Tour de France win good for Kaza­khstan

The world’s largest land­locked coun­try is look­ing to change its im­age, and in­vest­ing in sport is part of the strat­egy. One of the dis­ci­plines that has at­tracted the most fund­ing is cy­cling, and that paid off last month when Italy’s Vin­cenzo Nibali led hom

Outlook - - SPORTS - By Tim Witcher

Hol­ly­wood un­leashed Bo­rat on Kaza­khstan's im­age, so the oil-rich Cen­tral Asian na­tion hit back with Ital­ian rider Vin­cenzo Nibali and it be­lieves his Tour de France vic­tory helps put the record straight.

Nibali's tri­umph on the Champs El­y­sees on July 27 con­cluded an eight year campaign by his As­tana Pro Team - named af­ter the Kazakh cap­i­tal and funded by the coun­try's sov­er­eign wealth fund - to get peo­ple talk­ing about the world's big­gest land­locked na­tion.

"This has been a very suc­cess­ful project, if you took the math­e­mat­ics, how many times As­tana was named in so­cial me­dia and in newspa-

pers and on TV," said Kairat Ke­lim­be­tov, pres­i­dent of Kazakh Cy­cling, gover­nor of the coun­try's cen­tral bank and a for­mer deputy prime min­is­ter.

The team's tribu­la­tions with drug-tainted rid­ers and fi­nan­cial crises could have re­in­forced the rep­u­ta­tion built by Sacha Baron Co­hen's 2006

mock­ing doc­u­men­tary Bo­rat: Cul­tural Learn­ings of Amer­ica for Make Ben­e­fit Glo­ri­ous Na­tion of Kaza­khstan.

"The power of sport is very strong," Ke­lim­be­tov said in an in­ter­view af­ter the Tour vic­tory by the team's star Ital­ian rider.

"As­tana is part of a big PR strat­egy to just give peo­ple an idea that there is a state in cen­tral Asia, that is big, the size of Western Europe, the ninth big­gest in the world, and we are part of the global com­mu­nity," he added.

The cy­cling team has made global head­lines with a mod­est bud­get of US$15 mil­lion a year out of about $100 mil­lion a year spent on the As­tana Pres­i­den­tial Sports Club, ac­cord­ing to Ke­lim­be­tov.

And the Club aims to make it­self seen and heard even more in cy­cling and other sports.

Kaza­khstan's Real Madrid

The Club has seven pro­fes­sional sports teams, in­clud­ing a $50 mil­lion a year ice-hockey squad and a foot­ball team, all with the aim of "pro­ject­ing a pos­i­tive im­age" of Kaza­khstan abroad and en­cour­ag­ing sport at home.

"It is like a Real Madrid in Kaza­khstan," said

Ke­lim­be­tov. The As­tana Ar­lans box­ing team won the in­au­gu­ral World Se­ries of Box­ing ti­tle last year. The Club also sup­ports Ilya Ilyin, a dou­ble Olympic cham­pion weightlifter, and De­nis Ten, who won fig­ure skat­ing bronze at the Sochi Win­ter Olympics this year.

The cy­cling team was set up in 2006, just as "Bo­rat" was be­ing re­leased, though Ke­lim­be­tov said there was no link between the two.

The club was set up to sup­port Kaza­khstan's star rider Alexan­der Vi­nok­ourov who won the Tour of Spain that year for the team.

But soon af­ter he was in­volved in a dop­ing scan­dal in 2007 that led to a two year ban.

Vi­nok­ourov, a "na­tional hero" in Kaza­khstan, is now As­tana's gen­eral man­ager.

As­tana later signed Al­berto Con­ta­dor who won the Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a Es­pana in 2008. In 2009, seven-time Tour de France win­ner Lance Arm­strong came out of re­tire­ment and joined As­tana.

Con­ta­dor won the 2010 Tour de France but had the ti­tle taken away af­ter fail­ing a drug test. Arm­strong, later stripped of his record seven Tour de France ti­tles for dop­ing, left that year in a dis­pute over the re­turn of Vi­nok­ourov.

That was when Ke­lim­be­tov took con­trol to sort out its fi­nances and its scan­dals. The team set up a pro­gramme with cy­cling's gov­ern­ing body, the UCI, to avoid dop­ing vi­o­la­tions.

"Ac­tu­ally As­tana was prob­a­bly the first team who re­ally started five years ago to clean up the house and we are now fol­low­ing all th­ese rules," he said.

Ke­lim­be­tov said that be­fore his ar­rival, the au­thor­i­ties had con­sid­ered clos­ing the cy­cling team.

As a lead­ing voice on the As­tana Pres­i­den­tial Sports Club, Ke­lim­be­tov said it was de­ter­mined to prove that Nibali was not a one-off. "We would like this to be a long sport­ing story," he said.

The 2014 Tour de France win­ner Italy's Vin­cenzo Nibali poses on the podium on the Champs-El­y­sees in Paris on July 27. AFP Photo

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