Danes pin hopes on cycle star Fuglsang

Most if not all Danish eyes will be on 29-year-old Astana rider, Jakob Fuglsang for the 101st edition of the Tour de France which will feature around 200 super-fit matchstick men all prepared to endure endless bruising, fatigue, pain, cramps, mountains and whatnot in their quest for the Yellow Jersey.

Danes pin hopes on cycle star Fuglsang
Jakob Fuglsang (L) finished seventh last year overall. Photo (left to right): Barto59/Wikicommons and AFP/Lionel Bonaventure

In 1996 Bjarne Riis, also known as The Eagle from Herning (Ørnen fra Herning), became the first Dane ever to be crowned winner of the legendary bicycling race Le Tour de France. It was a victory that has since been overshadowed by numerous cycling scandals, including Riis' own admittance to the use of performance-enhancing drugs during his peak years. 

But now, at least, it seems the sport is heading in the right direction.

Despite its many downfalls and dramas – both on and off the road – with winners such as Marco Pantani, Rolf Sørensen, Lance Armstrong and Tyler Hamilton more or less admitting to having been under the influence of doping substances, this race still somehow manages to draw hundred of millions of fans each year. Whether it's on top of a French mountain or from afar via internet, TV and radio, all are eager to witness the spectacle from the front row.  

This year's Tour de France will be no different, and despite even the most optimistic of optimists knowing that doping is still present in the sport, the faint hope lives on that this year's pack of riders will be slightly less doped than those of the previous year.

And even if/when someone will be found not-so-clean-as-a-whistle, this will only add to the drama that is such an integral part of this annual colorful road circus.

From a Danish perspective, most eyes will be on the 29-year-old rider, Jakob Fuglsang, who performed splendidly last year finishing seventh overall, but question marks still remain over whether he will actually be able to ride to win, seeing as teammate Vincenzo Nibali will expect his full commitment when the going gets tough.

However, a slight dip in form from Nibali will see Fuglsang (which means "birdsong" in Danish) spread out his otherwise clipped wings to improve last year's seventh. Apart from Fuglsang, Michael Mørkov, Tinkoff Saxo and Lars Bak, Lotto-Belisol, will also represent Denmark in this year's Tour.  

Of course, the main focus of the event will be the battle between the Tour de France's reigning champion, the Kenyan-born Englishman Chris Froome and Spanish challenger and former winner Alberto Contador.

El Pistolero, the nickname of Contador – and also, incidentally, of red-hot footballer Luis Suarez – will look to push Froome to the very last hill of the race, exposing his pearly whites out of sheer effort, with pundits and fans alike expecting one of the greatest mano-a-mano duels the race has ever witnessed since Jan "Der Kaiser" Ullrich (it's a sport that likes a good nickname) locked horns with American Lance Armstrong back in 2003. 

The Tour de France begins tomorrow, Saturday July 5th in Leeds, England, and will finish in Paris on the Champs-Elysées on July 27th. And once again, despite all the ups and downs, this writer at least, looks very much forward to another epic battle in the scenic and breath-taking landscapes that France – and their neighbours – has to offer. 

Vive le Tour! Vive la France!  

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Could Scandinavian countries lead the way in taking stand against Qatar World Cup?

Vehemently opposed to Qatar's hosting of the 2022 World Cup, football federations in the Nordic countries are putting pressure on Doha and FIFA to improve conditions for migrant workers in the emirate.

Workers during construction of the Lusail 2022 World Cup stadium in December 2019. Football federations in Nordic countries led by Denmark have spoken out against Qatar's hosting of the event.
Workers during construction of the Lusail 2022 World Cup stadium in December 2019. Football federations in Nordic countries led by Denmark have spoken out against Qatar's hosting of the event. Photo: Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters/Ritzau Scanpix

Together with rights organisation Amnesty International, the federations of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland have ratcheted up the pressure in recent months, raising their concerns and presenting recommendations in letters, meetings with officials and pre-game protests.

“We are against holding the World Cup in Qatar, we thought it was a bad decision,” the head of the Danish federation DBU, Jakob Jensen, told AFP.

“It is wrong in many ways. Because of the human rights situation, the environment, building new stadiums in a country with very little stadium capacity,” he said.

Denmark is the only Nordic country to have qualified for the tournament so far. Sweden face a playoff next year to secure a place and Norway, Finland and Iceland have been eliminated.

Leading the charge, the Danish federation regularly publishes the Nordic countries’ letters sent to FIFA and holds talks with Qatari officials, including an October meeting with Qatar head organiser Hassan Al-Thawadi.

The main concern is migrant workers’ rights.

Qatar has faced criticism for its treatment of migrant workers, many of whom are involved in the construction of the World Cup stadiums and infrastructure.

Campaigners accuse employers of exploitation and forcing labourers to work in dangerous conditions.

Qatari authorities meanwhile insist they have done more than any country in the region to improve worker welfare, and reject international media reports about thousands of workers’ deaths.

The Nordics have also raised other concerns with al-Thawadi, Jensen said.

“Will homosexuals be allowed to attend the World Cup? Will men and women be able to attend the matches together? Will the press have free access to all sorts of issues to do investigations in the country?”

“And all the answers we received were ‘yes’. So of course we’re going to hold him responsible for that,” Jensen said.

The Danish federation said its World Cup participation would focus on the games played on the pitch, and it will not do anything to promote the event for organisers.

It will limit the number of trips it makes to Qatar, the team’s commercial partners will not take part in official activities there, and its two jersey sponsors will allow training kit to carry critical messages.

In Norway, whose qualification bid fell apart when its best player Erling Braut Haaland missed games through injury, the issue culminated in June when its federation held a vote on whether to boycott the World Cup.

READ ALSO: Norway’s economic police call for boycott of Qatar World Cup

Delegates ultimately voted against the idea, but an expert committee recommended 26 measures, including the creation of a resource centre for migrant workers and an alert system to detect human rights violations and inform the international community.

Like other teams, Norway’s squad also protested before each match by wearing jerseys or holding banners like the one unfurled during a recent match against Turkey, reading “Fair play for migrant workers”.

But the Nordic countries have not always acted in line with their own campaign.

Last month at a Copenhagen stadium, a Danish fan was ordered to take down his banner criticising the World Cup in Qatar, as FIFA rules prohibit political statements.

And Sweden’s federation recently scratched plans to hold its winter training camp in the emirate as it has done the past two years.

Sweden’s professional clubs had protested against the hypocrisy of holding the camp there while at the same the federation was leading the protests with Nordic counterparts.

The professional clubs wanted to send a “signal”, the chairman of Swedish Professional Football Leagues, Jens Andersson, told AFP.

Individual players have also spoken out. 

Finland’s captain Tim Sparv last week issued a joint appeal with Amnesty demanding that “FIFA must ensure that human rights are respected”, adding: “We are in debt to those people who have worked for years in poor conditions.”

So far, none of FIFA’s 200 other member federations have joined the Nordic campaign.

“Hopefully all these Nordic neighbours of ours and us taking these steps will have an impact on other countries,” Mats Enquist, secretary general of the Swedish Professional Football League, told AFP.

“We need to ensure that all the aspects of football, not just the richest, are really taken care of when we come to a place.”