Brian Cookson: UCI should take 'tough decision' to suspend Russian athletes

Former UCI president says cycling's governing body needs to do more after Russian invasion of Ukraine

Brian Cookson
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Russian athletes should be suspended from cycling in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the former UCI president Brian Cookson has said.

Asked if cycling's governing body should follow the International Olympic Committe (IOC) call for international sporting federations and organisers to prevent Russian and Belarusian athletes from taking part in their events, telling Cycling Weekly that it "probably should happen, at the present time".

Cookson, who was president of the UCI between 2013 and 2017 said: "I say that reluctantly and with a heavy heart, because I don't really want to penalise innocent athletes, but I don't know what else sport can do to signify sport's disapproval at the present time. I think probably, it's time that sport took those kinds of tough decisions."

Russia invaded Ukraine last week, in a move that has been condemned by the international community. It has used Belarus as a staging post for the invasion, and it has been reported that the country may join Russia in invading.

On Monday, the IOC recommended that Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials should not be allowed to participate in international competitions. The UCI has not responded to the statement yet, but is believed to be preparing to do so on Tuesday.

Cookson argued: "Certainly, the UCI needs to do something more than it has already done.

"I think it would be better if sport spoke in harmony, so I think probably the UCI needs to take its lead from the IOC," he said. "I'd be happier if the IOC were a bit more forthright than they have been so far. I see for once FIFA and UEFA have taken a stronger ethical stance on this, not before time. 

"I think in the past on the issue of doping, the IOC have been too weak, so now when this is something more serious, now they need to up their game considerably. If sport is going to take the lead ethically, then now is the time."

However, Cookson cautioned that the issue was "a lot more complicated" than it seemed.

"It's quite easy to have a knee-jerk reaction, but thinking these things through it's a lot more complicated than perhaps you might imagine at first glance. There are a number of issues here."

Gazprom-RusVelo team 2022

(Image credit: Getty Images)

He explained: "Firstly there are individual Russian riders, who are in teams, some of them may be sponsored by Russian companies or interests, some, mostly, may not. You've got someone like [Pavel] Sivakov at Ineos Grenadiers, who has already tweeted his opposition to the war which is a brave thing to do really. 

"Then you've got teams like Gazprom-RusVelo that are sponsored by Russian interests... Gazprom is Russian whether they like it or not. I've never understood what the commerical interest is from Gazprom sponsoring sports itself, clearly it is about soft power. 

"Then you've got Russian national teams, and the next UCI event I can see that's coming up is the new Nations Cup event in Glasgow in May, where there will be an actual Russian team. If the UCI is going to take a decision to ban Russian teams, that will be the first opportunity to do that. Whether they will or not is another matter."

Gazprom-RusVelo's bike and wheel technical partners, Look and Corima, withdrew their sponsorship of the team on Tuesday. Cookson said: "I think the opportunity is there for them to ride in plain jerseys, for the UCI to insist that they drop Gazprom from their jerseys for at least a limited time."

However, he added: "The question is, are you actually making any impact with that? Is Putin going to take the slightest bit of notice? I doubt whether he would even be aware that this is a Gazprom cycling team. On the other hand, is that going to add to the impact on ordinary Russian people, are they going to say that now it's even cycling, not that cycling is a very big sport in Russia. There are some difficult issues to be resolved there."

The former UCI president called suspending Russian athletes an "unusual, unprecedented step". He said: "I can't think of it ever happening before, maybe going back to the anti-apartheid era. It's full of contradictions, you see what Saudi Arabia is doing in Yemen, what's the difference there? Maybe there is a difference, I don't know, I'm not an expert on geopolitics."

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