Bahrain Endurance 13: An Unfortunate Number

BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - DECEMBER 06: Prince Nasser Bin Hamad Al Khalifa of Bahrain smiles during the Challenge Triathlon Bahrain on December 06, 2014 in Bahrain, Bahrain. (Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images for Challenge Triathlon)

Some of Ironman’s greatest athletes raise the question: what’s in a name?

Long distance triathlon had scarcely become a legitimate sport before it had its first legitimate sports scandal. The investment company J. David, which had thrown financial backing behind the most well known professional Ironman athletes (to include Dave Scott, Mark Allen and Scott Tinley) went down in flames as it was revealed to be a Ponzi scheme.

In recent years World Triathlon Corporation signed a less-than-beneficial deal with disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, then payed a $2.7 million dollar fine after US District court alleged that the Ironman World Championship lottery program was illegal. None of this should come as any surprise. Turn to any sport and one can find myriad points of friction along the fault line between its business and ethics.

The governing bodies to the best they can to mitigate these upheavals and the regulatory bodies do their best to stop them from opening catastrophic rifts. A player suspension here, a school’s eligibility yanked there, and for the most part sports stay at least clean enough to remain enjoyable.

But every once in a while there emerges a case that is at once beyond the pale and the reach of the law: A deal so bizarre that it escapes rebuke because it exceeds our conception of unethical conduct. Such appear to be the circumstances around the new ‘Bahrain Endurance 13’ triathlon team.

Photo Courtesy of Bahrain Endurance

Photo Courtesy of Bahrain Endurance

The team’s lineup is a who’s who of contemporary Ironman greats, including current World Champion Sebastian Kienle, Jodie Swallow, Javier Gomez, Daniela Ryf, James Cunnama, Joe Gambles, Luke Bell, Caroline Steffen, and Terenzo Bozzone. Given the wealth of Bahrain’s ruling family and the level of money athletes of that caliber can ask for, there is little doubt that a small fortune was passed around to bring all these names under one banner. But with their endorsement, the members of the Bahrain 13 may have given away more than they bargained for. It’s arguable their contracts were signed in blood.

There exists another Bahrain 13, though it isn’t a team of athletes. This group consists of  some of the country’s leading dissidents arrested for protesting the questionable and at times brutal measures of the monarchy. These men were arrested in 2011 amid a revolt that began that year. They, along with seven other opposition leaders who were tried in absentia by military court, were sentenced to terms between two years and life in prison. During their detention they have endured torture. Amnesty International has documented broken bones and other injuries, as well as allegations of sexual assault against the detainees while in prison.

The arrest and torture of political prisoners is not the only human rights violation committed by Bahrain. Another common practice is the seizure of work visas from migrant workers by their employers who then charge exorbitant passage fees from their home country, effectively disenfranchising and enslaving unsuspecting immigrants. The government has also instituted law that allow it to arbitrarily revoke citizenship, and the police and military have been reported to use brutally excessive force against organized protests. Working along the rift between Sunni and Shia, the government has also marginalized women’s rights.

The real Bahrain 13 have become a symbol of an oppressed population’s yearning for greater freedom from an overbearing monarchy. Such is its hubris that is has rejected calls from 47 nations, including the United States, to release the prisoners. Yet that snub to the international community was not enough for the ruling Al Khalifa family. They decided to go further by building a triathlon team and using its all-star appeal to whitewash the name that had become synonymous with its barbarism. A Google search for “Bahrain 13” exhibits the strategy’s effectiveness. Five of the first ten search results allude to the triathlon team. Bahrain’s royal family is effectively buying its way out of infamy.

Of course, it’s not a direct purchase. The actual reshuffling of search results comes largely thanks to the notoriety of the athletes who have signed their names to the triathlon team. By taking the Al Khalifa money, Kienle, Steffen, and the rest have made themselves into cardboard cutouts to be placed in front of people who suffer mightily for their beliefs. Whatever beliefs the Ironman pros may have no longer matter, they’ve been bargained off as part of the contract.

That is what it comes down to. Being part of a team in triathlon doesn’t work the same way as the NBA or NFL. It’s more like an endorsement deal. As such, the athletes on the Bahrain squad have given their endorsement to the royal family, and due to the monarchy’s tongue-in-cheek (or perhaps extended index finger) reference to their tortured prisoners, the athletes have in turn endorsed the cruelty of an authoritarian regime.

Whether they’ve committed to this bargain out of ignorance of the country’s politics or after calculating the financial rewards against their own ethics only they can say. Whichever the case, it’s disappointing to think some of the sport’s greatest athletes sold off something that is otherwise considered invaluable – their own good names.

Read Jim Gourley’s previous article about triathlon and the Middle East.

About the Author

Jim Gourley is the author of Faster: Demystifying the Secrets of Triathlon Speed and The Race Within: The Story of the Ultraman Triathlon. He is a regular contributor to Tom Ricks' blog "The Best Defense." His work has been featured in Men's Health, Stars and Stripes, and several triathlon and cycling publications.