Cycling Diplomacy

Undemocratic Regimes and Professional Road Cycling Teams Sponsorship

by Jiří Zákravský (Author)
©2021 Monographs 158 Pages


Due to the financial situation in the professional road peloton, many cycling teams struggle to find their sponsors. This situation is an opportunity for undemocratic politicians to promote their countries via cycling. Thus, some of them decided to create and support their own cycling teams. Generally, four WorldTour teams supported by undemocratic regimes and their governments have existed in professional cycling history. This book focuses on all of them; it reflects the existence of the Kazakh Astana Pro Team, the Russian Team Katusha (supported by the Russian government until the end of the 2015 season), the Bahrain Victorious (formerly called Bahrain Merida and Bahrain McLaren) or the UAE Team Emirates and the way they are/were used as sports diplomacy instruments.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Tables
  • Preface & Acknowledgements
  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 Cycling Sponsorship as a Part of Foreign Policy
  • 2.1 From Soft Power to Sports Diplomacy
  • 2.2 Sports Diplomacy Tools
  • 2.3 Professional Road Cycling and Sponsorship: A Historical Overview
  • 3 Astana Pro Team
  • 3.1 Foundation of the Team
  • 3.2 Symbolism
  • 3.3 Part of Sports Diplomacy?
  • 3.4 Relationship to the Sponsoring State’s Society
  • 3.5 Triumphs or Controversies?
  • 4 Team Katusha
  • 4.1 Foundation of the Team
  • 4.2 Symbolism
  • 4.3 Part of Sports Diplomacy?
  • 4.4 Relationship to the Sponsoring State’s Society
  • 4.5 Triumphs or Controversies?
  • 5 Bahrain Merida / Bahrain McLaren
  • 5.1 Foundation of the Team
  • 5.2 Symbolism
  • 5.3 Part of Sports Diplomacy?
  • 5.4 Relationship to the Sponsoring State’s Society
  • 5.5 Triumphs or Controversies?
  • 6 UAE Team Emirates
  • 6.1 Foundation of the Team
  • 6.2 Symbolism
  • 6.3 Part of Sports Diplomacy?
  • 6.4 Relationship to the Sponsoring State’s Society
  • 6.5 Triumphs or Controversies?
  • 7 Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index of Names
  • Series index

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Preface & Acknowledgements

On May 26, 2021, the Irish cyclist Dan Martin, competing in the colours of the first Israeli WorldTour team Start-Up Nation, won Stage 17 of the Giro d’Italia. In response to his triumph, Simon Chadwick (2021), an academic focusing on the geopolitical economy of sport, published the following tweet: “Soft power sponsorship? Nation branding? Cycling diplomacy? Marketing communication? Sport washing? Something else?.” The phrase cycling diplomacy, in the sense of using a professional cycling team as a tool to strengthen the image of a home country or region whose political leaders financially support the team, does not appear frequently. Yoav Dubinsky (2020) also spoke in the same spirit about Israel’s cycling diplomacy several months earlier.

I started thinking about “cycling diplomacy” in this context during 2016, when the first data were already being collected (please, don’t tell my then-supervisor, as I was supposed to work on my dissertation at that time). As the political leaders of Bahrain and the UAE entered the world of professional cycling in 2017, my interest in the research topic deepened. With the existence of the Kazakh Astana Pro Team and the now-dissolved Russian Team Katusha, this initially marginal topic has become more significant. The fact that the elites of undemocratic states (Kazakhstan, Russia, Bahrain, and the UAE) decided to fund their own WorldTour cycling teams meant that it could be an effective tool of sports diplomacy. Although it is a relatively narrow segment of activities associated with strengthening the image (and, therefore, soft power) of the countries, it still should earn the attention of scholars. As unusual as the existence of the Astana Pro Team was, with the arrival of the Middle Eastern cycling teams in 2017, a specific trend started to emerge. Therefore, the book Cycling Diplomacy. Undemocratic Regimes and Professional Road Cycling Teams Sponsorship that you are now reading (for which I am grateful) aims to map the activities of four undemocratic countries in the professional peloton concerning the sponsorship of their own cycling teams. The book does not aspire to give you answers to all questions related to this highly complex subject. It is merely a descriptive study providing, to a certain extent, introductory knowledge, although, ideally, raising more other questions, which should be, after all, one of its objectives.

At this point, I would like to give my thanks for the support in writing this publication, which I received from the Department of Politics and International Relations, Faculty of Arts of the University of West Bohemia. I would like to thank the Head of Department, Petr Jurek, and the Department’s Secretary, Pavel ←11 | 12→Hulec, for answering countless questions about the publication practically daily (and they probably didn’t even want to kick me out of their office). Likewise, I would like to thank all my colleagues for their feedback, especially Vladimír Naxera and Petr Krčál. Thanks, of course, also to my students, with whom I discussed sports diplomacy focused on cycling both in regular courses and in special lectures at the workshops or the summer school. And, of course, thanks to all my anonymous respondents who gave me their time.

I would also like to thank my parents, my closest friends, and my brother, with whom I have spent many hours in recent years debating cycling, not only in relation to this book. However, the main thanks go to my wife, Pavla, not just for her unwavering support and indulgence when I spent more time in front of the computer than I should have. But I also thank her for being – among other things – the first reader, constructive critic and editor of the initial version of this text.

Last but not least, my thanks also go to you, my dear reader, for choosing to read this book. I hope that you will not see the time you spend with it as wasted and that you will like it. I tried to do my best. Now, let’s read, or – another great possibility – let’s bike!

In Pilsen, on June 1, 2021, Jiří Zákravský

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1 Introduction

According to Jonathan Grix (2016: 18), sport can be seen as “a panacea for all ills.” It implies that sport is a way to reduce potential social, religious and ethnic conflict within society, strengthen a sense of national identity, or improve a nation’s image abroad. A belief that sport is such a powerful tool is shared by politicians who are willing to use it for various political goals at the local, national or global level. There is no difference in the type of the political regime either; both democratic and undemocratic regimes use sport in some ways (Murray 2018: 61), but “authoritarian regimes of all stripes – fascist, communist, military, etc. – have on the whole been considerably less reticent about embracing sport as a tool of international diplomacy” (Black, Peacock 2013: 708).

There are several ways how sport is used for the political goals of political regimes. It is often impossible to distinguish if the activity is primarily used for internal (e.g., to strengthen the sense of national identity) or external (e.g., to improve a nation’s image abroad) political aims, although these aims are often closely connected. For instance, athletes Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi, the most famous and most successful Italian cyclists in the 1930s and 1940s, helped the Italian society to reinforce national identity and improve the image of Italy abroad in the post-war period due to their sporting performances in the Tour de France (Cardoza 2010: 372). At that time, the Italian society was extremely divided, the political situation was critical, and Italy was perceived mainly as an ally of the Nazi Germany. However, the two professional cyclists made Italians and international society forget about it.

Considering this, it is impossible to describe sport as a specific area of life that has nothing to do with politics. The reverse is true, however, politicians very often do not want to acknowledge that they use sport for their political goals. As was mentioned above, sport could be an essential part of diplomacy. In other words, “[i]‌n a globalized world, sport is a vital part of almost every country’s soft power. It can increase national pride, spread national influence, and serve as a useful tool of public diplomacy, encouraging communication and international understanding” (Shearer 2014: 56). In the twenty-first century, the use of sport as a part of soft power or public diplomacy is often described as so-called sports diplomacy. Although the term is relatively new, the activities recognised as part of sports diplomacy are not something that was “discovered” in this century. For instance, nations often hosted major sporting events in the past in order to ←13 | 14→present their culture and ability globally; however, nobody spoke about sports diplomacy.

One of the increasingly used tools of sports diplomacy of recent years has been the sponsorship of famous foreign teams. In the past, political leaders of undemocratic regimes often supported local sports teams, which were to play a leading role in national competitions as well as to show their strength and the undemocratic regime’s qualities in international competitions. Typical examples are football clubs favoured by undemocratic regimes, such as the army club FK Dukla Prague competing in Communist Czechoslovakia or the Spanish Real Madrid CF during the existence of Francoist Spain. In particular, the latter is often mentioned in this context; for instance, Christos Kassimeris (2012: 559–560) points out that Real Madrid “[…] became Franco’s most prominent ambassador abroad and in Spain. The dictator’s friendly relations with the president of the club, Santiago Bernabeu, propelled the club to great successes, especially in European competitions.”


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (September)
cycling diplomacy sports diplomacy sports sponsorship soft power cycling undemocratic regimes
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 158 pp., 6 tables.

Biographical notes

Jiří Zákravský (Author)

Jiří Zákravský works as an assistant professor at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of West Bohemia in Pilsen, Czech Republic. His central area of research includes sports diplomacy and the use of sport as a political tool in general.


Title: Cycling Diplomacy
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160 pages