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From the pages of Velo: Is amnesty the answer?

Editor’s Note: The following analysis appears in the November 2012 issue of Velo magazine, out now. On Monday, UCI president Pat McQuaid suggested that the federation would discuss amnesty in a special meeting of the management committee on Friday October 26. WADA chief John Fahey last week said his board would consider amnesty for cycling and other sports.

How a truth and reconciliation commission might work within professional cycling

In the wake of the Lance Armstrong/U.S. Postal Service doping conspiracy case, several prominent figures in pro cycling have floated the idea of a truth and reconciliation commission as a way to move past the sport’s dope-darkened past.

In a July 26 letter to the UCI, U.S. Anti-Doping Agency general counsel William Bock wrote, “If UCI is truly interested in setting up a special panel to deal with doping, it should not be for one case; rather UCI should ask WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) to establish an independent body akin to a truth and reconciliation commission, where the skeletons of doping in cycling can all come out of the closet, the many cyclists who have doped can come clean, and cycling can go forward with a fresh start.” Bock isn’t the only one who thinks this might be a good idea.

Johan Museeuw, the retired Belgian star confessed that doping was part of his job description. Museeuw told Dutch newspaper Gazet Van Antwerpen, “Only a collective mea culpa will clear the road to the future.”

UCI president Pat McQuaid told the Associated Press that he thought there was “room for” amnesty for those who come forward, and that the UCI would “do well” to introduce such a program, though he backpedaled after the annual UCI management committee convened at the world championships in The Netherlands.

But how would amnesty, and a truth and reconciliation commission, work within professional cycling?

To answer, it’s helpful to look at South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission as a template for how cycling might confront its past and forge a clean future.

Healing the wounds of the past

Created after the end of apartheid in 1995, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Over seven years it heard the testimony of more than 20,000 South Africans with the objective of revealing and documenting human rights violations under the apartheid regime. It also granted amnesty to many perpetrators of crimes.

“We needed to look the beast in the eye, so that the past wouldn’t hold us hostage anymore,” Tutu said of the commission.

The goal of a truth and reconciliation commission is not necessarily justice, although that is often a byproduct. The central objective is to build a foundation for honest dialogue and healing. To mend, not divorce — to bring together in a spirit of forgiveness, rather than divide through prosecution and retribution. As Tutu himself said: “Making the truth public is a form of justice.”

Of course, there is no moral equivalency between the horrors of apartheid and cycling’s doping era. In fact, the only similarity between the two is in the ubiquity of the offenses. But the differing degree and type of crimes does not preclude pro cycling from looking to the TRC as a template for how to move beyond its own dark past.

At first glance, the idea of letting lawbreakers walk free runs counter to our most basic notions of justice and fairness. When someone is robbed or beaten, we naturally want retribution and punishment; it is the very structure of our judicial system in this country.

For domestiques like Floyd Landis, Tyler Hamilton, and Frankie Andreu, who doped in support of Lance Armstrong during the years he won his seven Tour titles, and then felt his wrath when they told the truth, knowing Armstrong could emerge from a truth and reconciliation process without penalty might be a hard truth to swallow. But perhaps this is a necessary evil. The philosopher Hannah Arendt, something of an expert on forgiveness, argues that “without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of its consequences forever.” Forgiveness is essential for forward progress.

Amnesty is designed to expose and dismantle a corrupting system that forced decent people to do evil acts; the end game of a cycling commission would be to turn enemies into partners for the betterment of the future, rather than seek revenge or retribution for crimes committed decades ago.

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