The Ironprince

Everything pointed toward an uneventful weekend here at Slowtwitch. We’re on the shoulder of the Northern and Southern Hemisphere race calendars, and the sparse weekend of racing featured season-ending IM Florida and season-starting Noosa. Maybe I could watch some college football.

Then all heck broke loose on the reader forum. One of WTC’s poorest Ironmans (in prize money) was invaded by an entourage from one of the world’s richest families (you can slot a 747 into Panama City’s airport?). The Bahrain Road Runners came to town.

Racing were His Highness Shaikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa (pictured at top), Sheikh Khaled Bin Hamad Al Khalifa (next image down) along with their coach Mikel Calahorra (who finished with a sub-9 performance), and 10 others, 2 of whom seemed likely British ex-pats and 8 of whom bore what appeared to me Arab or tribal names and may I apologize in advance if there is a more culturally sensitive descriptor I should use.

I bring up the nature of these names because, in spite of certain very real issues that I will describe below, I was charmed by the fact that 10 of the 13 racers were probably indigenous to the Arabian peninsula. As someone who raced his first triathlon in 1980 and Ironman in 1981, I am proud to see that the sport on which I’ve based most of my adult life – as vocation and avocation – has “made good" if you use as a metric the fact that the sport is still here and that people around the world from vastly different cultures are eager to do it.

Our forum readers were less sanguine, as a group. Many of them chafed at what was certainly an atypical registration process unavailable to them. Others were put off by the idea of the security motorcade, though it was unclear how often the white (in one case), black (in another case) SUVs were on the course and impeded other athletes.

“There was heightened security around the several of the Bahrain athletes,” said World Triathlon Corporation’s Andrew Messick, its CEO. “This was in part due to their status as royals, and in part due to what we viewed as credible threats to disrupt their race.”

“A number of those threats came from Slowtwitch posters,” he added.

I found some elegance in the symmetry. Ironman also provided security for the Crown Prince of Denmark in his WTC race in Copenhagen, bearing in mind that Denmark has been a target of multiple fatwas, and the Bahrain royals were the subject of credible threats of race disruption by Americans living here.

But while the foolish and crazed are everywhere I won't force a false equality, and let’s talk about the important issue that came up on our reader forum – the alleged torture of athletes by Bahraini royals because they spoke up about an anti-democratic system, specifically the debasement of the Shia majority by the Sunni rulers.

Andrew Messick does recognize Slowtwitchers as an ardent subset of his brand’s constituency and he responded: “The reports of torture conducted by or on behalf of the Bahrain athletes were serious and troubling. We do not know to what extent the reports are true. We start with the presumption of innocence and we are not prepared to ban an athlete, any athlete, unless there is compelling evidence of wrongdoing.”

Some things bear mentioning. First, the quantity of athletes allegedly mistreated or even tortured wasn’t a handful, rather numbered in the hundreds according to accounts I’ve read, and included the country’s most famous soccer player, A’laa Hubail, along with his brother. ESPN reported on this in a featured piece. Human Rights Watch continues to speak and write poorly of the regime.

Messick rightly notes that these are allegations and not proof, and “we are not prepared to ban an athlete, any athlete, unless there is compelling evidence of wrongdoing,” and I think that’s sound. “We start with the presumption of innocence,” and that’s also sound. That established, there is no real expectation that the son of the ruler of Bahrain is going to face an inquiry, and I don’t know how you easily get from accusations to the truth without any judicial process investigating the allegations.

Messick also notes that the U.S. Government granted travel documents to the contingent so why, by inference, should WTC ban what the U.S. government does not ban. I agree. Still, to not grant travel documents would be awkward, since the Al Khalifa family hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet.

Bahrain’s news agency wrote that, “Bahrain will host the Ironman championship in the near future,” while reporting on the success of the Bahraini contingent in Florida. I asked Andrew Messick about this, and he acknowledged that, “they certainly want a race,” and the Bahrainis have produced races up to the half-Ironman distance before. Most (not all) to whom I spoke who had any personal interaction with the Bahrain delegation at Florida was favorably impressed. Most reported that they were polite. Non-intrusive. Uninterested in any special privilege other than the added security commensurate with the risk. They were respectful of the rules. They sought no advantage. When it came to honoring the race, and their fellow racers, I could find no fault and in many cases effusive praise. Any negative comments I received were about the security detail and not the athletes themselves.

Even Andrew Starykowicz – either winner or runner up at Florida depending on how the helmet thing goes – was charmed by the prince and gave him race tips the night before the race. They’re friends now which is ironic considering the issues Starky faced just down the road a ways.

I’m undecided on whether WTC should pursue pounding its stake in the ground in Bahrain. On the one hand, there is the human rights concern and specifically the treatment of athletes. On the other hand, I ride bikes made in China. You do too. You and I also run in shoes made in China. You can try to parse between the rulers in a country versus the country, but it’s hard to square that circle. Many maintain that engagement versus isolation is the best way to further transparency and democracy. This argues in favor of Ironman Bahrain.

I have also exhorted WTC and Andrew Messick specifically to build his brand in places where there is no Ironman presence, and very little triathlon presence. Eastern bloc countries, for example. So, here you go. This is exactly what I think he should be doing. Honestly, I’d rather see Ironman incept a race here than buy any more of Challenge’s licensees.

But if that is in our future, then whether it’s Olympic athletes (and media) in Russia or Ironman athletes (and media) in Bahrain, we have to find the truth, or at least not ignore the truth, and speak the truth. If this race were to occur, I’d be happy and honored to help promote it. But I’d also to try to find and interview A’laa Hubail.

I would find no fault with anybody who says I’m blind, that these folks are the worst kinds of depots. I could also not fault anyone who would point out that becoming overrun by American triathletes is not a bad way to hurry up the brand of democracy and equality that we enjoy and want to share with the part of the world that doesn't yet live the way we do. In fact, I think a great way to begin would an Underpants Run on the Thursday prior to the race. If enough Slowtwitchers toe the line at Ironman Bahrain the question for the following years may not be whether we grant travel documents to Bahraini Princes, but whether they grant them to us.