The story of the European Track Championships keeps getting weirder

Despite growing condemnation and three potential alternative hosts stepping forward, the UEC remains all-in on Minsk.

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Since the stolen election and violent crackdowns in Belarus last year, many international governments – including the European Union and United States – have moved to disassociate themselves from Alexander Lukashenko’s dictatorial regime. 

Most major sporting events and bodies have followed suit. The biggest of them all, the IOC, has imposed sanctions. The World Ice Hockey Federation and World Pentathlon Federation have moved with them, relocating their championships which were originally slated to be held in the Belarusian capital, Minsk.

Sounds like there’s a ‘but …’

But. There is one obvious outlier: the European Track Championships, scheduled for late June. 

Since February, CyclingTips has been in a dialogue with the European Cycling Confederation (UEC), asking whether they would relocate the championships. Last month, we published the result of that investigation. The short answer: the UEC would proceed with the championships as planned, because there were no suitable alternative candidates available to host at short notice. Furthermore, the UEC refused to get involved in political matters.

That’s not satisfying from the perspective of public perception, but hey: you can’t hold a track championships without a velodrome, and those track cyclists need to compete to get selected for the Tokyo Olympics, if/when they happen. 

Sounds pretty simple, then? 

That’s cute.

Emil Rottbøll, the Moscow correspondent for Danish newspaper Berlingske, has since taken up the baton, and after extensive reporting, discovered that things aren’t quite as they seem. 

Chief among Berlingske’s findings are the following: 

  • The Dutch company, Libema, which operates the Apeldoorn velodrome in the Netherlands, had been in discussions with the UEC about hosting the championships in lieu of Belarus around a year ago. Nothing came of this. 
  • In April, Lithuania’s cycling federation offered to host the championships. “We expressed our concern about the potential unrest during the European Championship, the unstable political situation and the regime’s human rights abuses against Belarusian citizens and athletes,” said Stasys Petrauskas, Secretary-General of the Lithuanian Cycling Federation.
  • According to UEC vice-president Henrik Jess Jensen, this offer was declined by the UEC on the grounds that “Apeldoorn was in play” – despite there being no apparent willingness to relocate there. Jess Jensen also maintains that there was no formal application from Lithuania. This fence-sitting has drawn criticism from international sports ethics organisation Play the Game and Danish academics alike. 
  • Most recently, the Danish Sports Federation offered to host the championships in its Ballerup velodrome. “This is the strongest action we can take in Denmark to say that we are dissatisfied with the fact that it has to be in Minsk. Instead of leaving it up to others, we’re doing it ourselves,” said Poul Broberg, the head of Public Affairs at the Danish Sports Federation. 
  • This offer has also been declined. That’s in spite of the Danish Sports Federation’s sweetener that it would cover any of the costs of moving the championships, so that the UEC – which is under significant financial strain due to COVID-19 – suffers no additional financial hardship. 

What happens next?

Great question. The UEC has already told CyclingTips that “as a non-profit organisation we are not looking for any profit,” so it’s apparently not about the money.

There are now three alternative venues that are in play, and one of them has even offered to indemnify the UEC against financial loss from moving the event.  

Nonetheless, the UEC is holding firm to its course.

UEC President Enrico Della Casa told Berlingske that “the event in Minsk has been confirmed and we do not want to change the location. In addition, the various national teams, TV teams and technical assistants have already booked flights and hotels. I hope you understand our decision.”

So … looks like the European Track Championships will be held in Minsk, despite, well, everything.

What’s happening behind the scenes here? 

Another great question. Perhaps it’s really as simple as it all falling into the too-hard basket. It’s a biggish event, and with that comes lots of considerations, both small and large.

Some of those are things you’d expect: flights, hotels, TV crews. Some of them are less obvious: in conversation with Berlingske, Jess Jensen cited more mundane factors like the timing of school holidays and the difficulty of finding volunteers.

But perhaps it’s a little more complex. 

In December, according to Henrik Jess Jensen, the UEC board floated the prospect of moving the championships. Della Casa’s belief at the time was reportedly that it would be impossible to find support for the move from a majority of UEC Management Committee members. Furthermore, Jess Jensen claimed, there was then no viable alternative in play (although discussions with Apeldoorn had already taken place…) 

There are now three – not one, not two, but three – alternative venues that could theoretically host the championships. Crucially, however, there has also since been a UEC election which has seen new Management Committee members installed. Four of these – a majority – are from former Soviet states, which, if I’ve learned anything from many years following the Eurovision Song Contest, tend to move as a bloc.

One of these UEC Management Committee members is now, prominently, from Belarus. Natallia Tsylinskaya, a multiple former world track champion who reportedly had the Minsk velodrome built in her honour, has made public statements in support of both the Lukashenko regime and Belarus’ neighbour – and Lukashenko’s ally – Russia. Another of these is Aleksandr Gusyatnikov, a figure that has for almost 20 years sat high in the Russian Cycling Federation.

Meanwhile, the voting delegates for the upcoming UCI elections, which will install cycling’s powerbrokers for the four-year term ahead, have also been chosen. Half of these delegates represent eastern European federations.

Returning UEC candidates for the 2021-2025 UCI Management Committee include Igor Makarov, honourary president of the Russian Cycling Federation, a billionaire who has at various points had extensive business interests in Belarus – among other countries, including Turkmenistan – and is one of the most powerful but mysterious figures in the sport.  

Sounds a bit political!

Yes, it does. And if this sounds complicated, keep in mind that this is just the European Track Championships – themselves a kind of dress rehearsal for the World Track Championships, operated under the auspices of the UEC’s parent organisation, the UCI. 

This year, they’re held in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan – a country that the UCI has a curious fondness for, especially considering its manifest flaws.

The Minsk continental championships will be held in a corrupt dictatorship which suppresses free speech and political opposition and denies coronavirus. The Ashgabat track world championships will be held in a corrupt dictatorship which suppresses free speech and political opposition and denies coronavirus. Snap.

Understandably, human rights advocates and athletes concerned about their personal safety are getting twitchy about both events. Whether they can be safely navigated is anyone’s guess – but at least the journey to them has been interesting. 

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