Kazakhstan looks for an image adjustment from cycling
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    • Filled in News in English 13 Февраль 2009 в 2:07, author: KazakhNeRider
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    Kazakhstan looks for an image adjustment from cycling

    Published: Wednesday, February 11, 2009 at 8:30 p.m.
    Last Modified: Wednesday, February 11, 2009 at 8:48 p.m.

    To understand exactly what Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer and the rest of the Astana team face, consider what Kazakhstan embassy spokesman Roman Vassilenko thought he had to do in the fall of 2006.

    Vassilenko issued a press release to inform the world, among other things, that the traditional Kazakh beverage is not fermented horse urine. It’s fermented horse milk.

    Vassilenko was responding to the movie comedy, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.” Kazakhstan, only 15 years old at the time and in desperate search for a national identity, didn’t have much of a sense of humor. Even though the movie was clearly a satire and poked more fun at America than Kazakhstan, the government feared much of the world might not get the joke.

    That Borat, as another example, was wrong in claiming Kazakhstan’s space program launches chimpanzees and toddlers into orbit.

    Kazakhstan, Vassilenko said, participates in the International Space Station Program by hosting the station’s docking site in its semi-arid environment, with chimpanzees and toddlers going nowhere except to their parents.

    “They (the Kazakhstan government) needed to change their image after the Borat movie,” said Viatcheslav Ekimov, a director of sport for Astana, which also is the name of Kazakhstan’s capitol. “It was huge damage to their country.”

    Kazakhstan, a Central Asian nation almost four times the size of Texas, didn’t want the world’s first impression of it to be the reason for a laugh track. So how to change it? Specifically, how to change it fast, overnight being best? Sports of course was the ready-made answer. The international currency that sports provides, when floated in sufficient quantity, buys gobs of recognition and good will, promotes curiosity and then tourism and, ultimately, worldwide investment in its resources and people.

    Other than soccer, no other sport travels as well globally than cycling. And other than Muhammad Ali, no other name in sports travels with as much cache as Armstrong’s. To Armstrong’s resume staple Levi Leipheimer’s, and Alberto Contador’s, and Andreas Kloden’s, and Chris Horner’s. It is the most talented team in 2009, outrageously talented, with riders who have won eight Tour de Frances, two Tour of Californias, the Tour of Italy, three U.S. Road Racing championships and more stage wins on the Grand Tours than confetti in a ticket-tape parade.

    All that’s missing is George Steinbrenner making bodacious insults.

    “We are definitely the strongest team on paper,” Ekimov said.

    This is not by accident of course. Kazakhstan might have sought Mark Cavendish and Floyd Landis and Carlos Sastre if they were available. When a country feels slighted, embarrassment is not forgotten or the commitment to dislodge it.

    “If Astana was to win the Tour de France this year . . . ,” I began.

    “It (victory) would become the business card for the country,” Ekimov quickly responded. “When the Kazakhstan’s president would talk to a president from another country, I’m sure the first reaction would be the congratulate the Kazakhstan president. Astana (the cycling team) has become an international project. It is the bridge to the country. It would open many doors.”

    Of the 21 corporations that sponsor Astana, 14 are state-supported entities. It is like an Olympic national team except only 10 of the 27 riders on the team are Kazakhs, with Spaniards, German, Swiss and Americans filling out the United Nations Of Cycling. Its most important riders are not Kazakhs. In fact, Armstrong has never visited Kazakhstan. His absence, oddly enough, has muted his relative importance to the government officials. Yes, they know his name, his impact but they haven’t seen the lightning bolt of excitement Armstrong causes as he walks, talks or bikes.

    “They don’t know what they have yet,” said Ekimov, 44. “They have never met Lance. They don’t know Lance. But it’s like they own this home and it has turned into a castle and they don’t know it yet.”

    But they know Armstrong by reputation and it was enough for the Kazakh socialist government to make a statement. With the national airline, national electrical company and national mineral research company among its sponsors, with the team colors the country’s colors, 15,340,533 people want to believe ESPN and Barack Obama will be showing up any day now. They are ready for people to take their oil, since they have the world’s ninth largest deposit of the stuff. They are ready to be a movie set, not the butt of Borat.

    “It’s the third biggest country in the region,” said Ekimov, mentioning China and Russia, “and almost no one is speaking of Kazakhstan. There are maybe four or five places in the world that have incredible beauty and Kazakhstan is one of them. The people are very friendly. You never see sad faces.”

    Unless you ask them if they launch toddlers into outer space.

    The day they can laugh at that sentence is the day Kazakhstan has stopped being invisible.

    For more on North Bay sports go to Bob Padecky’s blog at padecky@pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5490 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.

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