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Opinion: A Better Way To Punish Putin And His Enablers

Sports is absolutely a valid venue for sanctions against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but the UCI’s current approach is a mess.

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On the one hand, the UCI’s announcement Wednesday of sanctions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was its strongest action, on anything, that I can remember in a quarter century of covering cycling. The sport’s governing body stripped its backing from all races in Russia and Belarus and barred their national teams from World Cups and World Championships: clear and welcome in its swiftness.

But that wasn’t all. The UCI also sidelined a handful of Russian- and Belarusian-flagged pro road teams, most prominently the Gazprom-RusVelo ProTeam, which saw its busy schedule, with wild card entries in March’s Tirreno-Adriatico, Milano-San Remo, and Volta Catalunya, suddenly get wide open.

The UCI acted under cover and direction from the International Olympic Committee, which recommended a day earlier that sports federations take steps to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials from international competition. Doing nothing wasn’t an option; I mean, even the International Cat Federation  (not, sadly, an IOC member) got into the game.

But the UCI was not only incomplete in its action, it was incoherent, even as it hinted at a fairer, more thoughtful approach. What works well for the national team-dominated Track World Cup, or Paralympics, doesn’t translate as well to pro road cycling, and Gazprom is a good example of why. In road racing, events on the WorldTour and .PRO calendars are insolubly international, contested by trade teams where athlete nationality dissolves into a sea of brightly colored jerseys with corporate logos from all over the world, with riders from as many as 19 different countries on a single team.

The UCI’s approach sweeps that nuance aside to ban teams based on where they’re legally registered, so as “not to unjustly penalize teams that are not Russian or Belarusian.” But the practical impact of that policy is just as capricious to non-Russians/Belarusians on teams from those nations. 

It means Russian Pavel Sivakov of Ineos and Canyon-SRAM’s Alena Amialiusik, a Belarusian, are free to race (Sivakov posted an anti-war statement on social media and, in any case, holds dual Russian-French citizenship). But Gazprom’s seven Italians, two Czechs, a Norwegian, a Spaniard, and even Kevin Rivera of Costa freakin’ Rica are sidelined because they have the shit luck to ride for a Russian-flagged team.

The clearest example of this logical absurdity is CCN Factory, where Ukrainian rider Vladyslav Pohorelov is now banned from racing because his country has been invaded with the help of Belarus, where his team is based.

This is, of course, ridiculous.

What should be done? The past week has seen a near-bacterial bloom of overnight military and foreign policy experts and pundits. I am not one; before last Thursday I didn’t know a Bayraktar from baklava. But I do know sports, and the UCI’s own statement suggests it knows what it should do instead.

First, what is the point of sanctions in general, and their appropriate target? The consensus seems to be that it’s pretty narrow: to inflict so much pain on the Russian state, the beady-eyed, war-criming homunculus who rules it, and the officials and instruments—like Gazprom—that enable him, that he stops the invasion. Athletes on Russian and Belarusian teams, whatever their nationality, and ordinary Russian citizens—thousands of whom have risked their lives and freedom to protest—are not our target. That is essential to remember here. This is not like Russia’s state-sponsored doping scheme, with athletes inextricably at its center.  

So here’s an alternate framework: target culpable sponsors and support the riders by effectively severing Gazprom from the team by canceling its license, which could then be renewed with a different sponsor. To ensure that the team’s Russian management can freely make that choice, the UCI should lead a “whole of sport” effort to help, like tapping the team’s bank guarantee for short-term funding, and working with current and lapsed sponsors like Look Cycle to put together a funding package for the rest of the season, and help secure a new title sponsor. (Neither Gazprom nor Look responded to questions about whether this has been explored, but Look said it would be interested in resuming support under a new title sponsor.) 

If management refuses, make the cancellation permanent and work to get riders and staff to safe countries, change their country of license, and find replacement teams. The UCI’s statement suggests it’s looking at this anyway, saying specific measures to assist riders and staff along these lines “will be studied,” but it set no timetable for action. That time is now.

Severing a team from its sponsor definitely stretches the sport’s rules, but this is an extraordinary moment. And Gazprom—which in January became Russia’s wealthiest company—isn’t long for the sport anyway: with an 80+ percent drop in market cap measured by foreign depositary receipts, oil majors like Shell exiting partnerships, and Russian securities literally uninvestable right now, the company’s finances are in dire straits.

Why do we need to do any of this, though? Can’t we just leave sports free of all this geopolitical BS? Because sports is geopolitical. Always has been. Russian dictator Vladimir Putin may not specifically know, or care, that a state-owned oil company sponsors a bike racing team, but sport in general is massively important for his promotion of Russia’s self-image. That’s why he wanted to host the World Cup and Sochi Olympics, why he authorized a huge, state-sponsored doping scheme at those same Games. 

And short of open war between Western allies and Russia, which could possibly escalate to a literally existentially bad conclusion, our best tools seem to be sending military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and making Putin and the Russian state an absolute pariah in every venue possible: political, economic, and social (including sports).

Even tightly targeted sanctions will affect innocents. It’s impossible to think, for instance, that it would be acceptable to have Russian and Belarusian national teams at World Cups and World Championships. That is a necessary cost. Besides, “no, you can’t race a bike right now” pales in comparison to thousands of war dead and a million refugees and counting.

But we must keep our humanity, including our compassion, for the Russian people, including athletes. Already there are signs that anti-Russian sentiment is spreading well beyond appropriate targets. There have been calls to mass-deport Russian students, and even former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul tweeted (and then deleted) on Wednesday that there are “no more ‘innocent’ ‘neutral’ Russians” anymore. That’s dangerous talk.

First, xenophobia is wrong, full stop. Second, it is a potentially powerful reinforcement of Putin’s persecution complex, his foundational belief that Russia is under threat from the West, which forced him to invade to “liberate” Ukraine from its poisonous influence. 

Sports officials, especially those in the Olympic movement, are fond of talking up how sports can exemplify the best of human nature, like sharing a gold medal, or expressing international solidarity for peace like the DroneHopper team did this week. Now’s the time for the UCI to back that talk with action.

It is fair to ask Gazprom-RusVelo management (or CCN) to choose between country and sport. This is, after all, a time for choosing. But the UCI should do all it can to ensure those choices are freely made, with athlete and staff welfare at the center.

Speaking of choosing, the UCI, and pro cycling, need to make some hard decisions too. Football right now is grappling with its acceptance, and even welcome, of dirty Russian money, and its turmoil should be a warning to cycling.

Instead, the UCI’s communique made no mention of its own considerable ties to Russian oligarch Igor Makarov. When my colleague Iain Treloar followed up attempting to elicit some kind of statement, the UCI said Makarov would have no comment. Makarov’s own statement, issued via his PR representative, was utterly lacking. 

As Iain has reported in depth in the past, the UCI is entirely too cozy with autocratic regimes. Men’s pro road racing is particularly problematic. Yes, most teams have straightforward corporate sponsors. But three of eighteen men’s WorldTour teams are directly backed by sovereign states with abysmal human rights records: Kazakh ruler Kassym-Jomart Tokaev’s brutal putdown of protests in his country (with an assist from Russian soldiers) was literally just weeks ago. Bahrain’s Prince Nasser is accused of personally torturing protesters in 2011. The United Arab Emirates is one of the key backers of Saudi Arabia’s long-running proxy war with Iran that has killed hundreds of thousands of civilians in Yemen and created one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. The crimes of Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman are notorious, but the Royal Commission for AlUla, backed by sovereign wealth, is now a partner of BikeExchange.

This is very simple, if not easy: pro road racing’s dysfunctional business model is just not that attractive to traditional sponsors, but it is to petro-states looking to sportswash their reputations. That’s a perilous path, and the first step off it is to divest itself of Russian blood money without punishing racers who have little to do with it. 

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