Lance is gone but who should be next?
Date: January 20, 2013 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell
Whilst the Lance Armstrong interview produced very little of a revelatory nature, it did prove one thing – the sport of cycling needs a purge of some of its key personnel if it is to be believed as it endeavours to rebuild a tattered reputation.
One of the key responses to Oprah Winfrey’s questions surrounded the $100,000-plus payment he made to the UCI in 2002, around a year after Armstrong returned a ‘suspect sample’ at the Tour de Suisse.
Armstrong stated that the payment came about as a result of an approach for financial support from the UCI.
What Armstrong did not say, and was not asked, was just who it was that made that approach.
Presumably it was not a minor apparatchik from the offices of the sport’s world governing body in Switzerland.
It would have come from a fair way up the food chain, perhaps even from the then UCI President, Dutchman Hein Verbruggen.
Regardless of whom it was that made the bizarre request to a high-profile active cyclist for financial assistance in helping fight the war on doping the matter needs to be looked into in thorough detail.
A very good place to start would be a review of the UCI’s financial statements to see just where that ‘donation’ was entered in the books and to ascertain that it was accounted for to the full amount.
Armstrong alluded to the fact that for the bulk of his professional career there was very limited out of competition (OOC) testing for illegal performance enhancing substances.
The question needs to be asked as to just why that was the case.
The sport of track and field invoked OOC in 1989 as a result of the sport being under the spotlight for drug use – steroids in particular in the power based disciplines like sprinting and certain field events.
Why was the UCI so slow to follow suit and become diligent in doing likewise?
Astonishingly, up until 2004 – the year before Armstrong’s last Tour de France ‘victory’ – doping controls at events like the Tour de France were carried out under the auspices of the UCI.
It was something that the then head of WADA, Canadian lawyer and IOC board member Dick Pound, raised repeatedly with the UCI, beseeching them to changer their protocols, but each time it fell upon deaf ears.
At a time when so many sports and governments had mandated arm’s length protocols with regard to doping control, cycling considered it best to conduct its anti-doping operations in-house.
It was only when the UCI became a signatory of the WADA code in 2004 that it became bound by the same standards undertaken by other sports.
Prior to that it was operating a system that was primarily doomed to fail.
At the time the UCI fell into line with popular convention in regard to doping controls it was on the back end of a shockingly tumultuous six-year period where the taint of drugs had smeared the sport.
At the head of the list was the ‘Festina Affair’ at the 1998 Tour de France put the spectre of drugs in the sport front and centre.
It saw bans handed out to the likes of seven-time king of the mountains classification winner Richard Virenque, dual Vuelta a Espagña winner Alex Zülle and Tour stage winners Christophe Moreau and Laurent Brochard.
The following year Tour de France and Giro d’Italia champion Marco Pantani was expelled whilst leading the Giro for returning a high haematocrit reading.
Yet, all through this period it was the UCI that controlled the drug testing.
It was akin to giving Dracula the keys to the blood bank with regard to the potential conflict of interest, certainly not aided by the likes of the payment made to the UCI by Armstrong.
Without arm’s length doping controls there will always be the suspicion that there is a major conflict of interest.
In Armstrong’s case, he was constantly touted as a ‘feel good’ story for the sport – he brought millions of new converts to it.
And with that in mind, how great would the desire be for the UCI to blow the lid on him should he have returned a positive test?
The perceived taint was too great.
And what of the administrators from that period?
Verbruggen was the president of the UCI from 1991 to 2005, the year of Armstrong’s last victory, and according to his assertions in the Winfrey interview, the last year he took performance enhancing substances.
Verbruggen still holds the position of honorary president of the UCI and still sits on its management committee.
He is also an honorary member of the IOC.
The man who succeeded him as UCI president, and still holds the post today, is Irishman Pat McQuaid.
In the eight years prior to taking over the presidency he was chairman of the UCI’s road commission – the body that oversees the sport’s governance of road racing.
Both those men, as it has been irrefutably displayed, oversaw the blackest period in the sport’s history whilst all the time failing to act in a more stringent and responsible manner.
McQuaid stated on the day that he formally stripped Armstrong of his seven Tour titles that he ‘has no place in cycling and deserves to be forgotten’.
Given their lack of proper leadership, the likes of McQuaid and Verbruggen and any other senior members of the UCI’s board who had positions of power and influence in the dark days, and still wield it today, should also be deemed to have no place in cycling.
Dick Pound has gone so far as to say that cycling, as a sport, could be removed from the Olympic schedule should evidence from the Armstrong saga show that people at the top of UCI were in ways culpable, or indeed, even complicit.
Such a happening would be extremely cruel for the young men and women who are currently working their bodies to near breaking point every day to try and secure that Olympic dream.
Perhaps the better course of action is simply for those who were involved in cycling at the time and continue to be to simply ride off into the sunset to allow the sport to rebuild.
And if they are not prepared to do that the IOC needs to threaten removal of the sport.
Surely that would force the hand of those who left the tiller at a moment of crisis in the sport.
For the sport to go forward it must finally lance – if you’ll pardon the pun – itself of those who contributed to its downfall.
The powers to be during the Armstrong reign of error failed to see that it had a wound that needed cauterizing and as a result it turned septic.
And a final note on the Armstrong saga.
Somewhat astonishingly there are still people placing messages on the Live Strong website stating that Armstrong has been hard done by and he did so much to help people with cancer and should be cut some slack.
Yes, he did do a lot for those afflicted by cancer but he also peddled endless lies while pedalling to fame and fortune on the back of them.
But allowing him to simply absolve himself of his sins on the basis of his community-based work with the foundation would be akin to turning a blind eye to an armed robber who steals from a bank but then distributes the loot to the needy.
Armstrong, of his own admission, defrauded his fans and myriad sponsors.
That is a totally irrefutable fact.
First published on The Roar – theroar.com.au – on 19 January 2013