In March this blog looked at the award of the 2013 track world championships to Belarus, a decision taken with input from a senior UCI official with a significant financial interest in a giant construction project in the capital, Minsk. Whether coincidental or not, the awarding of the worlds served to highlight the significant conflict of interest between the UCI’s sporting interests and the business activities of Igor Makarov, the Russian oligarch behind the Katusha team who now sits at the UCI’s top table, the Management Committee.
Now it’s time to take another look because sadly the overlap between sport and business is not restricted to one case. In another example here is a tale from Turkmenistan.
Turkmenistan is a tough place. Political opposition to the ruling party does not exist… because it is illegal and in the last elections the President won with 97% of the vote, the others who stood in the election were candidates standing in support, not opposition. It’s rated the third last on the index run by Reporters Without Borders.
But Turkmenistan scores high in other areas, notably with world’s fourth-largest reserves of natural gas. It’s also got some quirky architecture. The capital city Ashgabat features a giant construction called the Arch of Neutrality that is topped with a golden statue of the country’s President that rotates to follow the sun. There’s a photo essay if you want a bigger picture.
In 2010 Turkmenistan announced a project to build an Olympic village full of world-class sporting venues. Only the country is not on the IOC’s long list of candidate bids for the summer or winter games this side of 2028. The idea is to offer sports facilities for all, a bold project ordered by President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, often known as Arkadag, “The Patron”.
The budget is estimated at $2 billion and when built the facilities will host the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games but the longer term viability remains to be seen given no other sports contests are planned and previous construction efforts for an ice-rink and other facilities have seen the installations left crumbling according to a leaked US diplomatic cable. It looks like the kind of folly only an oil-rich dictator would try.
So what’s this got to do with cycling?
It turns out current UCI President Pat McQuaid has been a visitor to Turkmenistan. That’s all good, he’s supporting cycling all around the world and encouraging new facilities to be built. He went in 2008 and came back as one of three guests of honour in 2010 to attend the ceremony marking the start of the olympian construction ceremonies, here’s the official account:
The President noted that at the first stage of the Olympic Village Project about 30 sports and social facilities would be constructed… …About US$ 2 billion would be allocated for construction of the first facilities in the Olympic Village, said the President expressing belief that this would profoundly contribute to promoting different sports in our country, bringing up a physically strong and spiritually healthy generation, holding large-scale international competitions and achieving high results on the sports arena.
The Turkmen leader’s speech was greeted with the storm of applause. Then the Turkmen leader affixed his signature to the message to descendants and put it into a golden ball. Then the guests of honour addressed ceremony participants and organizers. The floor was given to Patrick McQuaid, President of the International Cycling Union, a member of the International Olympic Committee, Dr. Santiparb Pantija Wanija, Advisor to the President of the Olympic Council of Asia and Igor Makarov, CEO of the Itera International Group of companies, who had been recently appointed Chairman of the Russian Cycling Federation.
Note Igor Makarov pops up again as one of the other guests of honour. A Russian, he was born in Turkmenistan and today he is the head of Russian Cycling and has recently become one of the UCI’s most senior officials. But he is also Chairman of Itera, a gas trading company that was founded in Turkmenistan. Itera remains true to its roots and has extensive operations in Turkmenistan, indeed it recently trumped oil majors Lukoil and ConocoPhilips to win the oil and gas extraction rights in a large block of the Caspian Sea in Turkmen waters, a project involving billions of dollars.
Indeed as McQuaid was praising his hosts and declaring he hoped to return one day to see the Olympics taking part, Makarov was busy lobbying for a slice of the action. Here’s Turkmenistan Magazine reporting:
The President and his guest also discussed a number of major projects entrusted to Itera in Turkmenistan, including the construction of a modern equestrian complex in Balkan province and others. Igor Makarov also expressed willingness of Itera to take part in the construction of the Olympic village in Ashgabat.
So it seems Mr Makarov has a dual role. One minute he’s got his Russian Cycling hat on… the next he’s fishing for oil or construction contacts. Igor Makarov started Itera and has impeccable connections in the country so he already has his foot in the door if you like, indeed there are stories he gifted a yacht to the Turkmen President but they are denied. But his business is bidding for valuable construction projects and has even thwarted bigger oil companies for exploration and extraction licences in the Caspian Sea.
Things have not been so rosy between the UCI and Turmenistan. Last September the Turkmenistan federation was suspended from the UCI because of arrears in paying membership fees to the UCI. But this was resolved in December.
A follow up to last March’s piece on Belarus, again we see an overlap between noble ideas of promoting sport and the commercial imperatives of construction contracts and energy deals. A concern is that the UCI is attending sporting ceremonies for all the right reasons, namely to promote cycling but unwittingly its presence generates goodwill and publicity for those chasing business deals whether Makarov and Itera or more broadly the commercial interests of Russia.
Once again the UCI probably has to think about ways to protect itself from governance hiccups, to ensure its most senior officials can be seen to separate business and sport. Better governance means a stronger UCI.