In the November 2012 issue of Velo, Mark Johnson makes the case for a truth and reconciliation commission to allow cycling to move forward

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.

The challenges ahead

In some respects, the UCI has slowed progress in pro cycling. Focusing on niggling issues like seat angles, accepting $125,000 gifts from the very Armstrong they are supposed to be governing, and demonizing partner agencies like WADA and USADA for doing their part to rid the sport of its scourge of needles, the Swiss-based UCI could, from certain perspectives, be seen as an impediment to the sport.

So, could the UCI, like Armstrong, have a place in a truth and reconciliation process? Looking to Mandela for guidance, the answer is yes. The UCI could reveal its own past just as President F.W. De Klerk and his apartheid government did by participating in the truth and reconciliation process.

Speaking of De Klerk, Mandela said, “He had the courage to admit that a terrible wrong had been done. He had the foresight to understand and accept that all the people of South Africa must, through negotiations and as equal participants in the process, together determine what they want to make of their future.”

The TRC is a good model for cycling to follow for several reasons. First, it had the powers of subpoena, search, and seizure. This allowed the commission to directly question witnesses who did not apply for amnesty or otherwise agree to testify before the commission.

Judging from his history of shouting “witch hunt” when anyone pointed to an alternate explanation of the clean history he claims, it seems unlikely Armstrong would want to participate in a truth and reconciliation commission. But a commission with the muscle of subpoena power could compel the truth out of the erstwhile-Tour winner.

For those who would plead the Fifth, or refuse to testify, Tutu notes that “Many of them carry a burden of a guilt which would have been assuaged had they actively embraced the opportunities offered by the Commission; those who do not consciously acknowledge any sense of guilt are in a sense worse off than those who do.”

South Africa’s commission was also unique in that it held its hearings in public, often to a nation gripped by the images, words, and emotion flowing from their televisions.

As more people testified and witnessed others speaking the truth, the floodgates opened. Fear of retribution receded, a self-perpetuating cathartic effect took hold, and more than 22,000 people ultimately told their stories and some 6,000 applied for amnesty. This kind of public catharsis would have a powerful effect on the world of cycling.

Today in cycling, the truth is beginning to emerge; Museeuw, Jonathan Vaughters’ recent confessions, and Tyler Hamilton’s book The Secret Race come to mind. Yet, the great mass of pros that raced in the 1990s and 2000s still cower in silence. They are fearful of losing their jobs or coming under the crushing assault of attorneys — or going to jail in nations such as France or Italy, where doping is a felony.

To allay such fears, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission created a witness protection program. Knowing many pros are mindful of the dangers of testifying, a similar program could help ensure that pros are not intimidated into silence before they appear in front of a commission.

WADA director general David Howman said that while the WADA code does not cover amnesty, that fact did not preclude the agency from considering it. He noted, “You’re entering into uncharted territory, but we wouldn’t have found the rest of the world if we didn’t bother going into uncharted territory.”

One thing that South Africa had that cycling lacks, however, is revered leaders to run the commission. Tutu had won the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to create a democratic South Africa. And throughout his nearly three decades in a political prison, Mandela earned the respect of South Africans, both black and white. As president, Mandela gave the Truth and Reconciliation Commission a foundation of credibility and gravitas by personally endorsing and announcing its creation.

Pro cycling certainly has no Mandela, or Tutu.

Who might lead such a commission? Museeuw? Greg LeMond? Jonathan Vaughters? Sylvia Schenk? The important thing is that, whoever he or she is, they not live in a state of denial regarding cycling’s past, and that they show an unvarnished interest in guiding the sport out of the dark and into the light.

The potential for healing

Perhaps the greatest outcome of a TRC would be the adoption of a new frame of mind. De Klerk discussed this shift in his Nobel lecture: “It was not a sudden change, but a process — a process of introspection, of soul searching, of repentance… of acknowledgement of failed policies and the injustice it brought with it.” He continued, “This process brought us to the negotiating table where we could begin to develop the frame of mind and frameworks for peace.”

Exposing cycling’s nasty truths through a commission could bring about a similar change. A process of introspection and a wholesale public acknowledgment of the failed policies of pro cycling’s riders, governing bodies, and team managers could help end conventionalized drug use.

Today, pro cycling is at a pivotal point. Will it choose unvarnished truth, amnesty, and fence-mending, or continue a death spiral of recriminations, denials, and civil war between an old guard stuck in a defensive crouch and a new generation of riders and directors who believe the sport can succeed on a foundation of honesty?

South African Minister of Justice Dullah Omar wrote in 1995 that the commission would provide “a pathway, a stepping stone” that would help South Africa leave its conflicted past and progress toward a better future. A truth and reconciliation committee for pro cycling would not so much represent a goal in itself, but rather the starting point for a process that leads cycling to a future based on truth and transparency.