POLITICS JULY 14, 2009
As inspiring as it is to see 37-year-old Lance Armstrong un-retired, healthy, and near the front of the pack at this year’s Tour de France, it’s hard not to be distracted by what he’s wearing. In place of the relatively wholesome U.S. Postal Service and Discovery Channel jerseys he wore during his previous wins, Armstrong is currently racing in the blue-and-yellow of the Astana Cycling Team. Which means that one of America’s last golden boys is a walking (or riding) advertisement for the Kazakh government.
The Astana Cycling Team's primary sponsor, in fact, is Kazakhstan's Samruk-Kazyna National Welfare Fund, a state-owned enterprise that Kazakh embassy attache Zhanbolat Ussenov less-than-pithily termed a "national sovereign wealth fund that provides business efficiency for public expenditures." Samruk-Kazyna's involvement means that among Astana's seven Kazakh sponsors are the national airline, rail, electric, mining, and gas companies. The team's website also serves a secondary, boosterish function as an advertisement for the economically troubled, Borat-afflicted autocracy, complete with fulsome quotes from team manager Johan Bruyneel ("It is a true honor for every rider and staff member to represent Kazakhstan") and a how-much-do-you-know-about-Kazakhstan quiz ("What is the name of the largest operational space facility/cosmodrome in Kazakhstan?"). It would all be more amusing if Kazakhstan wasn't such a bad place--Freedom House gave the nation a 6.32 rating in 2009, with seven being the worst possible score. Its fantastically illiberal freedom of assembly policies and approach to freedom of speech on the Internet, to name just two pockmarks, leaves Kazakhstan lumped among such human-rights also-rans as Egypt and Rwanda.
Armstrong joined the team to reunite with Bruyneel, his longtime manager, but he doesn't seem terribly excited about Astana, which he derisively referred to as "Team Borat" in a profile in the July issue of Men's Journal. In a recent column, Bicycling Magazine contributor Joe Lindsey writes that Armstrong is "clearly ill at ease racing for the glory of a consortium of natural resource companies from an obscure Central Asian country best known in the west from the Borat caricature [and has] spent as much time as possible hiding his Astana team kit under Livestrong gear and jerseys from his Austin bike shop, Mellow Johnny’s."
His embarrassment isn’t exactly misplaced. “Astana freakin’ takes the cake,” says one cycling insider. “It’s the weirdest, skankiest team in cycling history.” Astana's past is so dodgy, in fact, that the leader of the Kazakhstan Cycling Federation, Daniyal Akhmetov--recently sacked from his day job as Kazakhstan's Minister of Defense amid a wide-ranging corruption scandal--is far from the scariest skeleton in the team's closet. Most of Astana's transgressions came under a previous administration, but they are numerous.
Astana rose from the ashes of the risibly corrupt Liberty Seguros Cycling Team, which disbanded in 2006 when manager Manolo Saiz was caught in the anti-doping sting Operacion Puerto. Liberty Seguros' star racer, Kazakh cyclist Alexandre Vinokourov and then-Prime Minister Akhmetov cobbled together some Kazakh sponsors and Astana was born. Vinokourov and Kazakh teammate Andrei Kashechkin promptly tested positive for blood doping, and Astana was kicked out of the 2007 Tour de France and banned in '08. Bruyneel was hired shortly thereafter in an attempt to re-brand the team and largely cleaned house, but Armstrong's current Astana teammate Andreas Kloeden has been dogged by doping rumors for years and Astana hasn't shaken its rep. "There's a high bar for hijinks in this sport," Lindsey says. "But Astana is a different creature than any cycling has seen in 50 years."
The last year hasn't been kind to Astana, either. In May's Giro d'Italia, one of the cyling world’s biggest events, all of Astana's active racers, with the exception of Kazakh-born Andrey Zeits, covered up the names of their Kazakh sponsors to protest months of unpaid salaries. Armstrong, who receives no salary from Astana but covered up the logos on his jersey in a show of solidarity, was rumored to be considering American sponsors in case Astana went belly-up. It didn't, and Astana was able to pay the bank guarantees necessary to get it into the Tour de France. Still, the whole experience begs the question of why Armstrong, who has been famously prickly over allegations of doping, would ride for such an extravagantly tainted organization.
"Plugging back in with Johan was a no-brainer when Lance decided to come out of retirement," says Mark McKinnon, Armstrong's P.R. maestro. According to Lindsey, Bruyneel's previous success with Armstrong and their close relationship meant "it was clear that Astana was the only team [Armstrong] could be with. You can't imagine Armstrong racing for any other manager." Also, Astana has developed one of the finest overall teams in the sport’s history around Armstrong--so even if he isn’t getting paid by the squad, he’s benefitting from its talent. Armstrong may soon wind up racing for another team, though--Vinokourov's two-year suspension ends later this month, and he has announced his intention to return to Astana, even if it means that Bruyneel leaves. Should that occur, the cycling scuttlebutt is that Bruyneel and Armstrong would form a Nike-sponsored team of their own.
In fairness, none of this team-and sponsor-hopping is terribly strange in European sports. With the notable exception of NASCAR's "Wal-Mart threw up on this sedan" aesthetic, American sports actually lags behind the rest of the world in terms of flagrant and flagrantly strange sponsorship. There's even a precedent for authoritarian states getting into the sponsorship game--Libya's Qaddafi clan owns a stake in Italian soccer team Juventus. And oddball sponsors are particularly common in cycling: Other teams in the 2009 Tour de France are backed by a company that makes steel holding pens for cattle, a manufacturer of laminated flooring, and a joint effort between the Belgian National Lottery and an anti-snoring product that competes under the name Silence-Lotto. Lindsey, the Bicycling Magazine contributor, notes that, relative to mogul-magnet European sports such as soccer and Formula One teams, "cycling is a bargain. You can own your own pro team for the price of a tiny little decal on an F1 car. $10 million dollars gets it done."
But even if Armstrong's experience with Astana isn't particularly abnormal, it still doesn’t pass the smell test. Especially considering the nascent political ambitions Armstrong revealed in a Daily Beast interview (conducted by McKinnon, oddly), being associated with Astana at all seems like a lose-lose proposition. In the world of cycling, Armstrong is seen as riding for a team that has a terrible reputation; if he runs for office back in Texas, he'll face attacks for joining a squad bankrolled by an ultra-oppressive foreign nation's petrodollars. If the Tour de France is the ultimate test of Armstrong's strength as a cyclist, his association with Astana may wind up being the ultimate test of his carefully honed personal brand. McKinnon, unsurprisingly, thinks Armstrong will emerge from Astana unscathed. "The LIVESTRONG brand is one of the most recognizable in the world and in no danger of dilution," he says. "And after all, it's not like we're talking about North Korea here." We're not, but in the world of cycling, talking about Astana is bad enough.
David Roth is a writer in New York.
By David Roth