Cycling in Eritrea Part 2

Charity and Capitalism

Tour de France 2015, teklehaimanot en kudus (20036329436)

Last week, I tried to dispel the romantic myths that African sport can be explained by natural talent or by the motivational effects of poverty. But romance is not dead. Even in our financially driven world, plenty of people are willing to make sacrifices to invest in talent, sometimes by utilising the support of business to do so. One such example is Doug Ryder, the principal of the MTN-Qhubeka cycling team. The Qhubeka part of the name is a charity which provides bicycles to African children. Instead of it giving money to the team, riders are expected to donate 10% of their winnings to the charity. MTN is a telecommunications giant, which gets international exposure in exchange for cash, in an orthodox way. This unusual funding model allowed Eritreans, Daniel Teklehaimanot (above left) and Merhawi Kudus (above right), to compete in this year’s Tour de France.

MTN-Qhuebka cannot take all of the credit. Before he joined them, Teklehaimanot had previously had a professional contract with the Orica-GreenEDGE team. This had been facilitated by his tenure at the World Cycling Centre in South Africa, the brainchild of the former UCI President, Pat McQuaid. It was established in 2004 to develop cyclists throughout the continent and it now works closely with MTN-Qhubeka. McQuaid was later mired in controversy but this is one vital contribution which he made to the sport.

Antwerpen - Tour de France, étape 3, 6 juillet 2015, départ (099)

But even with training provided by the World Cycling Centre, making a breakthrough into a professional team was difficult because of the visa problems faced by Eritrean athletes. When the bottom line is all that really matters, it makes more economic sense to sign a European rider than one whose wheels might become entangled in red tape. It is only because MTN-Qhubeka is about more than mere prize money that it is willing to endure the hours of form-filling which are likely to be required. This makes it possible for cyclists from Eritrea to make it when they could not have done so just a decade ago.

As in the Tour de France, there will be mountains to overcome. After this year’s race, MTN announced that it would no longer be sponsoring the team and a new commercial partner will have to be found. But Ryder was unconcerned, reassuring one interviewer that, “The team has many options going forward‚ huge interest as you can imagine‚ so the future of the team is incredible.” The same can surely be said for Eritrean cycling.

Next week: My review of Richard Moore’s latest book, investigating Jamaican sprinting

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