Saturday, March 2, 2024

Dakar Rally remains unavailable for MAZ, says Siarhei Viazovich

MAZ-SPORTauto has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance year highlighted by Siarhei Viazovich stunning powerhouse rival KAMAZ-master to win the Silk Way Rally, but they are once again unable to bring that momentum to the Dakar Rally. In an interview with sports channel Belarus 5, Viazovich clarified that while Russian and Belarusian athletes are starting to be accepted back into international sporting events, the contrary remains the case for Dakar despite conducting dialogue with the FIA.

Due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine with Belarusian support, athletes from both countries were banned from virtually every major international competition unless they agreed to certain stipulations such as condemning the war and not using their nation’s emblems. The FIA implemented such a policy shortly after the invasion, requiring Belarusian and Russian drivers to stand in solidarity with Ukraine and either competing under the neutral FIA banner or switching to a willing country’s flag.

MAZ-SPORTauto and KAMAZ-master, both owned by their respective governments, and their drivers refused the terms and therefore have not taken appeared in World Rally-Raid Championship rounds like Dakar since. KAMAZ’s absence allowed IVECO to win the Dakar Rally’s T5 category for trucks, only the third time a non-KAMAZ team triumphed since 2009.

Although its consequences have been drastic, MAZ still would have been on the sideline even if the invasion did not occur. The team was barred from travelling to the 2022 Dakar Rally via France with their fellow competitors following Western sanctions on owner Minsk Automotive Plant in response to the company’s crackdown on worker protests of the 2020 presidential election; MAZ considered working around the travel issue by going through Syria to get to the host site in Saudi Arabia, but was subsequently prohibited from racing altogether. Another round of sanctions was imposed by the United States Department of the Treasury in March 2023.

“We held negotiations both at the beginning of this year and in the middle of the year,” said Viazovich. “As athletes, we could have been admitted if we signed certain papers, but we rejected these conditions and two conditions that we cannot support at all.

“The MAZ enterprise itself is under sanctions that act upon MAZ’s technology and acts on the technology of the masses at any time. We can’t figure it out, but this is unacceptable for us. We have already said this many times, that we are ready to return to this race as soon as it is on good terms for everyone, that our flag, anthem, and symbols are on MAZ’s equipment.”

The topic arose when Viazovich was asked if the seemingly softening global stance on Belarusian and Russian athletes could factor into the Dakar. Despite a relatively consistent position during the invasion’s first year in 2022, debate surrounding the international status for Union State athletes has flared up in recent months as the 2024 Summer Olympics loom. The International Olympic Committee stated in March that the final verdict would come from individual sporting federations, though added four months later that neither country would receive a formal invitation to the 2024 Games.

Some like the Badminton World Federation and World Aquatics opted for an FIA-like strategy of admitting them as neutral competitors. The International Fencing Federation voted to fully lift the ban, but the decision provoked anger in Europe that culminated in the European Fencing Confederation re-applying the restriction. Even the former approach has proven controversial with various countries including Ukraine threatening to boycott events like the Olympics if Belarusan and Russian competitors appear.

The FIM, who sanctions bikes and quads for rallies, enforces a hard ban.

Part of the situation’s murkiness stems from Russian athletes typically also being in the military, even if they have not served in Ukraine. Sport and military have maintained a near-symbiotic relationship since the Soviet period, which extends into motorsport as MAZ and KAMAZ build vehicles for their respective armies. KAMAZ-master’s employees are also registered for mobilisation into the Russian Army.

Save for certain exceptions, Russians and Belarusians have generally denounced the policies for injecting politics into sport, prompting them to focus on competing domestically in series like the Russian Rally-Raid Championship.

Meanwhile in the RAFRR, Viazovich won the Silk Way Rally in July to help MAZ become just the second manufacturer to beat KAMAZ in the event’s history. MAZ added another victory in the Baja Sibirskiy Trakt in September.

The invasion is in its 588th day.

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