David Owen

Alisher Usmanov has become fluent in Olympic speak making him a valuable asset for Russian sport in its hour of need.

Alisher Usmanov has been a figure of substance in international sport for a good long time now.

The Uzbekistan-born Russian tycoon became President of the European Fencing Confederation in 2005 and by the time he was elected to the same post at the International Fencing Federation (FIE) some three years later, he had already become a large shareholder in Arsenal Football Club.

Yet there cannot be many periods when the 66-year-old’s name, or those of interests connected to him, has popped up as regularly in sport-related headlines as over the past few months.

On November 30, Usmanov welcomed International Olympic Committee (IOC) President – and former fencer - Thomas Bach to the FIE Congress in Lausanne.

Bach presented him with the “IOC Trophy of Olympic Values”; the Congress, in effect, reciprocated, presenting the German with the “Challenge Chevalier Feyerick”, awarded every second year to an individual fencer or fencing body who has shown “the most chivalrous and unselfish attitude and spirit of sportsmanship and fair play”.

A week later, just before that crunch World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) meeting that confirmed a series of sanctions keeping Russia on course to have its presence and participation in international sport severely curtailed for four years, Usmanov penned a strongly-worded open letter to then WADA President Sir Craig Reedie urging him not to turn the fight against doping into a “lynching”.

I had reported that same week that the FIE had posted a near CHF3 million (£2.3 million/$3 million/€2.8 million) surplus for 2018 thanks to a mammoth CHF16.34 million (£12.9 million/$16.7 million/€15.36 million) in donations from, yes, Usmanov.

I calculated that this put him on course to gift a remarkable CHF80 million (£63 million/$82 million/€75 million) to the Federation over about three Olympic cycles.

Then in January, another Premier League football club Everton announced that USM, a holding company founded by Usmanov, had secured an option on naming rights to its planned new stadium, in a deal said to be worth £30 million ($39 million//€32.75 million) to the Merseyside club.

Alisher Usmanov is a big figure in international sport, previously involved with fencing before becoming a large shareholder with two different Premier League football clubs ©Getty Images
Alisher Usmanov is a big figure in international sport, previously involved with fencing before becoming a large shareholder with two different Premier League football clubs ©Getty Images

USM chairman Farhad Moshiri is Everton’s biggest shareholder.

Usmanov exited Arsenal in 2018, selling his 30 per cent stake for a reported £550 million ($715 million//€600 million).

And now this week the Russian has emerged as the hitherto mystery buyer of a 14-page manifesto, penned by IOC founder Pierre de Coubertin in 1892, which led to the revival of the Olympic Games in the last decade of the 19th century.

The document was sold on December 18 for $8,806,500 (£6,764,543/€7,916,191) at an auction in New York.

Auctioneers Sotheby’s said this was the highest price ever paid for an item of sports memorabilia.

Usmanov donated the document to the IOC at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne on Monday.

I want to make three points about this generous – yes, kind of - but also supremely clever gesture.

1. Think about the timing: he was unmasked this week, but the deal was done, to repeat, on December 18.

That is not much more than a week after he was, in effect, rebuffed by WADA.

In other words, he appears to have reacted not by storming off with his football under his arm (to resort to the sporting vernacular), which would have been the dumb thing to have done, but is also the course many would probably have followed.

No, he seems instead to have hit upon an alternative, or additional, route to increase the chances of something he wants to happen happening. That is smart.

2. The gesture follows a pattern: Usmanov has proved very adept over the years at using his wealth to build respect in various circles.

In 2007, he paid a reported £26 million ($33.8 million/€28.4 million) for a legendary collection of art works assembled by the late cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, as a gift to the Russian nation.

Some seven years later, he was reported to have placed the winning $4.1 million (£3.2 million/€3.75 million) bid for biologist James Watson’s Nobel Prize medal, as a prelude to handing it back to the scientist.

Then there are those donations to the FIE and other gestures, such as his sponsorship of a Moscow exhibition of paintings by The Fighting Temeraire artist JMW Turner in 2008.

In terms of our relative wealth, Usmanov’s gift of the Coubertin manuscript to the IOC is probably about on a par with me buying Bach a coffee.

But of course that is not how it is perceived, nor is it the point: the present is perfectly pitched, in that it is a unique and genuinely historical document that Bach and his colleagues could not but be delighted to obtain.

Alisher Usmanov (right) and IOC president Thomas Bach (left) with copies of the historic manuscript recently donated by Usmanov ©IOC
Alisher Usmanov (right) and IOC president Thomas Bach (left) with copies of the historic manuscript recently donated by Usmanov ©IOC

3. The Russian did, plainly, want it to be generally known that he was the generous donor.

His speech at the museum, as reported by the Russian news agency TASS and kindly passed on to me, offers a fairly heavy hint as to why this might be so, while also telling us something else that Usmanov has absorbed during all these years in the international sports movement.

“I am glad to see changes that took place in the sports movement of Russia,” he said.

“The new sports authorities…are doing everything possible to leave behind all sad moments, which took place in the past.

“I hope that it will all be properly assessed and Russian athletes will be again full-fledged participants of the Olympic Games, just like Pierre de Coubertin willed us.”

And then the big moment: “On behalf of Russian Olympians, our Olympic champions and medallists, participants, coaches and management, I ask you, Mr. President, to accept this priceless manuscript as a gift for the International Olympic Committee.”

By couching the gesture in these terms, it seems plain to me that he is gently cranking up pressure on Bach as the matter of the nature and extent of Russian participation at the Olympics and other major events over the next four years heads for the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

But he is doing this in rather an elegant way that will be understood by those who matter, without need to be more explicit.

Evidently, Usmanov has used his time at sport’s high table to become fluent in Olympic-speak, an elusive and complicated tongue, to an extent that few other Russians have managed.

(It is worth mentioning at this point that the profile of USM on Everton’s website says that the group has stakes in both Alibaba and Airbnb, the members of the upstart tech sector that have joined the IOC’s TOP worldwide sponsorship programme.)

Whether by accident, design or a mixture of the two, this all makes the man from Chust an invaluable asset for Russia as it fights for its immediate sporting future.

He and Dmitry Chernyshenko, the new Deputy Prime Minister, who duly got a name-check in that speech at the Olympic Museum, have managed broadly to retain the respect of the Olympic Movement through the dark days of the last five years.

You may or may not agree with what Usmanov appears to be trying to achieve, but at least appreciate the skill and sang-froid with which he is going about his business.