The 2006 Tour de France is turning out to be one of the
strangest in history. Drug scandals, the favourites falling off their bikes at
every corner, and now this, a sponsorship story straight out of the
truth-is-stranger-than-fiction handbook.

The Madrid drug scandal had dire ramifications for two
Spanish teams invited to the Tour de France. One second division team had their
invitation withdrawn, while Protour team Liberty Seguros missed out on a
technicality.

It was the fourth doping incident concerning the Liberty
team in under one year, and their sponsor did not hesitate in cancelling the
contract. The team had one of the favourites for this year’s Tour, Kazakh
Alexandre Vinokourov.

A new sponsor was found within a week, a rather speedy
process that exposed a lack of due
diligence for the eight
million Euro contract. The sponsor is a Kazakh consortium of five resource
companies, under the “Astana” name. Astana is the capital of Kazakhstan, and
the sponsorship was at the behest of Kazakhstan’s Prime Minister Daniyal
Akhmetov who is a personal friend of Vinokourov and the head of the national
cycling federation.

This marketing vehicle is dubious because of the branding
(read lack of), and its complete lack of any links to cycling, its fans, and
its markets. The capital of Kazakhstan should not require a tourism
advertisement, nor should it require a prestige sponsorship to lure investment.
The most suspicious peculiarity is the source of financialcapital, considering resource companies will be bidding, lobbying, and
tendering for concessions. This raises the question of conflict of interest and
government malfeasance.

The Tour de France sought to deny their inclusion in an
appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which prompted the Kazakh Prime
Minister to threaten French investments in Kazakhstan. While the
Kazakh economy rides a resource boom, so, it seems, will cycling.

Peter Fray

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