So…that Oleg Tinkoff is a character eh?
At a press conference at Google HQ in London on 2nd December 2013, the Russian businessman announced his purchase of the Saxo-Tinkoff pro cycling team from previous owner Bjarne Riis, who retains his position as team manager in the team now known as Tinkoff-Saxo (full report can be found here). As usual Tinkoff – the successful, charismatic and wealthy founder of Tinkoff Credit Systems – put on quite a show.
When quizzed on the prevalence of doping in cycling (a pretty big question for a new team owner at a time when, post Armstrong, the sport is still firmly wrapped up in it’s metaphorical hair shirt) Tinkov replied “doping is over, cycling has changed…I can’t guarantee it but lately I haven’t heard anything…maybe it happens in the small teams, the junior teams, where they think it enhances performance, but in the serious peloton, I never hear anything about that.”
Not sure about you, but I would describe that as breezing past the subject. In other words, ‘don’t worry, it’s not a problem; there was a massive problem and now, all of a sudden, there’s no problem at all…just like that’. Of course it’s in his interest as owner of a team whose manager and star rider both have doping in their past to paint a whiter than white picture, but even the most optimistic cycling fan wouldn’t claim that there is suddenly no problem. Tinkoff is saying ‘actually, you don’t even need to worry about this any more and you certainly don’t need to ask me any more questions…so come on, move along’.
And how about the bit where he said “…the junior teams, who think it enhances performance…” Which translates to me as ‘so, y’know even if people are taking performance enhancing drugs…which they’re not…they actually don’t even enhance performance so, y’know, as I said…let’s all move along and talk about something else’.
So, as good journalists should, they picked up on all this doublespeak and pushed Tinkoff’s buttons a bit more. As the doping questions continued…and don’t forget, Brailsford has to field these questions, as does Vaughters, Ochowicz, Lefevere, and all the other team bosses…Tinkoff’s response was undiplomatic: “Zero tolerance to the doping and let’s stop here,” he said. “Fuck your doping questions, I don’t care about doping, I tell you matters of fact. The fact is that I have been involved with teams for five years with zero doping cases. Zero doping cases. So there is no tolerance. Never, ever have my riders been involved in doping, as an owner or a sponsor. Next question.”
So he’s getting bit angry now, a bit defensive maybe? Thinking ‘don’t these journalists understand, I’m in charge of this news story, I’ve told you there is no doping problem in cycling anymore, that problem has ended, stop asking me about it’.
Of course, Tinkoff might be a bit touchy having got a mention in Tyler Hamilton’s 2012 expose of widespread doping in the peloton, ‘The Secret Race’, where he alleged that Tinkoff had, in the past, allowed doping on the Tinkoff Credit Systems team. The Russian was, of course, less than impressed with this: “Why would I read such a shit? I am mentioned in many, many books, my friend. I am quite famous, so I don’t even bother to read them. I have written myself two books, so what? I don’t read a lot but when I have the time, I read something proper. But not this sort of bullshit,” Tinkov said. “I never read it. I met him like you, one time in my life for five days, and then I never saw him again.”
Crikey, where to start with that? Angry, self-aggrandising, dismissive…and slightly odd…”I am mentioned in many books, my friend, so why would I bother to read them?”
Not quite what you would call a balanced response, is it?
But, to be fair, and for the sake of balance, some people quite like characters such as Tinkoff. I suppose he is entertaining, in a jaw dropping i-can’t-quite-believe-he-gets-away-with-this kind of way, but is he the right man to be a prominent team owner as cycling tries hard to mend it’s image? Whether I think he is or not is fairly irrelevant; he’s clearly a man with power, wealth and influence, and has decided he wants to own a big team. End of story. He reminds me of an American politician where sweeping generalisations, confidence, money and a winning smile can get you a long way. He’s ballsy and confident, he is hugely wealthy and successful, and he makes things happen. Can’t argue with that.
From a distance Tinkoff seems to have that personality trait that you see with a lot of successful and powerful people (perhaps one of the reasons why they are successful and powerful) – the need to control the agenda and the narrative, as if he decides what the truth of a given situation is, and if the facts can’t get organised enough to back him up on it, he’ll just run with it anyway through force of personality.
In recent times Team Sky have implemented a zero tolerance policy on doping, extending this to staff as well as riders, and taking into account historical incidents…and they’ve been widely criticised for it.
Team Garmin-Sharp promote a transparent and drug free philosophy, and have a policy of signing up and ‘rehabilitating’ reformed dopers (co-owner David Millar and team boss Jonathan Vaughters fit this description) and they too, at times, get their share of criticism.
And yet here we have a team with a manager (Riis) with a doping past and a team leader (Contador) with a recent doping ban to his name, neither of whom, in my opinion, contribute positively to the fight against doping. Add the fact that their team is owned by a man who seems to think that an acceptable approach to the doping problem is to assure us, with a wave of the hand, that ‘there’s really no problem and everything’s fine, and lets all just stop asking these silly questions shall we?’
For those of us who care about the sport (as opposed to the business) of pro cycling, is that an acceptable approach?
Make up your own mind, but personally, I’m less than convinced.
(To clarify, during this article, when I use single quotation marks (‘) I am indicating that these are fictional pronouncements and thoughts, and are based on my opinions. Only where I use double quotation marks (“) am I quoting an individual).