Why one of the world's most bankable athletes is competing for an autocratic former Soviet republic.
As Lance Armstrong enters the second week of the Tour de France, questions abound. Why did he come back from retirement? Will his much-discussed rivalry with teammate Alberto Contador cost both of them the race? And even in such a commercialized sport, why is an iconic American athlete -- a Texan, no less! -- racing for ... Kazakhstan?
When Armstrong announced last September that he was coming back to try for an eighth Tour win, one of the more prosaic questions -- after those about his motives and abilities -- was what team he'd ride for.
Most observers saw only one option: Armstrong would rejoin the team of his friend and former manager Johan Bruyneel. An ex-pro himself, Bruyneel took control of Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team in 1998 and was among the first people to think the Texan could be a Tour de France winner.
But Armstrong was hardly returning to the situation he left when he retired in 2005. The Postal Service's replacement, the Discovery Channel, ended its sponsorship after the 2007 season. Bruyneel still had a solid team, including that year's Tour winner, Contador. But after doping scandals plagued the Tour in 2006 and 2007, even cycling's equivalent of the New York Yankees couldn't find a corporate backer.
Yet as luck would have it, one of those very scandals eventually brought Armstrong and the Kazakhs together. In 2006, a pair of Kazakh racers -- Alexandre Vinokourov and Andrey Kashechkin -- was collateral damage in a doping scandal. The manager of their Spanish-based Liberty Seguros team was found to be part of a massive doping ring called Operación Puerto. Although neither racer was personally involved, the criminal investigation -- which took place just weeks before the Tour -- cost the team its sponsor and jeopardized its Tour entry. Vinokourov, a national hero in his home country, appealed to the chairman of the Kazakh national cycling federation for help.
The man in charge of Kazakh racing was not just anyone; he just happened to be Danial Akhmetov, whose day job was prime minister (and, later, defense minister). Akhmetov swiftly put together a consortium of eight Kazakh companies to sponsor the team under the nationalist name Astana (Kazakhstan's capital and second-largest city), but the team failed to field the necessary number of starters and was not allowed to race. In 2007, Vinokourov raced the Tour on Astana, but tested positive for blood doping and was sacked. Kashechkin was busted a month later, and both were banned for two years.
Shorn of its stars and without confidence in the team's Swiss management, Kazakh authorities turned to Bruyneel, who effectively blended the remnants of Astana and Discovery Channel into a new team under the Astana banner. As a historical irony, one of the riders who joined was Contador, himself a former member of the doomed 2006 Liberty Seguros team.
Everyone had their motivations for making Astana work. Bruyneel's primary love is winning, and in the 26-year-old Contador he had the sport's best stage racer and a likely champion for years to come. For Akhmetov and the Kazakhs, the team was a high-profile PR set piece -- a means to gain respectability and burnish Kazakhstan's image. As a further point of national pride, the team would mentor and develop promising young Kazakh cyclists.
It was into this complicated arranged marriage that Armstrong entered, and the relationship was rocky from the start. Contador felt his rightful place as team leader was being usurped, a dynamic that is currently animating the Tour. But separately, there appeared to be little affinity between Armstrong and the sponsors.
Armstrong -- who all season had appeared in Astana team kit only when strictly necessary according to racing rules (preferring LiveStrong jerseys when he was training, or those from his Austin bike shop, Mellow Johnny's) -- remarked that he knew Kazakhstan mostly from Borat and said, pointedly, "It's not my team; it's not my sponsor."
In February, Astana's eight corporate backers quietly stopped paying the bills to the Kazakh cycling federation, which then shut off payment to Bruyneel's management company and, by extension, riders and staff. By mid-May, the team was in danger of folding, and the team and its owners began to fight openly. At the prestigious Giro d'Italia (Tour of Italy), the riders broke out uniforms with sponsor logos all but faded from legibility as a way to shame the owners into paying.
The "Team Faded-Jersey" gambit worked and under pressure from the sport's governing body, the sponsors (including, now, the federal government) ponied up the cash to keep the team going until the end of the year.
Two competing theories explain Astana's payment issues. The simple answer is that amid the commodities collapse that accompanied last fall's economic crisis, the natural resource companies that constitute a major part of Astana's sponsor roster simply had a cash squeeze. But in the world of big business, the $15 million it takes to fund the team is a rounding error.
A more salacious rumor holds that the nonpayment was sporting politics: Vinokourov's suspension ends July 24, and the sponsors want him back on the team. Bruyneel, however, doesn't. Although unsupported by hard fact, that theory got a bump when Vinokourov -- with Nikolai Proskurin, deputy head of the Kazakh cycling federation, at his side -- held a press conference in Monaco before the Tour's start to announce his return. "It's my team," he said of Astana. "If Johan [Bruyneel] has a problem with me, it is up to him to leave the team, not me."
That kind of breakup, honestly, may be what everyone wants. During the height of Astana's financial difficulties in May, Armstrong announced that he was interested in forming his own team in 2010 as a rider and owner. And, had Astana defaulted on its payment deadline and lost the team sponsorship in June, Armstrong was ready to step in with LiveStrong and Nike as replacement sponsors (now the deal appears likely for 2010). Bruyneel will likely go too, and hence, Vinokourov can return to Astana.
Whether you believe that Armstrong's return is primarily about raising cancer awareness or is also, as has been floated in various forums, a springboard to a political career, racing the sport's highest-profile event for Livestrong-Nike would sure beat a scrum of unpronounceable natural resource companies from an obscure Central Asian republic with a president for life and a spotty human rights record.
But until July 26, when the race finishes in Paris, Armstrong will not be riding for Livestrong, Nike, or even his bike shop. He's on board for state holding company Samruk-Kazyna, natural gas producer KazMunaiGas, and mining concern Kazakhmys. Lance may yet break away from his competitors on the race course, but he can't quite drop his sponsors just yet.
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