“In Afghanistan, we have achieved what the political world could not do”
Chance has nothing to do with it. In the recent months, the name of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) has been associated in two occasions with the refugee crisis. The first being last fall, after the fall of Kabul by the Taliban. Then during the spring, after the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian army. The body based in Switzerland has deployed treasures of diplomacy and immense solidarity to support Afghans and Ukrainians in search of a welcoming land. At the maneuver, the Frenchman David Lappartient, President of the UCI. Interview.
Peace and Sport: Are the UCI’s recent initiatives in favor of refugees the illustration of a tradition of your organization?
David Lappartient: Yes and no. Helping and supporting cyclists in difficulty, in countries affected by conflict, is rooted in the genes of the UCI. We have a mission of solidarity, like the entire Olympic Movement. But our mobilization in recent months is above all the result of circumstances. In Afghanistan, we wanted to help someone in particular, the sister of Masomah Ali Zada, an Afghan cyclist who was part of the IOC refugee team at the Tokyo 2020 Games. I took steps to help her even before the Taliban took Kabul, by allowing her access to the French Embassy. My phone number was quickly released. Things got bigger. By the end of August, we had already helped evacuating 17 people. We sought diplomacy and worked with Jean-Yves Le Drian, who was back then the French Minister of Foreign Affairs. With the help of an NGO, IsraAID, whose Managing Director Sylvan Adams is also the owner of a World Tour team, we managed to land a plane in Kabul. In September, we were able to evacuate 125 people via Albania, mostly cyclists, but also a judge, journalists, artists and human rights defenders.
Did your action continue beyond the evacuation from Afghanistan?
Sure. Once the refugees arrived in Albania, we had to find host countries for them, and therefore visas. It turned out to be very complicated, because Afghanistan was a bit out of the news. In the end, thirty-eight of them were taken in by Switzerland, the others found refuge in the United States, France, Canada and Israel. The last ones left Albania quite recently. The operation was long and delicate.
Did the operation carried out by the UCI since the start of the conflict in Ukraine respond to the same logic?
Yes. It was motivated by the UCI’s mission to support the cycling family around the world. In Aigle, at the headquarters of the UCI, the UCI World Cycling Center welcomes athletes from all over the world, including countries at war, all year round. Very soon after the start of the invasion by the Russian army, we contacted the Ukrainian Cycling Federation. The operation took place quickly. We found host families, provided bicycles and equipment, ensured the link with the public authorities. The Secretary General of the Ukrainian federation works at the UCI. She ensured the coordination of this mobilization. Today, 250 Ukrainian athletes have thus been able to leave their country at war and continue to practice cycling. We follow them. We know where they are.
What will be the next step in this outpouring of solidarity from the UCI?
On 23 October 2022, we are going to organize the 2022 Women’s Road Championships of Afghanistan in Aigle, at the UCI World Cycling Centre. For all these athletes, this will be the first opportunity to reunite since they left their country. They need to maintain a connection with cycling, to pursue their career and have a goal to achieve.
Can sport be a tool for developing peace in the world?
Sure. It is even one of the missions of the IOC, written in full from the creation of the body by Pierre de Coubertin in 1894. The Olympic Games are ultimately only one tool of this ideal of peace. Jean-Yves Le Drian told me during our discussions at the time of the evacuation of Afghan refugees: sport has succeeded in what the political world could not accomplish. “We couldn’t have done it ourselves,” he confessed. Like other international federations, the UCI is politically neutral. Therefore, we can talk to everyone. During the evacuation operation in Afghanistan, we managed to bring refugees through countries whose borders were completely closed to Afghans. They agreed to make an exception because they were athletes and the request came from an international sports body.