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CIRC report: Cycling’s governance goes under the microscope

The inner workings of the UCI have been the source of intrigue, whispers, and outright allegations of corruption on the grandest of scales.

In fact, getting to the bottom of accusations leveled against the international governing body of cycling was one of the motivating factors behind current UCI president Brian Cookson’s decision to underwrite the $3 million investigation into the “EPO era.” Cookson may have had many reasons for opening up the UCI’s books, but perhaps more than anything he wanted to erase the stain that had come with the role of leading the organization.

The sweeping, well-documented 227-page report commissioned by the Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC) touches on many subjects, but more than half of its contents are directed at the inner workings of the UCI, and allegations leveled against former presidents Hein Verbruggen (1991-2005) and Pat McQuaid (2005-13).

It makes for fascinating reading, and provides a glimpse of just how powerful Verbruggen became as he took control of the fledgling UCI in the 1980s, and transformed it into one of the world’s most powerful, and, ultimately, tainted sports federations.

CIRC looked at several key points, including allegations of cover-ups and corruption involving former pro Lance Armstrong and others, whether the UCI nurtured the doping culture in cycling, and how seriously it took the fight against dopers.

CIRC, which had no prosecutorial powers to subpoena or force witnesses to testify, came up with some interesting conclusions. It stopped short of calling out corruption and bribery charges in the most illicit cases, but it didn’t hold any punches, either. CIRC portrays Verbruggen’s world as a dark, confrontational, and deceptive world.

This story is based on extracts from the CIRC report, with the document’s conclusions and findings highlighted in italics. VeloNews will reach out to Verbruggen for comment in the coming days.

Armstrong and the UCI

The report provides some interesting glimpses into how much influence and power Armstrong wielded within the UCI. While the report stops short of recognizing outright corruption (see examples below), CIRC said the UCI struggled to deal with the imminent power and attraction that Armstrong brought to a sport rife with doping scandals.

CIRC wrote: “The UCI leadership did not know how to differentiate between Armstrong the hero, seven-time winner of the Tour, cancer survivor, huge financial and media success and a role model for thousands of fans, from Lance Armstrong the cyclist, a member of the peloton with the same rights and obligations as any other professional cyclist.”

The Armstrong Tour de Suisse ‘positives’

The report goes into lengthy detail about several alleged cases of corruption involving Armstrong. One of the most widely reported were allegations leveled by former riders Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton, who charged that Armstrong tested positive at the 2001 Tour de Suisse for EPO, only to have the tests brushed under the rug.

CIRC officials looked closely at the case, citing court documents from Swiss anti-doping officials that there was strong evidence that EPO was present in Armstrong’s samples, despite the tests coming back negative. There were also allegations made that Armstrong paid off Verbruggen to help hush up the case.

CIRC reached these conclusions: “On the basis of the information in its possession, the CIRC can conclude that Lance Armstrong did not test positive for EPO or any other doping substance during the 2001 Tour de Suisse. … CIRC has not found any indication of a financial agreement between Lance Armstrong and Hein Verbruggen or, as would follow from the absence of evidence of a positive test, of any attempts by UCI to conceal a positive test by Lance Armstrong at the 2001 Tour de Suisse.”

In another case, CIRC also concluded that Armstrong did not pay for the so-called Vrijman report by Dutch investigator Emile Vrijman in 2005, but chastised the UCI for not acting “prudently in soliciting and accepting donations from an athlete, and all the more so from an athlete in respect of whom there were suspicions of doping.”

The report blasted the UCI’s conduct in how it handled the Vrijman report, which investigated alleged EPO abuse by Armstrong during the Tour, insisting that the “UCI had no intention of pursuing an independent report” and that the main goal was nothing less than a whitewash, adding, “The main goal was to ensure that the report reflected UCI’s and Lance Armstrong’s personal conclusions.”

Those comments echo the tone throughout much of the report. While it stopped short of outright corruption claims, the CIRC panel found many of the UCI practices under Verbruggen very disagreeable.

Corticoid cover-up in 1999 Tour

The most blatant case involved the 1999 Tour. Armstrong tested positive for the presence of corticoids four times (July 4, 14, 15, and 21), and later produced a backdated prescription that was quickly approved for use of corticoids on “July 2 and 3,” something that Armstrong corroborated during his broadcast on Oprah Winfrey’s TV show in January 2013. In a similar case involving former world champion Laurent Brochard, the CIRC panel lambasted the UCI’s actions, which allowed backdated TUEs to be applied to avoid an embarrassing doping scandal, writing: “The CIRC considers that it was a case of a false medical certificate and therefore the case should have been reported to the criminal authorities and the relevant medical boards.”

Tour of Ireland in exchange for TDU

In another highly publicized case, there were allegations made that then-UCI president McQuaid allowed Armstrong to race at the Tour Down Under as part of his comeback in 2009 — though he was nearly two weeks short of his inclusion into the six-month anti-doping testing pool — in exchange for Armstrong’s commitment to race the Tour of Ireland. (Armstrong would eventually be paid $3 million for three starts at the Tour Down Under.) The CIRC stopped short of calling it a deal, but wrote these pointed words: “… whilst there is no direct evidence of an agreement between Lance Armstrong and Pat McQuaid, documents in the CIRC’s possession show a temporal link between the two decisions: in the morning Pat McQuaid told UCI staff that he had changed his mind and decided to let Lance Armstrong participate in the Tour Down Under, and that same evening Lance Armstrong told Pat McQuaid that he had decided to participate in the Tour of Ireland.”

The UCI grows under Verbruggen

The report also reveals how Verbruggen took control of the UCI, and used it to expand his power and influence across cycling, which led to bitter fights against his enemies.

Verbruggen helped transform the UCI; he first arrived in 1979 as a member of the board of the Fédération Internationale du Cyclisme Professionnel and was appointed as UCI president in 1991. Before the Dutch marketing expert took over, the UCI was a small, fractured organization that had little to say about the elite level of the sport. It served more as a bureaucratic tool for the Olympic Games. But all that started to change when Verbruggen began to exert power and influence.

Verbruggen saw the potential to reshape the sport’s image in the 1990s following a string of doping scandals, and began a close relationship with Armstrong, helping to sell the idea of a “Tour of Renewal” in the Texan’s 1999 comeback Tour.

“Hein Verbruggen aspired to transform UCI into an important IF by giving cycling a solid and unified foundation,” CIRC wrote. “He did it as a business man, in a somewhat forceful manner, with a lack of transparency and in breach of certain sporting requirements.”

In more telling details, CIRC also revealed that the source of the long-running spat between Verbruggen and World Anti-Doping Agency president Dick Pound was the former’s support for Belgian Jacques Rogge to succeed Juan Antonio Samaranch in 2001 as head of the IOC. When Pound lost out to Rogge, he was designated head of WADA, and he and Verbruggen started a nasty, divisive spat over the doping issue.

The report also highlighted the long-running battle between Verbruggen and ASO (Amaury Sport Organisation), the owners of the Tour de France and other major cycling properties. In 2004, with the introduction of the ProTour, Verbruggen made his play for the lucrative TV rights that came with races, only to be rebuffed by ASO: “Above all, UCI wanted sole control over the television rights for major races and, of course, to benefit financially from this. This inevitably met with hostility from teams that were excluded and, above all, clashed with the interests of the organizers of major events, primarily ASO,” CIRC wrote.

CIRC also claimed that Verbruggen, then working with the IOC as a top official with the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, took credit for the failure of the Paris Olympic bid in 2012, as well as highlighted political influence to allow Armstrong to race the Tour Down Under in 2009 despite the fact that it broke anti-doping rules that required a six-month advance to be part of the testing pool.

Minimizing risk, not stopping doping

One critical assertion of the CIRC report is the claim that the UCI considered doping a health risk, and worked to control the risks to riders (as well as the marketing fallout from scandals), rather than to try and stamp it out. CIRC blasted the conduct of Verbruggen and his anti-doping authorities: “The doping problem was well known to the UCI leadership and it was clear to everyone that doping was endemic in cycling. Instead, after becoming UCI president, it appears that the communication strategy was primarily to divert public opinion from the idea of responsibility for the doping problem lying with UCI. Doping was portrayed by UCI leadership as the faulty and surprising behavior of a few individuals, but not as endemic group behavior or as a structural problem within its sport.”

The report revealed how, after realizing the “peloton was EPO-infested” by as early as 1995, the UCI “held a meeting with the heads of various laboratories to discuss with them what could be done about EPO misuse. The problem grew more alarming when in 1996 riders informed UCI leadership that the misuse of EPO had spiraled out of control and that there was a serious and acute danger that riders would die [in] the Grand Tours. It was the various team doctors and managers who went to the UCI and begged them to start blood controls.”

The report lays out some chilling examples. When the UCI set a 50 percent hematocrit maximum limit in 1997 (a test to detect EPO was not available until 2001), CIRC stated that it acted as a green light to dope: “One unintended consequence of the 50% hematocrit threshold on all riders, regardless of their natural levels, was that riders with hematocrit levels naturally in the low-mid 40s could gain an advantage by using EPO up to 50%. According to one former rider, the introduction of the 50% hematocrit value rule was perceived by riders as legalizing EPO up to a certain limit,” CIRC wrote. “Very few riders told the CIRC they had a natural hematocrit level above 45% and so there was implicit ‘permission’ to dope up to 50%.”

The report also criticized the anti-doping efforts under Verbruggen, citing that Lon Schattenberg, who served as head of the UCI’s then-anti-doping agencies until 2007, as well as the UCI’s “de facto” legal head, Philippe Verbiest, would consult with Verbruggen on sensitive cases: “Furthermore, in the relatively rare cases in which the ADC met, it is reported that Hein Verbruggen would be present. It is also submitted that under the presidency of Hein Verbruggen ‘secret meetings’ were regularly held between Lon Schattenberg, Philippe Verbiest, and the president (referred to by interviewees as the ‘Flemish-‘ or ‘Dutch- connection’) to discuss and decide important anti-doping matters.”

The report also states that the situation improved with the arrival of McQuaid as president, and the appointment of Anne Gripper as drug czar in 2006.

More worrying were how the anti-doping authorities conducted controls at races. Chaperones were not introduced until 2008 for post-competition controls, and the report claimed these controls were rife with problems.

The report also cited examples of how UCI staffers would “warn” riders of high tests, a practice it claimed undermined the efficiency of the anti-doping efforts. The report also claimed that the UCI, under Schattenberg, considered out-of-competition controls, introduced in 2001, as “cumbersome and a waste of money.” The report claims Schattenberg wielded much power in the doling out of anti-doping controls: “…within Lon Schattenberg’s discretion to decide when and how health tests would be performed whilst these were still used and he would designate the medical inspector for the medical tests.”

The report applauded cycling’s introduction of new, anti-doping measures, but added this caveat: “Since UCI’s anti-doping strategy was directed against the abuse of doping substances rather than the use of them, only the visible tip of the iceberg was tackled. … The emphasis of UCI’s anti-doping policy was primarily, therefore, to give the impression that UCI was tough on doping rather than actually being good at anti-doping. UCI portrayed itself as always being at the forefront of the fight against doping.”

McQuaid under Verbruggen’s shadow

The report also portrayed Pat McQuaid, who took over as UCI president in 2005, as “Verbruggen’s man” and claimed that Verbruggen all but appointed him as his heir apparent. McQuaid served two terms before being beaten by Cookson in September 2013, while seeking a third term .

McQuaid is credited with improving the fight against doping, but is portrayed as a leader who was dependent upon and haunted by Verbruggen’s legacy.

CIRC wrote: “UCI staff reported that they thought that Pat McQuaid felt obliged to Hein Verbruggen, because the latter had put him in office. Pat McQuaid is described as being under Hein Verbruggen’s ‘umbrella’ when taking important decisions. This close relationship with Hein Verbruggen also meant that Pat McQuaid was not willing and capable ‘to cut’ with the past and disassociate himself from Hein Verbruggen or the problems stemming from his presidency. Only gradually, at the end of his presidency, did Pat McQuaid become more independent. Nevertheless, it is reported that Pat McQuaid never succeeded in establishing a convincing governance style of his own.”

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