By Laura Weislo
The International Cycling Union (UCI) has followed through with its promise to pursue legal action along with the Unibet.com team against the Amaury Sport Organisation, which has denied the team entry into the upcoming ProTour Ardennes Classics races, La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. The case will be decided by a court in Brussels ahead of next Wednesday's La Flèche Wallonne.
UCI president Pat McQuaid was present at last week's Gent-Wevelgem to support the Unibet team, and told Cyclingnews then that the UCI was "looking into the possibilities of taking legal action against ASO and RCS [Sport]."
Both La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège are organised by the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), which also runs the Tour de France. Together with Giro d'Italia organiser RCS Sport and Vuelta a España organiser Unipublic, the ASO has repeatedly stated their assertion that they only recognise the 18 ProTour teams that existed at the start of December, 2006. The ASO announced the teams for its two Ardennes Classics earlier this month, and true to form, Unibet.com was not among the invitees or wildcards, and RCS Sport excluded Unibet.com from Tirreno-Adriatico and the Giro d'Italia, but granted them a wildcard for Milan-Sanremo.
The snub of Unibet.com for the Ardennes Classics follows a long-running battle between the Grand Tours and UCI, and recently Unibet.com has been on the receiving end of the majority of the fallout. The exclusion of Unibet.com from Paris-Nice nearly brought the 2007 ProTour to a halt, when the ASO threatened to run the race as a National Event outside of the UCI's control, and the UCI responded by threatening sanctions to any ProTour team that participated. Eventually, all sides came together to agree on a compromise - an agreement which the ASO now appears to be backing away from.
The Unibet.com name has caused controversy not just as a pawn being played in the ASO and UCI power struggle, but also as a company involved in the contentious issue of online gambling. Several European Union countries, including France and Belgium which have national lotteries that hold monopolies on gambling in those countries, are fighting against the legality of online gaming companies. Recently, the Belgian Gaming Commission declared that "Unibet.com is illegal" and that "organisers allowing Unibet.com's cycling team to compete would expose themselves to substantial fines, even prison sentences up to three years."
Assertions such as these help the ASO justify its refusal to allow Unibet.com into their races. In the UCI/Grand Tour 'peace deal', consideration of Unibet.com as a wildcard was bound to the caveat that "such decisions are not likely to expose or be likely to expose the organisers to legal consequences, of whatever nature they might be."
Unibet.com CEO Petter Nylander challenged the statements of the Belgian Gaming Commission in a letter, arguing, "If this reasoning would be correct, quod non, could one imagine that the team Predictor-Lotto would be subject to the same treatment as Unibet when competing outside Belgium?" Nylander also pointed out that until the team went ProTour, they hadn't run into any of these issues, "Over the past years, our sponsorship and commitment to a Belgium-based cycling team has never caused any problem or discussion."
The application of the restrictions against promotion of gambling in Belgium and France have been brought up with the European Commission, which recognised an inherent discrimination in the way the laws were being applied only to private gaming companies (such as Unibet.com) whilst ignoring national lotteries (such as the Belgian Lotto, and French Française des Jeux), and that this discrimination was unlawful in the European Union.
Nylander asserted in the letter that, "Organisers of races cannot be accused of aiding and abetting Unibet. They simply want to organise a cycling competition... not to organise Unibet advertising as such [emphasis in original -ed]. Even if European law would allow the imposition of criminal sanctions, it is obvious that organisers do not have the [necessary] intent to help or facilitate Unibet.com brand exposure."
Cyclingnews' recent coverage of the ProTour-Grand Tours split
October 4, 2008 - New ASO chief to maintain values
September 26, 2008 - UCI declares peace, appoints new VP
August 30, 2008 - UCI re-signs five ProTour races
August 22, 2008 - ProTour: Bouncing back or lame duck?
August 19, 2008 - Stapleton analyses 'world calendar'
August 18, 2008 - Feedback on 'world calendar'
August 18, 2008 - UCI announces 'world calendar'