From a doping culture to a clean culture

Once again, thousands of words and pixels have been devoted to Lance Armstrong and USADA’s dossier of systematic doping during his career. This is not a simple scenario of stripping a disgraced athlete of his victories, as has been demonstrated on this website alone through the passionate debates of writers and fans.  As always, Armstrong polarises cycling fans with his refusal to acknowledge wrong doing in the face of what appears to be overwhelming evidence. The issues run much deeper than just banning those who were involved in doping. Just how much involvement in this scandal did the UCI have? To what extent are the UCI to blame for this culture of systematic doping? Who and how should those implicated be punished? Can there ever be reconciliation and rehabilitation for those involved in this (and other) doping scandals?

The UCI and doping

The UCI has let the sport down through their poor leadership during the era in question and also in how they have responded to USADAs investigation into Armstrong. There is no doubt that they are in a precarious predicament: fingers are not just being pointed at Armstrong and US Postal, but they are invariably being pointed at the body who should have administered a cleaner sport. If Armstrong’s doping ring was so sophisticated it is plausible that the UCI had no knowledge of his actions but as we become an increasingly sceptical audience, the UCIs defensive actions suggest that there are those who are more interested in covering their own hides than a genuine commitment to cleaning the sport up. That certainly is the viewpoint of many of the sports commentators and fans.

To be honest, I doubt that the UCI were actively involved in Armstrong’s doping actions but I do suspect that many turned a blind eye to their suspicions. The Armstrong era gave the sport a profile outside of Europe that it had never had. Armstrong was winning, more people were following the sport, advertising revenue was up, cycling administrators and teams were making money and raising their profiles and building their careers. It is easy to see how those in the know could justify their silence but to continue down this path of the blame game is of no use to anyone, inside or outside the sport. What is needed is stronger leadership from the UCI and with the right people at the helm something positive can come of this whole messy affair.

What has been clear in recent times from the UCI leadership is a lack of understanding of the issues. Pat McQuaid, speaking from the Tour of Beijing, seemingly shrugged his shoulders of the UCI’s responsibilities by telling journalists that the UCI drug tests riders and there is nothing more that he can do. This is where McQuaid is so out of touch. Yes, drug testing is an important aspect of fighting drug cheats but we all know that Armstrong has never ‘failed’ a drug test and drug testing is not enough. What the UCI need to do is create a culture of strong leadership and with this they need to help develop a culture of a drug free sport, not just in words but also in actions. The decision by Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen to sue Paul Kimmage for defamation demonstrates how out of touch they are with their fans and with those in the cycling community. What is clear, even if we have different ways of going about it, is that riders, managers, sponsors and fans, want to see a cleaner sport.

Change does not always have to come from the top down but it is perhaps time to see a regime change at the UCI, if for nothing else, than to demonstrate to the world a commitment to cleaning up the sport and to re-instill confidence in the organisation from teams, riders and fans. What is encouraging about this tragic episode is that the change that is needed appears to be coming from the teams and riders who seemingly have a clearer understanding of what the sport needs and what the fans want. This is now where, we turn our attention to just what should happen to those who were involved in the sports dark days.

Reconciliation and Rehabilitation

Now is the time for the sport of professional cycling to heal itself and there is no doubt in my mind that that is the will of those (including fans) involved in the sport. Should Matt White be thrown out of his job with Orica-GREENEDGE and Cycling Australia? No. Should Jonathan Vaughters be thrown out of his position with Garmin-Sharp? No. Should riders like Chrisitan Vande Velde, Levi Leipheimer, David Zabriske and any other implicated rider still in the professional peloton, be thrown out? No. Why, because these are the people who are going to drive the sport into a new era of an anti-doping culture. Yes, they have all cheated their sport, their fans, their families and themselves. If you read the statements  they released in the last few days, there is one common thread and that is the desire to ‘give back’ to the sport by mentoring young riders to not just refuse to cheat, but to not have to be in an environment where cheating is the norm. I know that this may outrage a few readers but there is also the argument that they too are victims. No-one is suggesting that they shouldn’t be punished and I know that many of you have argued that they have not been punished harshly enough, but what we need these riders to do is to give back to the sport that they cheated but that they were also cheated by. Changing the leadership of the UCI is one way of moving the sport forward but cultural change has to be genuine and it has to be the will of the riders. I think the peloton, on the whole, wants to be clean and there is no better way for this to happen than having those who have survived the dark days and teach the young and impressionable riders that clean racing is the best racing. Am I naive? Possibly. Am I an optimist? Yes. The blame game benefits nobody and we can look to people like David Millar who has rebuilt his reputation after a two year ban for cheating to see that this cultural change is possible.

There is, however, no place in cycling for the likes of Johan Bruyneel and those who perpetrated the doping rings of the past. RadioShackNissan would have been foolish to continue with him and although the press release announcing their parting of company reads amicably, it came as no surprise. Should he be jailed as suggested by some? I don’t know, but I do believe that Bruyneel is a dinosaur. He represents an era that is not just in the past, but an era that the peloton is racing away from quicker than any Mark Cavendish sprint for the winning line.

What we have witnessed over the last few months is a catalyst for change in professional cycling. Let’s hope this is the beginning for happier days to come.

Published on 15/10/12


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