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Commentary: Oleg Tinkov’s racist tweet

Last week, Tinkoff-Saxo team owner Oleg Tinkov — who, as many have pointed out, is the Donald Trump of cycling — called Barack Obama a monkey on Twitter.

Yes, just days after the Tour de France ended with its first African-registered team and first black African riders to finish the race, the owner of one of the biggest teams in cycling called a powerful and well-known black man a monkey.

Tinkov’s tweet was in response to one from Cannondale-Garmin director Jonathan Vaughters that showed the Mona Lisa morphing into Russian president Vladimir Putin.

This was not an accident or some cute portmanteau we can chalk up to Tinkov’s imperfect grasp of English. “Monkey” isn’t a racist taunt only in America or only in English. It is universal. European football matches have a long history of monkey chants and banana peels being thrown onto the field.

But that sport’s authorities and teams have cracked down. When then-Liverpool player Luis Suarez, of Uruguay, was accused of using a racist slur against a black opponent in 2011, he was fined £40,000 ($62,296) and banned for eight games.

Last year, when a Villarreal fan threw a banana at Barcelona player Dani Alvez, the Spanish Football Association fined Villarreal €12,000 ($13,070) due to the fan “committing an act of contempt or disregard concerning racial or ethnic origin towards an adversary.”

The team identified the culprit and banned him for life.

These are bans and fines for a player and a fan. So what is cycling’s plan for dealing with overt racism from a team owner? Reached by email, the UCI said this when asked about Tinkov’s tweet: “The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) strongly condemns any sort of discrimination in cycling, including racism. Together with all of our stakeholders, we have the responsibility to make sure that such behavior has no place in our sport.”

UCI’s head of communications, Sébastien Gillot, said that would be the agency’s only comment on the matter. If that’s the only comment, but it’s followed by decisive action (too late for any action to be swift), fine. But if the UCI thinks saying the right thing excuses it from doing the right thing, it is mistaken.

At last year’s Tour, Swiss rider Michael Albasini was accused of shouting racist abuse at Kevin Reza, a black Frenchman riding for team Europcar. It was almost identical to the Suarez situation — two rivals, in the heat of the game, with no officials to witness. A fine and an eight-game ban for Suarez, nothing for Albasini.

Two days after Tinkov’s tweet, massive crowds in the Eritrean capital of Asmara welcomed African riders Daniel Teklehaimanot and Merhawi Kudos (MTN-Qhubeka) back from France. The pair’s route from the airport to their private reception with Eritrea’s president was reportedly lined with people, many of whom had turned out in polka-dot clothes, in honor of the days Teklehaimanot led the Tour’s climbing competition.

Cycling hasn’t been the provincial sport it once was for a long time. But now it’s more global than ever. There is no place for racism, and no excuse to let racist abuse go unpunished.

Oleg Tinkov called a black man a monkey in a public forum. This one is cut and dried.