Jacopo Dettoni in Almaty -
Italian cyclist Vincenzo Nibali made his way towards the start line amid dozens of excited fans wearing sky-blue t-shirts celebrating national cycling hero Alexandre Vinokourov and flying Kazakhstan flags. Born and bred in Sicily, Nibali sported a cycling jersey printed with the colours of Kazakhstan's national flag and the name of the country's capital city, Astana.
After his triumph on the Champs-Élysées at the 2014 Tour de France, the slender Sicilian stole the spotlight at the start of the Almaty Tour on October 5, a professional cycling race that has featured on the International Cycling Federation's (UCI) calendar since 2013. Willing or not, he has become an ambassador for Kazakhstan since he joined the Astana Pro Team, a cycling powerhouse backed by President Nursultan Nazarbayev himself.
But as the Almaty Tour began, storms were gathering over Nibali’s Tour de France triumph and his Astana Pro Team that threaten to leave Nazerbayev’s sporting dream in tatters.
On October 16, it emerged that Astana Pro Team is to be subjected to “a full review” of its licence over the next month following a third positive doping test in the space of a few weeks. Ilya Davidenok, a young rider who has spent the past two years with Astana’s development team, returned what the authorities described as “adverse analytical finding” for anabolic androgenic steroids in a sample collected at the Tour de l’Avenir on August 28. His positive test followed those of the Iglinskiy brothers, Maxim and Valentin, who were both caught using the banned blood booster EPO. Maxim had helped Nibali to win the yellow jersey this summer.
Speaking to bne at the beginning of the Almaty Tour on October 5, the current Astana Pro Team's general manager, Alexandre Vinokourov said that because of cycling, “Now the whole world knows about Astana and Kazakhstan.”
Indeed, but perhaps not in the way that President Nazarbayev and his advisers had planned on.
Club of kings
Established in 2006 on the initiative of Vinokourov himself when his previous squad, the Liberty Seguros-Würth team, went belly-up after a doping scandal, the Astana Pro Team has – with the president’s backing – navigated its way through recurrent doping allegations to emerge as a major force in the cycling world.
It won win a first Tour de France with Spanish Alberto Contador in 2009 and nailed a second success with Nibali in 2014, although it never completely shook off the reputation of being a doping-prone team. Contador was stripped of a second Tour de France title in 2010 after testing positive for traces of banned substance clenbuterol. Another two of the team's top riders, Kazakhstan's Iglinsky brothers, tested positive for EPO just a few weeks before this year's Almaty Tour, forcing the team to eventually withdraw from the Tour of Beijing, which ends the UCI World Tour calendar.
Hoping to replicate the team's achievements, at least those not taunted by doping scandals, in other sports and burnish the image of the country further, Nazarbayev launched the Astana Presidential Sports Club in 2012, which is a multi-sports club that together with the cycling team also includes: a boxing team, a basketball team, a cycling team, a hockey team, a football team and even a Dakar Rally team.
"Our champions, just like our [economic] success or our new capital [of Astana], constitute Kazakhstan's national brand,” Nazarbayev said in 2013 during a celebration at the club's headquarters in Astana. “Sports achievements make our country memorable by demonstrating our strongest qualities to the world. Kazakhstan should be known as a nation of victors.”
In order to translate ambition into sporting success, Nazarbayev mandated Kazakhstan's sovereign wealth fund, Samruk-Kazyna, to provide the club with generous financial support. The total budget for 2014 was on the order of $150m, with €15m going to the cycling team alone. That’s big money for a sport which traditionally requires much smaller budgets than other mainstream disciplines like football. “I chose to join the Astana Pro Team in 2013 because the team brings to the table an important budget able to build up a team fit to compete for the best stage races like the Tour de France,” Nibali told bne.
Race to the finish
As Nibali and his fellow teammates seize the opportunity to achieve sporting and financial success, Kazakhstan’s ruling elites are looking at the bigger picture.
In a move that brings to mind the obsession for sports of the old German Democratic Republic or the USSR, “the Nazarbayev regime has made ample use of the strategy of promoting sport as a means to simultaneously increase nationalist sentiment and international prestige (and thus popular legitimacy),” Nicole Koch, a researcher at Syracuse University in the US, wrote in a 2013 paper focusing on the Astana Pro Team experience.
“While the Astana cycling team example is seemingly benign, this impression is precisely what soft authoritarian leaders seek to cultivate in their nation-building projects… Not only do they naturalize paternalist state society relations in which citizens are actively assigned the role of passive spectator, but they are more broadly put to work in legitimating the unequal distribution of power and wealth,” Koch wrote.
In power since the country's independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Nazarbayev takes most of the credit for the impressive economic growth the country has experienced over the last decade, thanks to the development of abundant oil and mineral resources. At the same time, the “leader of the nation” has drawn criticism for his patchy record on human rights and democratic practices.
Deaf to critics, Nazarbayev has raised the stakes by leveraging the Astana Pro Team's PR success to launch a bold bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. It may pay off too; in a surprising turn of events, Almaty and Beijing are the only two cities still running for the event, as all the other bidders – Krakow, Lviv, Oslo and Stockholm – have pulled out.
Nazarbayev, speaking at the Astana Presidential Sports Club in 2013, quoted German philosopher Hegel: "if the strong men unite, they become invincible.” The president might not be the best example of fair play at work, but for sure he is surrounded by an aura of invincibility, at least in Kazakhstan's sporting arena.
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