Cycling’s Winter of Discontent
Michael Akinde's editorial: "Clearly, there will be many opportunities for
turning down paths that will continue the gradual destruction of the sport. It
is not hard, however, to see the path that must be taken, if Cycling is to
regain its credibility."
By Michael Akinde
“Now is the winter of our discontent”
- William Shakespeare, Richard III
As the season draws to a close, Cycling fans will look back on a year that
should have been remembered for some of the best Cycling in years: memorable for
Ivan Basso’s incredible repeat attempt at the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France
double, Jan Ullrich’s final attempt to once more reach the top of the Tour de
France podium, the wide-open battle between the many heirs presumptive to Lance
Armstrong’s Tour crown, the break-out year of Fabian Cancellara, Alejandro
Valverde, and Fränck Schleck, and the year in which Paolo Bettini finally got to
win the World Championship. As we enter the winter of our discontent, however,
we write the final chapter on what will eventually be remembered as the year of
Doping. An “annus horibilis” to put the memories of 1998 into the shade.
Cycling was in a period of transition at the beginning of this year. Former
UCI president Heinz Verbruggen’s grandiose ProTour structure being the most
visible part of the effort to modernize the sport, restore its credibility, and
make Cycling competitive with other mass-market entertainment. The season end,
however, finds the credibility of Cycling as a sport at an unprecedented new
“The image of your sport and flagship event is in
- Dick Pound, his words to Cycling on BBC Radio
The chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is a favored whipping boy
of cycling fans, riders, and officials who dislike his strongly-voiced and often
one-dimensional condemnation of cycling. The angry retorts and calls for his
resignation tend to ignore two very real problems however; firstly, that
underlying all the harsh rhetoric from Pound are more than a few grains of
truth, and secondly, that Pound’s statements are often simply a mirror of how
the general public views Cycling. If polls in 2005 showed that close to 80% of
the public in the key Cycling nations of France, Italy, Spain and Germany
identify doping with Cycling, this can hardly come as a surprise to anyone.
Doping and Cycling have been wedded for a long time, going back for many
years to the controversial statements of Jacques Anquetil in the ‘60s, when he
told a French Government minister, “It would be impossible to race on mineral
water alone… only a fool would ride without drugs”. In the following decades,
the variety and strength of doping products that athletes who wanted to cheat
could use escalated, culminating in the super-man experiments that had inhuman
looking athletes competing at the Olympics. This arsenal of new doping products
set off an arms-race to gain prominence for national honors in the Olympics. The
‘60s also saw the first ineffective attempts to combat doping; it would take
more than 30 years, however, before the smudge on the horizons back then turned
into regular thunderclouds that threatened to tear the sport apart.
That occurred in the mid-1990s, when fear, uncertainty and distrust swept the
peloton. Suddenly, it seemed, journalists turned nasty, started asked pointed
questions, and dug into the doping issues. And the journalists did not have to
dig deep into the garbage before revealing and shameful evidence floated to the
surface. By the end of 1996, the situation had developed to the point where Jean
Marie Leblanc (then General Manager of the Tour de France Societé) and Daniel
Baal (then President of the French Cycling Federation) felt compelled to write
an open letter published in L’Equipe, asking the Olympic Committee to “invest in
scientific research” in order to restore the reliability of doping controls and
“stop the development of forbidden practices that threaten the health of the
athletes and of the sport”.
Ten years have passed by, and despite a few high profile busts in recent
years, doping tests have proven largely ineffective at containing doping.
Certainly, Cycling has not experienced anything like the rash of fatalities in
the later 80s when literally dozens of Cyclists died from “mystery illnesses”,
but doping-related deaths have not disappeared from the sport either. Recall, if
you will, the period from January 2003 to February 2004 during which seven top
level (elite and youth) cyclists died from heart failure; culminating in the
tragic death of Marco Pantani only a day after the death of Johan Sermon. At the
time, veteran journalist Phil Liggett was quoted as saying that more than a
hundred international cyclists had shared their fate in recent times; a figure
far from incredible, considering that many such deaths never come to the
attention of the press. A decade later, the essence of Leblanc’s and Baal’s open
letter is as relevant today as it was then.
Few will deny that doping was rampant back when the letter was originally
written, and unfortunately, to the outside world it appears that little has
changed since. For years, the Cycling world has tried to convince the public
that doping was isolated to a small, independent minority in the sport.
Operation Puerto proved the fallacy of these claims, demonstrating yet again
that there exists doping in Cycling that is systematic, large-scale, and beyond
the ability of the anti-doping agencies to control. Most frightening, perhaps,
is the probability that the Fuentes cabal is just one of many such networks
operating within Cycling and other sports. Considering that the overwhelming
majority of the customers of Fuentes have so far proven to be Spanish in origin
(including, allegedly, several Spanish football clubs and other elite Spanish
athletes), the suspicion that similar doping leagues might be operating in other
countries seems far from unreasonable.
Devastating as Operation Puerto has been to Cycling’s reputation, however, it
is merely the last piece of circumstantial evidence that has led to the dim
public perception of the sport. Consider:
- The past decade of doping scandals. For the past 10 years, not a single year
has passed without a major doping scandal in Cycling
- The hypocritical behaviour that occurs in the sport. Condemnation of doping
all too often goes hand in hand with behaviour that seems to condone doping
- The denial of the problem that has been endemic in the sport. Protestations of
innocence are hard to believe when few even admit that there is a problem, even
fewer express anger at doping, and those who tell the truth are reviled
- The curious fact that a majority of the sport’s champions over the past decade
have fallen under the shadow of doping investigations
- The doctors who continue to dominate Cycling
- The failure of doping controls
Points above addressed
in part 1.
It is no wonder that the general public, and many cycling fans, ask themselves
whether there can be so much smoke without a substantial fire. Seen in
isolation, perhaps, one could dismiss any one of the problems that bring the
sport into disrepute; and in fact this is often done.
When seen as a whole, however, it is hard to look past the implication that
Cycling has a serious doping problem. In fact, considering the amount of
evidence, rumors, and its presentation in the press, it is perhaps more
surprising to find people believing that anyone in Cycling is clean than the
Operation Puerto was yet another heavy blow to the credibility of a sport
already suffering. But it was the people in the sport themselves who rubbed salt
into the wound, as the ASO, the AIGCP, and the UCI turned a grave situation into
a farce. After a meeting, in which several managers have since admitted they had
no chance to examine the evidence properly, thirteen riders were thrown out of
the Tour, demonstrating once and for all that professional cyclists have no
rights as employees. Even staunch anti-doping protagonists such as Jens Evald,
chairperson of Anti-Doping Denmark and Professor of Law and Sports-Jurisprudence
found this behaviour highly irregular, an abrogation of basic judiciary rights,
and a slippery slope toward perdition.
For a sport that talks loudly of ethics, the fear, panic, and hysteria that
clearly governed actions on June 30 come across as doubly embarrassing.
Cycling’s governing body, by failing to take responsibility in the case left the
Tour de France society and team managements fatally exposed to massive pressure
from the media and sponsors; backed into a corner, they took the easy way out.
The arguments that such morally dubious actions were justified in the search
for an “open Tour with clean riders” where soon exposed to ridicule by the
statements of Fuentes (several of whose clients allegedly rode the Tour), and
the events that have followed the Tour de France. And like many of the doping
scandals before it, Operation Puerto reinforced the public impression of Cycling
as a Sport where ethics and integrity is rare or non-existent. As one
commentator harshly noted, “a sport primarily practiced by people who, under
pressure, take the morally dubious shortcut, and administered and organized by
people who, under pressure, take the morally dubious shortcut.”
In the short run, the doping scandals have had a disastrous effect on viewer
interest in the Tour de France this year. In Germany, viewing fell by a massive
43%; in France and other countries, drops of between 20-30% were recorded. And
while sponsors initially pretended to be unfazed by Operation Puerto, several
major race and team sponsors quietly pulled out of Cycling. Phonak, Liberty-Seguros,
and Wurth all ended their sponsorships, and there will no doubt be further
casualties as other ProTour teams renew sponsorship negotiations. In Spain,
three of its five continental teams announced an end to their sponsorships this
year, while across Europe, other team sponsors have already announced that they
will reconsider their commitment to the sport.
Most serious, perhaps, is the threat of mainstream television stations to end
their Cycling broadcasts (three, at latest count ;
it is perhaps not a coincidence that a UCI reaction to the doping problems
followed shortly after.
It is hard to know what to make of the new “hard-line” being proposed in the
sport. On the one hand, there seems to – finally – be an understanding in high
places that doping will eventually kill the sport. On the other hand, we have
heard a lot of this talk before, and talk is cheap. People will soon forget the
current doping scandal. In a few years, viewer interest will recover, and where
there is interest, the sponsors will inevitably come. The sad truth of the
matter is that many fans don’t really care about the doping.
Professional Cycling is entertainment. Many, perhaps the majority of fans,
follow Cycling primarily because it delivers a rousing spectacle. And while many
will say they oppose doping, what they really oppose is having to read and hear
about doping. Fans invest emotionally in the cyclists they support whether
supporting the winners or the losers. And once a race has been decided, no one
wishes to have to go back and revise the interpretation of the events. In the
spectacle stored in our memories, we have already established who the heroes and
who the villains were. That is why the great riders of the past are all safe;
even if the evidence of doping should pile up against them. That is why people
will continue to deny that Museeuw, Hamilton, or Heras doped, even when
presented with strong evidence and an official finding of guilt. And that it why
Dick Pound, and the journalists that carry his message, ultimately tire and
annoy the people who are basically following cycling for the enjoyment of it.
If you accept that Cycling is merely entertainment, then the whole doping
question becomes at most an amusing subject for debate. You smile when entire
teams go down with dodgy food and riders retire from competition due to “mystery
illnesses”. You pick new favourites as your old favourites are retired
prematurely due to getting caught in the doping controls. And you enjoy the
spectacle of the sport as it was meant to be enjoyed; without having to wonder
whether this or that rider is doped; you either assume that none are (except for
a few bad eggs), or that they all are. Cycling becomes just another show
performed by trained gladiators; like Professional Wrestling, Boxing, or
Ultimately, however, ignoring the problem of
doping will kill Cycling.
Not because the fans will abandon the sport; there will always be people who
care more about the spectacle than the issue of doping. Not because the sponsors
will abandon the sport either; where there remains a good opportunity to
advertise, the sponsors will come (or return). Ultimately, it will die from the
roots; among the riders, and among those fans whose passion for the sport
provides us with the coming generations of riders.
Cycling belongs to a small circle of sports that are uniquely participatory.
Every fan of the sport can take out his bicycle (no matter how worn), find the
local hill, and imagine him or herself as their favorite rider on the way to
glory on Alpe d’Huez. The young hopeful who wants to one day win the Tour the
France, has the possibility of going to the races and have the chance of shaking
the hands of a Jens Voigt, an Alessandro Petacchi, or an Alejandro Valverde. No
other sport brings the professional elite as close to its fans.
But the sport is also under threat; from an increasingly sedentary lifestyle
in Europe and USA, and not least from its own image. A few more years of
scandals will see Cycling’s reputation as a rolling freak show finally
entrenched, and once that occurs whither will the sport go?
“We don’t have many more chances; this one may be
the last shot in the gun, the last chance to save Cycling.”
- Bjarne Riis, Profilen, DR September 17, 2006.
With the reputation of the sport as it is today, few parents would want their
children to become Professional cyclists. Apart from the health risks (even
discounting the effects of doping, Cycling as a professional Sport can hardly be
considered healthy), there are issues such as extreme working conditions and a
low average pay for the majority of professional riders. When you add on top of
that the public vilification of which all riders receive their share, and a
treatment from the anti-doping agencies which increasingly seems to befit career
criminals rather than a Sport, surely even impassioned fans and riders must ask
themselves whether a life in or following Cycling is worth it?
Many have already reached the only logical answer to that question, as
affairs stand now. Others will ignore the affairs, blinker themselves to the
doping problem, and continue to pretend there is no problem. After all, it has
all happened before; in 1990 when Kimmage blew the whistle on the doping culture
and Cyclists died like flies and in 1998-1999 when the Festina affair exposed it
for the entire world to see. Will anything be different this time around?
Unfortunately, this is the real world, and there exists no silver bullet that
can kill “doping”. There are, nevertheless, many initiatives proposed that could
benefit the fight against doping. In this final section, we will briefly discuss
some of the more interesting proposals proposed by Cycling fans.
One of the key problems of the sport is that so many aspects of it
are hidden behind a veil of secrecy. Greater transparency and more openness
about how things work would probably be the strongest tool available to
restoring the credibility of the sport. Such openness should extend to both the
workings of the key organizations (i.e., the UCI, etc), as well as the doping
control apparatus, and the medical files of the riders.
Although the latter might sound “dangerous” in certain circles, no amount of
openness about test results can be half as damaging as the endless circulation
of rumors, half-truths, and leaks that bedevil every single doping scandal.
In this respect, one of the details that have leaked out about the
anti-doping initiative proposed by Brian Damsgaard (the Danish anti-doping
expert who is to assist Team CSC) is quite interesting; essentially, the plan is
to publish the test data of the Team CSC riders openly, but anonymously. While
there are no doubt, problems with this approach (can reasonable anonymity really
be ensured?), this is an idea moving in the right direction. The open
proceedings requested by Floyd Landis in the ongoing doping case against him is
another positive initiative (even if the circumstances are sad); and it will no
doubt bolster the public perception of Landis’s legacy, should his defense
succeed. Openness has its danger; but in matters of trust and credibility, being
open is always more likely to pay off than trying to hide unpleasant facts.
The Teams must start Acting as if Doping matters
No one can object to a person getting a second chance. It is, however,
devastating to the reputation of Cycling when team managers and organizations
pretend that nothing bad has happened, and seem to assume that things should go
on as normal. A person who has been convicted for economic fraud is not likely
to find it easy getting employment in a bank. Likewise, if Cycling is to regain
the trust of the public, then the Cycling world will have to show that it takes
doping seriously. The introduction of the four-year disbarment from riding at
ProTour level is a step in the right direction, but the rules have to be
tempered with common sense and integrity.
Common sense dictates that punishment must fit the crime; raising the stakes
effectively drives doping further underground and reinforcing the code of
silence rather than fighting doping. A gradient approach to suspensions and bans
conditional on cooperation with the anti-doping authorities would probably be
more effective against users, while facilitators should face exclusion for life.
Integrity requires that the teams deal honestly with doping and present a
common front against it. People employed by teams even while suspended for
doping, fighting over the contracts of riders possibly involved in doping
scandals, and employing personnel with a history that invites the asking of
questions and then pretending that this is not a problem has to stop.
The Cyclists must start Acting as if Doping matters
If, as they claim, the majority of riders are clean, then it is time
the riders started acting it. They need to speak, and they need to take action.
Cyclists should stand up and be counted, in taking a stand against doping; and
they should tell what they know. Cyclists who speak out about the doping problem
should be lauded for it by their colleagues; not reviled.
Even if some Cyclists do not wish to make public accusations, there is always
the possibility of anonymous information. It is inconceivable that a doping
network as massive as that of Fuentes can have existed without at least some of
the clean riders having learned of or suspecting its existence. Cyclists should
be found helping the police and anti-doping authorities in the fight against
doping, rather than continuing the “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil”
approach that has characterized the sport in the past.
“Truth and Reconciliation”
This is perhaps the most unrealistic of the initiatives proposed, in
terms of ever becoming a reality, but probably also the one that would pay most
It is only by confronting wrong-doing that one can truly learn to understand
it and combat it. Only with truth can trust be restored. Cycling suffers because
those who come forward and admit to doping invariably do so when their careers
have ended or face destruction; the end result is testimonies that appear
bitter, vengeful, and exaggerated.
Cycling needs for leading riders and staff to come forward of their own free
will, and to come clean, explaining in full detail what they have done and seen;
Cycling’s own version of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Committees.
Many fans have already proposed an amnesty; and something like this is certainly
required if this is ever to be achieved. While Cycling lives in unease with its
past, it will be almost impossible for it to have a future free of the doping
Initiatives that lean in this direction have been voiced from within the
Cycling world; in particular UCI talk of having anonymous testimony on doping
during the UCI review proposed for next year. These are steps in the right
direction; and the UCI should seriously consider the use of such testimony for
the purposes of restoring the public’s trust.
Fight the facilitators of doping, rather than the
A huge problem with the anti-doping apparatus today, is that it has
failed to understand the most basic lessons of the Justice system. Riders who
are involved in doping must be rewarded for helping the fight against doping;
not punished even more extensively. Today, there are no advantages for a cyclist
to inform on others who may have facilitated or even forced him into doping; on
the contrary, doing so only works to the detriment of the rider’s career. Only
by rewarding those who are to be punished, e.g., by reducing their suspension,
can one hope to turn the fight against doping against the facilitators of
Cycling must start acting as if Ethics matter
Ethics is not simply about protecting the bottom-line, but in acting
in an open, just and fair manner. It is about having clear rules of conduct, and
then following them. When a spokesperson of some cycling organizations stands up
in public to condemn or acquit people without basis in facts, it undermines the
credibility of that organization. When one team is thrown out, and another
accepted at some race, in spite of both teams being equally culpable, it
reinforces the image of a sport where many talk about ethics, and few practice
it. When this kind of behavior happens not once, but repeatedly and constantly,
it makes a laughing stock of the sport.
Operation Puerto and the scandal-ridden Cycling year of 2006 can be the
beginning of the house-cleaning in the Cycling world that many have looked
forward to for many years. Clearly, there will be many opportunities for turning
down paths that will continue the gradual destruction of the sport. It is not
hard, however, to see the path that must be taken, if Cycling is to regain its
All it takes is that the people involved do the
right thing, rather than the most expedient one; and that they remember one
Trust is earned by action – not bought by words.
Giorgio Squinzi: Mapei's anti-doping crusader
Cycling: Can we
handle the truth? We are our own worst enemy
Bad News is
Good News. Good News is No News
Sevilla, Mancebo out of the Tour!!!
Armstrong – No More heroes
Cleared by Independent Investigators
Operation Puerto - Dave Shields
statement from WADA on the Vrijman Report
Perspective - CASM Annual Conference Part 1
An Open Letter
to Wada Chairman Dick Pound
Interview Part 1
Interview Part 2
"You Can Ask Me
Anything" A conversation with Tyler Hamilton