Cycling Team Sponsorship and Diplomacy

Heather L. Dichter
International Centre for Sports History and Culture, De Montfort University

Jiří Zákravský
Cycling Diplomacy: Undemocratic Regimes and Professional Road Cycling Teams Sponsorship
156 pages, hardcover
Oxford, Oxon: Peter Lang Publishing 2021 (Studies in Politics, Security and Society)
ISBN 978-3-631-86003-8

When thinking of sport and diplomacy, the Olympics or football (soccer) come to mind for most people. Jiří Zákravský, however, has written about diplomacy and road cycling, with a particular focus on the sponsorship of professional teams by undemocratic states. As a political scientist, Zákravský focuses on four recent case studies in his examination of this topic grounded in relevant theoretical works to frame the research. The book easy to read for scholars from other disciplines.

The book sets up the project in two chapters, followed by each case study comprising separate chapters, and then a conclusion. Zákravský does not present an argument but instead “aims to map the activity of undemocratic regimes in professional road cycling, focusing primarily on the regimes sponsoring their own teams” (17). The introduction lays out the five questions underpinning the research, which address 1) the formation of the teams, 2) state symbolism, 3) serving as a tool of sports diplomacy, 4) the rhetoric about and relationship with the state sponsor, and 5) controversies (which largely centers on results and doping). In the second chapter Zákravský explains sports diplomacy and the tools used within it – which includes team sponsorship. He also provides a brief history on the development of professional team sponsorship by organizations outside the world of cycling.

Particularly surprising was the lack of any discussion of the concept of sportswashing.

The four cases studied by Zákravský are the professional teams (which often shift in name) funded by Kazakhstan, Russia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. Each chapter follows the same structure, which aligns with the five research questions. These chapters provide extensive descriptions about each team, including quotations from team members and government officials, in support of the role that cycling sponsorship has played within sports diplomacy. The final section in each chapter (Triumphs or Controversies?) largely details the annual performance of the team and which team members were in trouble for doping. The performance results are then summarized in a table at the end of each chapter as well.

The short concluding chapter (just 4. 5 pages) returns to the five original research questions by addressing all four case studies together. However, both in the final chapter and in the four case study chapters the reader is left wanting more analysis. Zákravský has compiled an extensive amount of material about these four teams, but the case study chapters would have been strengthened with a concluding section analyzing them individually. While the structure has allowed Zákravský to remain focused on the research questions, three of the questions are formulated as yes/no questions, leaving the resulting analysis in the final chapter short and unsatisfying.

Pro cycling team Astana, sponsored by the Astana group, a coalition of companies from Kazakhstan, named after its capital. (Shutterstock/Lone Pine)

Zákravský focuses on the results of these professional cycling teams, noting that “the success of these teams also serves the foreign policy goals of these undemocratic countries by which they are supported” (113). Even though his discussion of the results is intertwined with doping offenses, he never addresses the issue of why states want to use a sport so closely associated with the negative publicity of doping within their public diplomacy efforts.

Particularly surprising was the lack of any discussion of the concept of sportswashing. Zákravský quotes one person who states that “Prince Nasser is throwing money at international cycling to use it as PR to whitewash his past in Bahrain” (90), but otherwise the words “whitewashing” or “sportswashing” are never used in the text. Considering that Zákravský specifically chose undemocratic states for the focus of this research and sees their sponsorship of professional cycling teams as part of a concerted national sports diplomacy effort, the absence of this term or the associated theoretical discussion weakens the overall analysis.

On the whole, Zákravský rightly brings attention to the widespread use of sports diplomacy in a sport other than football (soccer) or the Olympic Games. His work provides important details about four prominent professional cycling teams which other scholars studying this topic may find valuable.

Copyright © Heather L. Dichter 2023

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