Kazakhstan: Team Astana gets new backing just in time for Tour de France
After several months of high-profile financial problems, the Astana Cycling Team has secured funding to keep the wheels turning, just before this year’s Tour de France kicks off in Monaco on July 4. Kazakhstan’s state assets holding company will become the national team’s premier benefactor.
"Samruk-Kazyna is going to be our main sponsor," Nikolay Proskurin, deputy head of the Kazakhstan Cycling Federation (KCF), told EurasiaNet on June 26. The agreement was reached the previous day, he added.
Over the last few months, funding problems, more than road racing exploits, have thrust the Astana Cycling Team into the headlines. In May, seven team members rode the seventh stage of the Giro d’Italia with the sponsors’ logos purposely faded off of their uniforms as a protest against unpaid April salaries.
The KCF was handed an ultimatum by the International Cycling Union to either pay up or risk having the team’s pro-tour license revoked. On June 8, Tourism and Sport Minister Temirkhan Dosmukhambetov announced that up to $9 million had been collected "from different sources including the state budget" to fund the team for 2009.
"The head of state, President Nursultan Nazarbayev . . . has resolved this matter," Dosmukhambetov told the Kazakhstan Today news agency. "The team has to be maintained; it’s the prestige of our state."
The new backer, Samruk-Kazyna, administers state stakes in major companies such as extraction industry giants KazMunayGaz and Kazakhmys, and the national airline, Air Astana. Samruk-Kazyna will not be the cycling team’s only sponsor: there are also plans to sign a long-term sponsorship contract with an American company, oskurin said. But he refused to name the mystery backer, "until we sign the contract."
The Astana Cycling Team was set up in 2006 by a consortium of Kazakh industry heavyweights under the auspices of then-prime minister Danial Akhmetov, who heads the KCF. It was initially created to provide a vehicle for star Kazakh rider Alexandre Vinokourov, and to create positive PR for Kazakhstan.
Akhmetov’s influence over the sponsors waned after he was dismissed as prime minister in January 2007. He became defense minister in the new government, but was fired on June 17 without explanation. The team appears to have found an influential new supporter in Samruk-Kazyna, which will not want to see Astana’s name tarnished by funding problems.
Since its formation, the Astana team has often courted controversy. In the 2007 Tour de France, team captain Vinokourov and his teammates were removed from the race following a failed doping test. In the wake of that scandal, the team parted company with its director, Marc Biver, and acted swiftly to clean up its image. In October 2007, it appointed Johan Bruyneel, the coach behind eight Tour de France winners, including seven-time champion Lance Armstrong and 2007 victor Alberto Contador.
Astana was banned from the Tour in 2008 because of the 2007 doping scandal, but the team still enjoyed a successful season. Contador rode to victory for Astana in both the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a Espana, in the process becoming only the fourth rider in history to bag all three major tours. He managed the feat in a record-breaking 14 months.
In September 2008, Astana hit the headlines again with the return of Armstrong after three years away from professional cycling. The legendary cyclist -- a survivor of testicular cancer -- came out of retirement to promote his Livestrong cancer awareness campaign.
Armstrong will be attempting to rewrite the history books and become, at 37, the oldest rider ever to wear the winner’s traditional yellow jersey as the race reaches its climax in Paris on July 26, but -- with Astana’s Contador the favorite to win this year’s tour -- it may be a tall order.
As cycling’s premier event gets under way, Astana will be hoping that -- with Samruk-Kazyna on board -- the team can finally concentrate not on financial problems, but on performance.
Illustration by El Hombre under Creative Commons license