Opinion: U.S. cycling must lead the global fight against doping
The recent revelations about the systemic doping by Lance Armstrong and his U.S. Postal Service squad tell an ugly truth: American champions and an American team led the world in an unseemly practice that was traditionally linked to dirty, low-class European cycling subculture. This is a threat to American cycling’s credibility that must be faced swiftly and decisively.
The first few who broke the ironclad omertà were branded as liars and misfits, not only by fans who refused to believe their stories, but also by people in the UCI and USA Cycling who govern cycling. As the ripple of truth became a tsunami, Armstrong’s denials began to appear as bizarre as the doping system he fostered. The discredited admissions by Floyd Landis, Tyler Hamilton and others suddenly gained credibility.
Fortunately, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency relentlessly and thoroughly pursued the truth despite the cries of “witch hunt” by those who failed to see, or wanted to hide, the deception. Strong anti-doping advocates and investors in the sport like Americans Bob Stapleton and Doug Ellis stepped in to finance Tour de France teams that raced clean and won races. Their teams, High Road and Slipstream Sports, attracted top riders who no longer wanted to be part of the doping culture. The doctors, trainers and team directors who orchestrated doping practices are finally being identified, disgraced and drummed out of the sport. And the new young American superstars like Taylor Phinney and Tejay Van Garderen are now being brought up in the sport by mentors who help them perform clean. Gone are the days when the only road to the top was littered with needles, pills and blood bags.
Progress is being made … but are those days truly gone?
In the U.S., cycling insiders were shocked as recently as 2010 when an average pro, Joe Papp, admitted to supplying EPO to some 200 clients, including amateurs, lesser pros and even age-category masters who sought to improve results in local, national and international races across the country. Most have never been caught, in part because of the common knowledge that drug testing by USADA is costly, not subsidized through USAC sanction fees and beyond the budgets of most race organizers.
Rumors are rife, but unproven, that some foreign riders have come to race here and have joined American teams because testing is sporadic and there is now enough cash in prize lists and team contracts to make a decent, albeit modest, living. Putting aside the new moral outrage against doping, there are still those who ignore the ethical issue in favor of a bigger prize check. As Jonathan Vaughters, director of the Garmin-Sharp pro team, said in a recent New York Times article “(T)he rules must be enforced, and the painful effort to make that happen must be unending and ruthless.”
For many who closely follow cycling, USAC is perceived as being too closely aligned with the UCI. The controversial world governing body has come under intense scrutiny and is accused of being weak, late and indecisive in the fight against doping, sometimes turning a deaf ear in the face of overwhelming evidence. And, according to ongoing accusations, the UCI may have even been complicit in covering up positive drug tests. Implicated by association and its own failure to take decisive action, USAC must now set itself apart from the UCI by asserting world leadership in restoring a clean, level playing field to competitive cycling.
According to USAC’s CEO, Steve Johnson, the organization is committed to a clean sport. But he admitted: “USAC sanctions 3,000 races every year. Testing at events is costly and relies primarily on USADA’s ability to conduct random tests.” He also said that USAC was open to considering all options to fight the problem. Most of USAC’s membership would agree that it is time for swift, decisive action.
A review of USAC’s annual report and budget from 2011 shows that the organization had 70,829 members and generated $11,763,000 in total revenue through license fees, team affiliations, event sanction fees, grants, donations and corporate sponsorships. Nowhere in the annual report or financial statements was there reference to a policy against doping or any line item in the budget indicating that the organization was spending any money to investigate or combat the problem, despite the fact that 2011 was a year after Papp’s revelations and admissions by Landis and others that doping had reached epidemic proportions.
A lack of serious commitment, indecision and slow action on the national level by USAC has spawned local efforts to fight doping by stakeholders who have a vested interest in keeping the sport clean. Race promoters and teams who depend upon public support and corporate sponsorship are organizing grassroots anti-doping efforts and raising funds to pay for guaranteed testing by USADA. One such effort was launched by Florida Clean Ride, a non-profit organization “designed to facilitate USADA testing at Florida road cycling events and ensure fair competition at the local amateur level.” According to their director, Jared Zimlin, there was enough suspicion of doping in local events to take action. Through donations from clubs, teams and sponsors they raised $17,000 and secured USADA testing at seven Florida events this year. Zimlin is now confident that cheaters are being driven away.
USADA’s Sport Testing & Resources Director, Andrew Morrison, says that the cost of testing all 37 of USAC’s national calendar road events, up to 60 additional sanctioned races around the country and a stronger promotion of anti-drug education, would cost approximately $6,000 per event or roughly $600,000 per year. This may seem a lot for USA Cycling, an organization with an annual budget of only $12 million. But is 5 percent of total annual expenditures not a wise investment to help ensure that sponsors remain committed to cycling, support its membership cry for committed action against doping and offer a clean path for young athletes to follow their dreams? In light of the current credibility crisis, an investment in clean cycling should be an even bigger percentage of USAC’s annual budget.
USAC owes this to its membership and to the public. Its leadership must prioritize ways to reallocate budget and raise new funds specifically earmarked for a strong, independent, anti-doping program.
When there was a need to improve international racing results, USAC recruited Thom Weisel, the wealthy patron behind the rise of Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service team, to raise money for USA Cycling’s National Development Program, whose aim is “to provide promising young athletes with the tools they need to excel at the highest levels of professional cycling.” Millions of dollars flooded in from Weisel’s high-profile “Champions Club” and smaller donors across the country. Few will deny that our top pros obtained the tools they needed to win at the highest levels. Unfortunately, we now know those “tools” included EPO, steroids, hormones and blood transfusions.
Now USAC needs to drive the same effort to banish the illegal tools and “provide promising young athletes with the assurance that they can excel at the highest levels of professional cycling without the need for artificial performance enhancements.”
Why not recruit some of the well-connected Champions Club members of USAC’s Development Foundation to lead an independent “Clean Cycling Commission?” Charge this commission with raising at least $1 million annually to ensure USADA testing and education at most key American events.
The Clean Cycling Commission could solicit and publish contributions and corporate donations from companies that have a vested interest in ensuring that competitive cycling is a clean sport. Companies like Nike, Trek, Oakley, Bell, Giro, SRAM and others have denounced dopers they sponsored but still express commitment to cycling because of the broad customer base the sport provides them.
And what about the top cyclists who have come clean and now say they want to help clean up the sport? Perhaps they should use some of the money they made fraudulently to help fund the Clean Cycling Commission, an important goal of which will be to save young riders from facing the agonizing choice that led them to the dark side.
Given that American riders and an American team have been leaders in conducting one of the most egregious doping programs in the history of cycling, it is imperative that USAC prioritize and help fund a tough, independent program that turns the tables from being perceived as lax on anti-doping measures to leading strong reform.
Editor’s note: David Chauner is a former Olympic cyclist and cycling event organizer who has produced more than 200 international bicycle races in the U.S. since he co-founded the U.S. Professional Road Championship in 1985 in Philadelphia. He is a member of the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame and has written articles on cycling for numerous cycling publications, The New York Times and Sports Illustrated.