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Commentary: Lessons pro cycling should learn from the Iljo Keisse affair

There are four key lessons to take away from the incident in Argentina, where Deceuninck-Quick-Step rider Iljo Keisse harassed a local woman.

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The highly upsetting saga involving Belgian rider Iljo Keisse has taken a few disappointing twists and turns in the last few days. For those who require an in-depth explainer on the affair, I recommend reading Gregor Brown’s reports of the controversy.

For the CliffsNotes, here goes. Keisse and his Deceuninck-Quick-Step teammates stopped for a coffee during a training ride in Argentina on Friday. They took a photo with a waitress at the cafe, and Keisse mimicked a sex act behind the waitress and allegedly touched her inappropriately. She filed a complaint with the cops. Keisse apologized, but Vuelta a San Juan organizers ejected him anyway on Wednesday. Deceuninck boss Patrick Lefevere hinted that the woman was after money. The team boycotted the podium ceremony. On Thursday Keisse’s father suggested that the woman was to blame.

I think we can agree that the ordeal has cast a black mark on pro cycling. I believe there are some obvious lessons buried within this mess that the sport can learn and take forward. Take my commentary with whatever grains of salt you may need, as I am an armchair ethicist, not a professional.

Please wait a moment as I step onto my soapbox. OK, below are some lessons to learn, arranged in no particular order of importance:

The Golden Rule

“Do unto others as …” It’s a no-brainer, right? Apparently not. A team spokesperson said that Keisse’s gesture was “meant to be a joke.” Public pranks like this are done for the enjoyment of many, at the expense of one. We don’t need to draw a diagram here to understand who enjoyed this and who payed the price.

Look, there will be those who brush Keisse’s prank off as small potatoes. We’ve all been pranked, right? Lord knows I have. This situation is entirely different, because of Keisse’s role as a public person, the fact it was captured on a camera, and because of the sexual and demeaning nature of his gesture. The whole point of photography in the digital age is to share, and this photo has now been sent across the globe, potentially tying the woman in question to a celebrity athlete’s stupid prank for years.

And the woman in question admitted that she was humiliated by the photo, telling Argentinian newspaper Telesol Daily, “I am very angry. They disrespected me; I was working.”

The obvious and overarching lesson here is the old Golden Rule. Would you want your global reputation forever tied to a sexually demeaning prank? Of course not. Keisse will go down in cycling history for his stage win at the Giro d’Italia and for his place on Quick-Step’s “Wolfpack.” That’s not the case for the waitress, who never asked to be tied to this offensive affair.

Respect the locals

Pop quiz: What’s the one thing we know about major pro bicycle races held in far-off corners of the globe? If your answer is that they’re often shaky financial ventures that are propped up by government funding, you are correct. Argentina already has a history here. The Tour de San Luis ran for 10 years and grew into a sizable stop on the international calendar until it ceased operations in 2016. The reason? The provincial government ran out of cash, and a recently elected provincial governor decided to chop it from the annual budget.

So, races like the Vuelta a San Juan lose money and are subject to the ever-changing winds of local politics. Local politicians are swayed by the will of the people. Why would any pro rider want to abuse the locals? From a basic socioeconomic math equation, Keisse’s actions make my logical brain want to explode. This woman’s tax dollars help fund the race that has flown him halfway across the globe to compete. In my estimation, Keisse and his teammates should have been getting her coffee and asking her for an autograph.

It’s a no brainer for pro cycling to be on its best collective behavior at these races. When racing in countries where the locals literally decide the fate of the sport, the sport should layer on that respect extra thick. Perhaps teams should arrive with chocolates, flowers, and champagne for the locals, not the other way around.

Understand the power dynamics

I have family members who are survivors of sexual assault, but I would never consider myself an expert on the topic. Perhaps pro cycling teams should pool their resources to hire someone who can better articulate how damaging this situation could be for the victim of any form of sexual misconduct, even a gross prank.

Like many Americans, I’ve spent the last 16 months closely following the revelations of sexual abuse within sports, entertainment, and media. A lesson that many Americans have learned in these cases is how the disparity in power between a perpetrator and a victim shapes the public perception of the event. And I know I’m not alone in now examining all matters of sexual misconduct for gross disparities in power. He who has power usually abuses it in these situations.

That’s where Deceunink-Quick-Step has made catastrophic missteps. The power disparity is quite obvious here. On one side is a wealthy athlete with millions of fans, a well-funded PR machine, and a global brand. On the other side is a regular person.

Yet the team continues to press its message. Keisse is obviously at fault in the situation — people can argue about the gory details, but everyone agrees he was wrong. Despite that, team manager Patrick Lefevere pushed back against his expulsion, telling the Flemish press he may remove his team entirely from the race and hinting that the victim may be after money. The team then boycotted Wednesday’s podium ceremony. In each case, the team used its deep resources and influence to push its message.

Teams and riders should understand that they have outsized power in situations involving regular people. And like all people in positions of power, they should use that power wisely.

Think globally

A final obvious lesson here is that pro cycling is a global sport, and the actions of athletes and teams will be judged far beyond their direct spheres of influence. Keisse and Deceunink-Quick-Step are worshipped in Flanders by their adoring fans and favorable media. We all know how echo chambers like this can reinforce bad behavior and blind public figures to greater pushback against their actions. I have yet to read the scathing sports column in the local press about the team’s public conduct after the Keisse incident. If such an opinionated column exists, please tweet it my way.

(UPDATE: A Flemish reader has forwarded me clips from today’s issue of Het Laatste Nieuws that appears to be critical of Deceuninck and Keisse’s actions)

Guess what: Not all of us are fans. Not all of us want to jump to Deceunink’s support.

Pro cycling’s global reach is real. And this broader audience isn’t as forgiving as some people back home.