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Cycling’s Winter of Discontent
 
By Guest Contributor
Date: 10/27/2006
Cycling’s Winter of Discontent
 

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 low.

“The image of your sport and flagship event is in the toilet.”
- 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 opposite.

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 [1]; 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 Bodybuilding.

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.

More Openness
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 dividends.

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 specter.

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 dopers
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 doping.

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 credibility.

All it takes is that the people involved do the right thing, rather than the most expedient one; and that they remember one simple fact.

Trust is earned by action – not bought by words.

Recommended Reading:
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
Basso. Ullrich, Sevilla, Mancebo out of the Tour!!!
Lance Armstrong – No More heroes
Lance Armstrong Cleared by Independent Investigators
Fallout From Operation Puerto - Dave Shields
Official statement from WADA on the Vrijman Report
Blood doping
A Doctor’s Perspective - CASM Annual Conference Part 1
An Open Letter to Wada Chairman Dick Pound
Tyler Hamilton Interview Part 1
Tyler Hamilton Interview Part 2
"You Can Ask Me Anything" A conversation with Tyler Hamilton
Simeoni's verdict
Adam Bergman Comes Clean

 
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