By Jason Sumner, VeloNews.com
To say it’s been a difficult past two years for Simon Donnellan would be an understatement. The Brit’ turned resident of Malaysia has been at the center of a Tour de Langkawi firestorm, which saw the race on the brink of cancellation before being rescued by the Malaysian government.
Donnellan first became involved with the 10-day event while working as a radio engineer for The Events Group, a U.K.-based sports management company that helped run the race during its formative years. He then made a move he probably now regrets, agreeing to buy the event from its local organizers in late 2004.
What happened next is open to debate, but no one can argue that during the ensuing two years the race accrued substantial debt that it could not service. Everything from prize money to staff salaries went unpaid, and it wasn’t until the country’s sports ministry cut a bailout check last September that the race’s future was pushed back on to solid footing.
Meanwhile, Donnellan was pushed aside and the Malaysian National Cycling Federation is now running the race with the help of the aforementioned Events Group. But that didn’t keep the former owner away, and on Friday he was spotted among the crowd at the stage 1 finish on Langkawi Island. VeloNews caught up with him there to hear his take on what went wrong and why.
VeloNews: For starters, what brings you to the race?Simon Donnellan: I was here to attend some meetings. It’s connected to the race and obviously the right people are here. It’s been a long process trying to sort everything out. It’s been a lot of politics. Unfortunately that always gets in the way. But as you can see it’s started to settle down. The government has stepped forward and helped things out, and made sure that the race is a continued success.
VN: Is it strange being here as an outsider after being so intimately involved for two years?SD: Well, No. 1 it’s a good thing that the event is on. It’s a great event and it’s important to the country. I am very happy on that side. Of course the last two years have been very difficult circumstances, impossible almost. But we managed to keep the race going. There was some fall out from that, but we have gone all out to make sure everything has been done correctly. That’s taken a lot of lobbying but I just didn’t run away. We found ourselves in a situation for various reasons, some political and some just bad luck. There has always been a commitment to make sure that things were settled, and that the event had a bright future. I think now that the government is supporting it again, it will be fine.
VN: What else are you up to right now?SD: I am looking at some other projects, events not cycling. I’m still living in Malaysia. I am very happy here. It’s a beautiful country. I’m married with children. Malaysia is my home I guess. I just have to find something else. Until everything is signed off and done I am here.
VN: Do you feel like you were made a scapegoat in all this?SD: Yes, I was basically the punching bag. I took this event on at a point when there was a change in government, which was very fundamental to the revenue of the event. Then we had a particularly unfortunate situation when a tsunami hit a month before the first event that we did. We had two major sponsors withdraw because of that and we were left with a big hole. So we started from a deficit right away. The trouble started before we started, so we were just facing an uphill battle. Actually I have to thank a lot of people: the contractors, the workers, the media – at least certain segments of the media – that actually helped keep the event alive in 2006. The racing was fantastic then, and from the outside looking in it was business as usual. But the cracks were starting to form because people weren’t getting paid and were working under very difficult circumstances.
VN: Obviously there were financial problems. How much did the budget change while you were running the race?SD: Well before I bought it, it varied between 18 and 22 million ringgit [$5.1 to $6.3 million]. In 2005, when I first took over, we were committed to a 15-million ringgit budget, but the revenue was around 10.5 million. It’s a big hole and unfortunately it was all last minute when the confirmations come in from sponsors. Before you know it you’re in trouble. Last year it was down to 9.8 million.
VN: So what happened? Where did the money go?SD: Okay, I’ll be frank. The former prime minister was very instrumental to the sponsors being involved with the event. When he stepped down [in 2004] the motivating factor for a lot of the sponsor company CEO’s wasn’t there. They loved the event but they said we are spending a lot; maybe we should give 75 percent instead of 100 percent of what we gave before. Add it all up and there’s your deficit. So that happened and you get caught in a dilemma. You are approaching the government and saying we have a problem, and everyone is saying, ‘No you must continue. It’s a national event. It’s important to the country.’ So what do you do? You are caught between a rock and a hard place.
I personally spent a lot of money purchasing the event, which at the end of the day is my fault. You need to do the due diligence and evaluate what it’s worth. I underestimated the importance of the former prime minister’s involvement.
VN: Do you think this event is doing its job as a vehicle to promote tourism in Malaysia and to bolster Malaysian cycling?SD: I personally think for the country it’s very important provided that the TV distribution is there to support it. It’s a well-established event that makes for good TV. Now I’m not the minister of tourism, but I will tell you that a lot of people involved in the event come back in other parts of the year.
From a sporting development point of view, it’s nowhere near enough capitalized. When I came in, of course you have big ideas and you have plans and you want to use it as a catalyst for change. But when you have to actually run the event you see that you can’t put them all into fruition. I think it’s important that this event is now used properly as more of a development race. Interest in cycling is up and Asian riders are getting some exposure overseas. They are allowed to develop themselves. This is all stuff that the government wants. I hope that after this event this is addressed further and used as a platform to continue promoting cycling in Malaysia.