’s background before considering “whether the benefits to Bahrain’s involvement in the sport outweigh[s] the reputational costs.”

The fact that our sport is even considering this guy has diminished its reputation. Let’s hope cycling decides to limit the loss.

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