(Alexander Vinokourov leading the breakaway group of the 2012 London Olympic Road Race along Upper Richmond Rd, about 10km from the finish line at The Mall. Wikipedia Commons)
(Hal Foster appears in the Baltimore Post-Examiner under a partnership with Tengrinews of Kazakhstan. )
Kazakhstan cyclist Alexander Vinokourov’s gold medal in London over the weekend was one of the great comeback stories in Olympic sports.
To get to the winner’s podium, the man whose adoring fans know as Vino had to overcome a two-year suspension for doping five years ago and a shattered leg from a horrific cycling accident last year. His leg was broken in so many places that doctors had to insert a metal plate in it.
Also on his way to Olympic gold, the 38-year-old Vinokourov had to weather a storm that his doping suspension caused in the ranks of Kazakhstan’s national cycling squad, Team Astana. The manager and 14 riders – including the fabled Lance Armstrong — left when the Kazakhstan Cycling Federation allowed Vinokourov to rejoin the team in 2009.
Vinokourov’s determination to return to Team Astana was rooted in the fact that he helped found the squad in 2007. Team Astana’s success has not only put Kazakhstan on the international cycling map. It’s also helped promote its image as one of the world’s fastest-growing nations.
Vinokourov’s victory in London over second-place Rigoberto Uran of Columbia and third-place Alexander Kristoff of Norway was the high point of a career that started when he was 11. He decided to go out on that high, announcing that he was retiring as a competitive cyclist after the Olympics.
Vinokourov will continue to have an impact on Kazakhstan cycling for decades to come, however, as the heir apparent to the president of the national cycling federation.
Only 12 months separated the low point of his career from the high point of attaining Olympic gold.
On the eighth stage of last year’s 24-stage Tour de France, Vinokourov swerved on a steep descent to avoid a cyclist who had crashed. He lost control of his bike and flew into a tree-filled gorge.
At the time, he was ranked the world’s seventh-best cyclist.
Vinokourov lay in his hospital bed gloomy, thinking he’d never compete again.
“After so many crashes,” particularly the devastating Tour de France accident, “returning to cycling was difficult,” he told journalists after his London victory.
“I still have the metal plate in my hip, my femur, so it wasn’t easy.” But today “a dream has come true.”
The Tour de France also was the backdrop for his other career low point – the doping suspension.
Cycling’s world governing body, the Aigle, Switzerland-based Union Cycliste Internationale, suspended him when his doping test at the sport’s most renowned competition came back positive.
The suspension prevented Vinokourov, who had finished third in the Tour de France in 2003, from competing at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. He had won a silver medal at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, so many of his fans believed he was in good position to capture gold in Beijing.
It wasn’t surprising that journalists covering the cycling competition in London asked Vinokourov about the suspension after his victory. It was equally unsurprising that he was reluctant to discuss it.
“2007 is a closed chapter,” he said. “I proved that I can come back and race and be good on the bike.”
Then he made a comment that was intriguing because it praised the very body – the Union Cycliste Internationale – that had suspended him for doping.
“Cycling has changed a lot,” he said. “Organizers (of competitions) and the UCI have done a lot to fight doping.”
A key question that arose during Vinokourov’s suspension in 2007 and 2008 was whether he should be allowed to rejoin Kazakhstan’s national cycling squad, Team Astana, in 2009.
Kazakhstan Cycling Federation officials never doubted what they’d decide.
There would have been no Team Astana without Vinokourov, these officials knew. Kazakhstan cycling owed him big-time.
The Soviet Union was a major player in cycling in the 1970s and 1980s, Team Astana Commercial Director Aidar Makhmetov said in an interview with me last year.
But the disintegration of the U.S.S.R. in the early 1990s led to the collapse of many Soviet institutions, including cycling.
Until Team Astana came along, former Soviet countries had struggled to regain their cycling prowess.
Vinokourov and another Kazakhstan cycling legend, Andrey Kashechkin, were the driving force behind the founding of Team Astana.
When they decided in 2006 to seek support for the idea of a world-class cycling club in Kazakhstan, they went right to the top: President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Nazarbayev, a sports fan, gave the go-ahead. Team Astana sprang up shortly thereafter, with a coalition of government agencies in oil- and gas-rich Kazakhstan paying the bills.
It was a striking departure from the normal cycling-club financing model of corporate sponsorship.
Two Cycling Grand Tour winners, America’s Armstrong and Spain’s Alberto Contador, joined Team Astana in its first three years. So did Grand Tour runners-up Levi Leipheimer of the United States and Andreas Kloden of Germany.
Team Astana became the world’s top cycling club in 2009, only three years after it was founded.
But the question of whether Vinokourov should be reinstated tore the club apart. The team’s manager, Johan Bruyneel, and 14 of his riders left in protest after the season was over.
Contador, who had eclipsed Armstrong as the world’s premier rider, and three other Spanish riders stayed on, ensuring that Team Astana would remain an international-cycling force. The team was ranked third in 2010.
The president of the Kazakhstan Cycling Federation, Deputy Prime Minister Kairat Kelimbetov, signaled a year ago that Vinokourov would replace him when Vino was ready.
The change of command is expected any time, now that Vinokourov has said he’ll no longer race competitively.
His longtime fans are delighted he’ll be assuming the top position, partly because he’s pledged to develop homegrown talent instead of relying so much on expensive imports.
“We should have good strong Kazakh guys” on any team that represents the country, Team Astana’s Makhmetov told me last year.
Vinokourov’s two decades of success have already prompted a lot of young Kazakhs to take up cycling.
His dramatic story of going from hospital sickbed to Olympic gold is sure to attract even more recruits.
Hal Foster is a longtime journalist and journalism professor who has worked in the United States, Japan, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. His news career has included writing and editing at the Los Angeles Times and nine years as a journalist in Japan. He is an associate professor of Communication at the new Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan. Catch one of his other blogs at en.tengrinews.kz.