History is littered with examples of government “marketing campaigns” designed to rally a national population behind a cause deemed to be for the “greater good” of that nation in achieving some sort of goal. Be it acquiring more geography, be it annexing someone else’s resources, be it “word domination,” or be it as a response to someone else’s “attack” on the party in question.
This year’s Tour de France has had an even more intriguing plot line, one which has been caused by two trade teams’ attempts to whip up nationalistic fervour ahead of the London Olympic games. Those two teams in question? Team Sky and Team Orica-GreenEDGE.
Team Sky, which is a commercial venture based out of the National Cycling Centre in Manchester, created by BSkyB in conjunction with GB Cycling, has based their entire public relations campaign around the fact that the team heroes are of British origin. The whole premise of the team creation was to generate a British winner of the Tour de France within five years of the team’s inception.
Team Sky has a unique structure in the world of professional cycling, as one of its founding partners is actually a national federation. The team isn’t “supported” by a national federation, as some other WorldTour teams are, but it was specifically designed by GB Cycling as a public relations juggernaut ahead of the 2012 London Olympics. You can hardly blame GB Cycling for making the move after their success in 2008 at the Olympics in cycling. Road cycling is the crown jewel in the sport, why not repeat the success in the track programme on the road?
With the success of Great Britain in the Team Sky model, it was no small wonder that their fellow commonwealth country and rival in the sprinting realm of cycling decided to follow in their footsteps with the creation of Orica-GreenEDGE, whose nucleus is, of course, Aussie at its core.
We’ve now seen some of the results of this nationalistic battle on the road between Aussie supporters and the Aussies who ride on behalf of a potential British champion, at the expense of the defending Aussie champion, Cadel Evans, who ironically rides for an American-based team whose main sponsor is Swiss. The Team Sky brass complained loudly as did the targets of some of the insults – Richie Porte and Mick Rogers – that this is a trade team and they are just contracted to do their job.
However, the challenge is that this really isn’t a trade team. Team Sky are a nationalised team with a major commercial sponsor who also happens to be the same nationality as the federation. While I do NOT condone the actions of the Aussie fans, nor their reaction to Porte and Rogers, can you blame the Aussie fans for their frustration? When your founding partner is in fact GB cycling, doesn’t this cross the boundary into a dangerous type of nationalism?
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Since the creation of Team Sky, they have been beating the nationalistic drum in a sport that has had some nationalistic roots, and trade teams that have had some nationalistic allegiances based upon the origin of their sponsors, but by and large, most of the teams racing now are a potpourri of nationalities. Americans populate Italian-sponsored teams. Spaniards populate Dutch-sponsored teams.
The carefully-crafted public relations plan by Team Sky has begun to unravel due to the vast amount of pressure created by the overriding mission statement of the team: “A British winner of the Tour de France in five years.” It is the only team with such a mission statement of nationalistic intent. Even the Bannan-managed sprint train doesn’t profess to have such a mission statement, nor does the Basque-based Euskaltel team ever profess such a sentiment. We’ve watched Brad Wiggins buckle under the pressure of this unfair millstone when he lashed out at the press last week.
Now we’re seeing other nationalities begin to protest their nation’s riders riding to benefit the British. Did Team Sky really think their marketing and PR plan wouldn’t have repercussions? As with Dr. Frankenstein from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: the Modern Prometheus, the Team Sky brass are starting to realise the potential collateral damage of singlemindedness in pursuit of the ever-elusive goal of a Tour de France champion. However, are their hamfisted attempts to downplay the Britishness of their team too little too late? Is their arrogance of a “manifest destiny” approach to the Tour de France crown (and decrying anyone questioning of their methods to achieve that very specific goal), backfiring by causing greater damage for the long-term development of British cycling?
It seems to me, as an observer of Team Sky and their activities from outside the protective media cocoon, that the carefully-crafted planning by the BSkyB brass in conjunction with GB Cycling may just achieve their goal of a British Tour de France winner, to the euphoria of a very small segment of the British population base. It also will attract the attention of the greater British public for a short attention span, as history has demonstrated in the United States and Australia. You see, a British winner isn’t going to create this amazing “cycling renaissance” where the entire public buys a Pinarello and has a Brad Wiggins poster on every street corner. Lance Armstrong won seven Tours, and people in the U.S. still cannot ride their bikes safely.
However, their efforts may in fact alienate the vast numbers of cycling fans outside the British Isles due to their constant flag waving. History has seen this flag waving in general society. Each time, it has had a greater downside than upside. Witness the current “War on Terror.” Witness the current Israeli insulation. Witness Germany and Japan in the 30s. Witness Chile in the 70s. Witness Argentina in the 80s. History has shown us that the damage caused by geographical-based public relations usually ends up damaging more than its benefit.
However, the personal upside for certain individuals in this PR grab is endless. Brailsford. Wiggins. James Murdoch. Three names that will forever have monetary benefit with the success of the British plan, and reaping the rewards of whipping their nation into a public relations campaign entitled “Believe in Britain.”
I myself hold three passports. I prefer to remain, as Günter Grass professed a few decades ago, a rootless cosmopolitan who enjoys a dialogue with individuals no matter their national orientation. I’d rather “Believe in Cycling” than “Believe in Britain.” After all, isn’t it about the love of the sport, not what is “at stake?” Maybe stocking shelves at Tesco, and riding my bike with my mates is better than dealing with the weight of the British nation for a blatantly empty cash grab of epic proportions, under the guise of nationalistic fervour.