Hosting the world’s largest annual sporting event in the middle of a global pandemic takes some Gaul. But the Tour de France looked set to go ahead on Saturday.
Whether or not the race will make it to its end is another matter.
Coronavirus infections in France are heading for another peak, and some of the areas the race passes through are already under “red alert”.
Really it’s astonishing that staging the Tour was even considered.
Some politicians were in favour because they hope holding the race can reinforce a false sense of national unity.
Education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said keeping the race going would be “a sign that we can continue to live, and of the resilience of our society.”
And it’s true that nationalism has been a big part of the Tour ever since it began.
But the main factor is money—and the commercial interests that fund and profit from the sport.
Millions of pounds are tied up in the Tour. For a start, local authorities pay race organiser ASO big sums to have the race pass through their villages, towns and cities.
The city of Nice—which was placed under red alert last week—paid just over £3 million to host the first three days of this year’s race.
The council hoped that the business that comes with it would generate ten times as much in return.
That money is nothing compared to what TV companies and sponsors shell out.
Around half of the Tour’s estimated £116 million turnover last year came from broadcasting rights, while between 40 and 50 percent was advertising and sponsorship money.
Cycling teams and race organisers depend almost entirely on these two sources of funding.
Teams are especially beholden to the sponsors whose names they’re paid to race under.
Sponsors use cycling to pedal their brands. For instance one of the sport’s most successful teams is sponsored by petrochemical giant Ineos.
They’re among the favourites to win this year’s Tour thanks to the money provided by Ineos’s billionaire owner Jim Ratcliffe.
But when coronavirus put the brakes on spectator sports, sponsors were saddled with having to pay for teams without any racing—and therefore no marketing.
Many of them are only in it for the exposure the Tour de France gives them. Without that—and with a looming economic crisis—teams and race organisers are terrified sponsors will quit en masse, bringing the whole sport crashing down.
Cycling historian Jean-Francois Mignot said cancelling the Tour “opens the door to a possible economic meltdown in the cycling sector.
“Most sponsors are in cycling for this reason alone, the whole thing is centred around the Tour de France.
If these sponsors invest money it is because television viewers recognise the team jerseys, it is the only cycling race watched by such a vast audience.”
So for the sake of that money, the Tour de France was launched at the height of a global pandemic.
And that’s a wheelie bad idea.
Big business drives a return to events with crowds
Sport is big business. And like every other business, it puts protecting profits ahead of protecting lives.
Global sales in sports services and related goods were worth £489 billion in 2018. Just as in cycling, the big money is in sponsorship and broadcast deals.
Consultancy firm KPMG estimated that the five biggest European football leagues and their member clubs faced a loss of £4 billion if their seasons weren’t completed this year. When sports were cancelled, hugely lucrative broadcast deals were under threat.
In Britain, Sky allowed customers to pause their subscriptions “until normality returned”—costing it a potential £700 million in a period of just four months.
Smaller organisations have already gone bust. Slovakian champion football club MSK Zilina and USA Rugby both went bankrupt in the early weeks of the pandemic.
Bigger leagues and clubs are counting on governments to bail them out, hoping that if they go bankrupt they’ll be treated as too big to fail.
So there was huge pressure to get sports events up and running again far before it was safe.
Between June and July, tennis player Novak Djokovic organised a whole competition—the Adria Tour—to be played in front of full crowds.
Inevitably, players and coaches began testing positive for coronavirus and the competition was cancelled midway through.
In Britain—as infection rates rose across Europe—the Tories hoped to open up cricket, snooker and horse racing to fans last month.
The threat led one snooker player Anthony Hamilton to quit the World Championship, branding the move “ridiculous.”
“Let’s say one person gets ill and dies from at the World Snooker Championship in the Crucible [theatre]—it’s one person who died for no reason at all, just for entertainment.”
But that’s the risk sports bosses and government ministers seem only too willing to take.
Tour is a huge risk
The Tour de France has the potential to be coronavirus super spreader. It’s a huge operation that brings together thousands of people from across the world, then moves them around the country for three weeks.
Even the “scaled‑down” version organiser ASO claims to have planned this year has the potential to be a spread infections.
Riders, race and team staff, media and a huge publicity caravan pack into new hotels every night. Huge numbers of spectators will crowd along the roadside—some 12 million people in total turned out to watch the race last year.
This year spectators will be told they’re responsible for maintaining social distancing along the 2,150 mile route.
Then they’ll be encouraged to jostle for free gifts dished out by brands from the publicity caravan.
ASO says it has rules in place that somehow make the whole thing safe. The entire race will supposedly operate as a “bubble” completely isolated from places it visits and the crowds it passes by.
The rules ASO has laid out are both vague and confusing. And of course, it’s all nonsense. Riders and staff are already coming away from races testing positive for coronavirus.
There’s no safe way to organise a mass sporting event at the height of a pandemic, and the organisers know this.
But for the sake of profit, they’re pushing ahead with it anyway.