After a human rights outcry, Track Worlds 2021 has a new home

Goodbye Turkmenistan, hello Roubaix.

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The long, complicated story of the 2021 Track World Championships has taken another turn, with the UCI announcing that the event has a new host: the covered Roubaix ‘Stab’ velodrome. 

‘Stab’ velodrome – which is the one that you don’t see in Paris-Roubaix, situated next door – will hold the competition from October 20-24, and is organised by the French Cycling Federation with support from various local town, departmental, and regional stakeholders.

The event was originally slated to be held in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan – a host that the UCI copped a fair amount of grief for, on account of that country existing in a constant state of human rights violation.

The UCI claims that the event was “finally cancelled at the request of the organisers due to the health constraints and restrictions linked to the COVID-19 pandemic”. To me, that’s a pretty jarring statement, seeing as the dictator of Turkmenistan was dead keen on it, had approved vaccines for every competitor, and simultaneously refusing to acknowledge the existence of COVID-19.

Confusing? Yes, it’s that kind of place.

Image: Stab Velodrome, Facebook.

What’s the backstory? 

My goodness, how long do you have? Because in the time CyclingTips has been reporting on this, the story has gone to some pretty wild places.

Since 2006, Turkmenistan has been ruled by an eccentric of international standing called Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, who was the previous eccentric dictator’s dentist. In the years since Berdimuhamedov rose to power, he has built a personality cult around himself, written multiple books about horses and carpet, and persecuted minorities and opposition voices. He also likes bikes and sportswashing, probably in the opposite order.

In 2018, Turkmenistan was awarded the 2021 Track World Championships by the UCI. In 2020, UCI president David Lappartient and the influential Russian oligarch Igor Makarov – a UCI Management Committee member – went above and beyond by jumping on a Zoom call, handing Berdimuhamedov a mysterious award, and then failing to disclose it publicly, even after CyclingTips broke the story. 

Awarding a dictator struck us as a little odd, so we decided to dive down some rabbit holes. Five months later, we came out with an extensive investigation of Makarov’s influence in the sport, an assessment of Lappartient’s integrity, and an examination of the shadowy plays and backhanded deals motivating the governance of cycling.

The increased public scrutiny on the Turkmen Track Worlds appeared to have put the UCI in a difficult position. It’s hard to talk up “cycling for all” and “the UCI’s commitment to eradicating all forms of discrimination from cycling and encouraging diversity and equality” when you are sliding awards and sportswashing opportunities to a despot that persecutes homosexuality, religious and political minorities, and is in a race to the bottom with North Korea for “world’s worst freedom of speech”, according to the Press Freedom Index.

In June 2021, citing the difficulties of COVID-19 as the reasoning – despite Turkmenistan not officially acknowledging its existence – the UCI announced that the Track World Champs had been moved. Glasgow was announced as the new host in a UCI tweet that was then swiftly removed. 

Finally, it’s landed somewhere else: Roubaix’s second most atmospheric velodrome. In a UCI press release, David Lappartient congratulated the Roubaix organising committee “and all the authorities involved for the quality of their candidature file … I am convinced that the magnificent Jean-Stablinski velodrome will showcase an exceptional event!”

The magnificent Jean-Stablinski velodrome in question.

This is a good thing, right? 

I mean, yes? I suppose so. The last Track Worlds was way back in the early pandemic days of February 2020, with most of the racing opportunities that followed thwarted by COVID-related cancellations. At least this means that athletes get to compete. 

There are a few things that are a bit odd, though.

1. Timing

It’s less than a fortnight after the European Track Championships. Like the Ashgabat Track Worlds, that was an event with some pretty serious human rights-related red flags flying over it, as CyclingTips reported on extensively at the time.

A Belarusian flag flies over the Minsk velodrome.

To recap: Euro Track Champs were scheduled to be held in Minsk, Belarus, in June – with the organisers steadfast about that plan, despite approaches from multiple other federations to hold the event. However, after Alexander Lukashenko, the dictator of Belarus, forced down a passing commercial flight to arrest a dissident, global condemnation was swift and a number of cycling federations boycotted the event.

There was a bit of a jostle for hosting rights after Belarus lost them (thread below):

… but finally, Grenchen in Switzerland got the gig, with the event due to run from 5–9 October 2021 – wrapping up 11 days before Track Worlds. Take that, athlete tapering!

2. Venue

For a Track World Championships, Stab velodrome is a bit of a strange choice. With all due respect to the fine administrators of the velodrome, it’s usually used for regional competitions. More curiously, it doesn’t even meet the UCI’s own prerequisites for consideration as a venue. Instead of a seating capacity of 5,000, it can take just 1,500 spectators.

The championships are also going for a song: La Voix du Nord, a local newspaper from the Roubaix region, reports that the whole thing will be put on for €600,000, which is much cheaper than the UCI would normally allow a world championships to go for. 

The bargain price and strange location is, at least partially, likely to do with the late notice. After Ashgabat Track Worlds had the rug pulled out, there was just a few months to find an alternative host. Lappartient is of course well connected with the French Cycling Federation – he’s a former president – and might have something to do with it, too. 

La Voix du Nord hints as much, saying that “David Lappartient was looking for the easy solution in his country”.

That country is jam-packed with cycling events for the next few years. As French cycling president Michel Callot points out, this iteration of Track Worlds will “be the prelude to a 2022 that will see France stage three UCI Cycling World Championships: BMX in Nantes, mountain bike in Les Gets, and track cycling in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines. With three years to go until the Olympic Games Paris 2024, France is a land of cycling like never before.”

For illustrative purposes, here’s Lappartient posing in front of another French velodrome.

France’s premier velodrome, Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines – which will be the track venue for the Paris 2024 Olympics and Track Worlds in 2022 – was unavailable this year as it is presently being used as a vaccination centre. The city of Roubaix, meanwhile, was reportedly tapped on the shoulder during the Tokyo Olympic Games after talks between the UCI and members of the French delegation. 

The Stab velodrome is wrapping up its own shift as a vaccination centre by the end of September, in preparation for its role at Paris–Roubaix (Sunday, October 3) where it is the base for logistical support and hosts the press centre. 

Wrapping up

So: 2021 Track Worlds and Euro Track championships both have new venues. That’s progress, because the fact that they were both originally slated to be held in oppressive dictatorships was not a good look, no matter how you try to spin it.

What is more ambiguous is whether the conditions that led to the selection of those hosts in the first place still exist. Have there been any lessons learnt in the sport’s administration from the public response to the handling of these two incidents? Where does the necessity for funding from hosting rights intersect with respect for human rights? Should we demand more from the UCI? Is it their obligation to provide it?

For now, at least, sense seems to have prevailed. Goodbye Minsk and Ashgabat; hello Grenchen and Roubaix.

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