At last, the mystery buyer of the world’s most expensive piece of sports memorabilia has been revealed as the Russian tycoon Alisher Usmanov. The cuddly oligarch purchased Pierre de Coubertin’s original 1892 Olympic manifesto for $8.8m (£6.8m) in December – a whole week after he had suggested Wada’s Russian doping ban was a “lynching”, and a whole two weeks after the IOC president, Thomas Bach, had awarded Usmanov the IOC Trophy of Olympic Values in his capacity as the deep-pocketed bankroller and president of the International Fencing Federation. As Bach advised delegates at the ceremony: “Be a part of the change you want to see.”
Despite being a man not universally hailed as a great listener, perhaps Usmanov took Bach’s friendly advice on board. He has now made known his identity as the buyer of the De Coubertin manifesto, which – in a sensational act of kindness – he has donated to the Olympic Museum. On Monday he posed for pictures with an emotional Bach and the document. “Pierre de Coubertin had a vision of a world united by athletic pursuits and not divided by confrontations and wars,” Usmanov declared. “I believe that the Olympic Museum is the most appropriate place to keep this priceless manuscript.”
Totally. For his part, Bach was lengthily effusive, offering several variations on: “Today we are witnessing history.” It wouldn’t be the first time he’d been grateful to Usmanov. At the same December ceremony that Usmanov was awarded the trophy of Olympic Values, the International Fencing Federation opted to present a gong to the person who has shown “the most chivalrous and unselfish attitude and spirit of sportsmanship and fair play”. And in an instance of synchronicity you’d struggle to describe as anything other than Jungian, that person turned out to be none other than Thomas Bach. I know! What are the chances?
Coincidentally, Bach is a former fencer, along with Usmanov, Pavel Kolobkov, who was until two weeks ago the Russian sports minister, and the Russian Olympic Committee chair, Stanislav Pozdnyakov. But please don’t think this is some kind of closed shop. For instance, in 2015, Bach presented the Olympic Order to the president of the Russian Rhythmic Gymnastic Federation, who – in unrelated news - is related to Usmanov by marriage. Specifically, she is his wife.
What else can be said about Usmanov? Formerly a significant investor in Facebook, he controls Russia’s second-biggest phone network, has a stake in its largest internet company and owns Metalloinvest, a hugely successful mining company which still sounds like someone named it in a hurry. “Just call it... Metall … o … invest. Metalloninvest. Shut up – it sounds fine – just file the paperwork and let’s start coining it.” Other than that, Alisher’s interweb presence has been carefully curated. When one PR firm overstepped the mark by editing unpleasantness out of his Wikipedia entry, they swiftly coughed to acting alone. So please don’t picture Usmanov’s image management as a sort of hole in the wall, through which tainted internet has been passed, while samples of clean internet have been passed the other way.
Whichever way you slice it, though, it’s been a busy couple of sport-related months for Usmanov. Aside from the lynching letter and the reciprocal awardfest with Bach, he also struck a £30m deal for naming rights to Everton’s new stadium. Everton’s majority shareholder is Usmanov’s business partner, Farhad Moshiri. Much of this football activity on Usmanov’s behalf is apparently to get over his love for Arsenal, after he sold his 30% stake in the club in 2018. “What is the remedy for love? New love,” he explained to the FT in a recent lunchtime interview, possibly as part of a PR blitz. This, he said, was why he was able to “move on” from Arsenal to Everton. “If you think like a Muslim, who can have four wives, or a harem.”
Well, put like that. Usmanov used the same interview to stress he wasn’t an oligarch. “But I would be indecent to say the state didn’t give me this opportunity. All the time, since I started doing big business, with big industrial assets, the power, the state, has been very co-operative and helpful and never refused us anything,” he says. Of Putin he acknowledged that the Russian president “is the number one leader in the world” but dismissed the idea he did him favors. “He doesn’t need anything.”
That feels vaguely debatable. In the area of, say, sport, Putin arguably really needs this whole Olympic ban to go away. By way of a recap, Wada recommended a blanket ban on all Russian athletes for the 2016 Rio Olympics after its massive, state-sponsored cheating program had been at least partially exposed, though this was helpfully fudged so that only some sports were prevented from competing. Alas, Russia was entirely banned from competing under its own flag at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games. And given that misfortune comes in threes, it is perhaps no surprise the hapless nation has been banned from competing this year in Tokyo.
I guess the question for a country apparently unwilling to alter certain aspects of its competitive behavior is: are there any OTHER ways of being the change the IOC apparently wants to see?
Only time will show. Russia is appealing the latest Wada ban. In 2017 Usmanov claimed the ban on Russia “contradicts the principles of the Olympic movement”. Back then this plea was ignored – but perhaps he and Russia will have better luck this time. After all, who better to trust on the principles of the Olympic movement than the man who bought the original document of the principles of the Olympic movement?