Op-ed: Brazilian Cycling federation takes a step backward
A couple years ago, I was at the Pan-American Championships in South America. I traveled alone, as I often do, as my federation’s cycling budget is limited. I bring what I need with me, from spare tubes to extra tires to food and fuel. But sometimes things happen. A floor pump breaks, tubes run out, and mechanical woes lurk in the shadows, waiting to unravel a carefully constructed race plan. At this particular race, I had a loose cassette and lacked the tools to tighten my gears. In a pre-race panic, I frantically looked for help. I found hope in Brazil.
Antonio Silvestre, the road cycling coach and manager of the Brazilian Cycling Federation, was quick to help me, despite the fact I was not only the competition but also no responsibility to him whatsoever. He was kind and supportive, and he knew that no matter who I raced for, we’re all part of the same sport — in women’s cycling especially, where we stick together and help one another out (when not tearing one another to pieces during an event). For the past four years, I’ve seen Silvestre three or four times throughout a season. Without fail, he asks how I’m doing and if there is anything I need. Now, however, there is something he needs: the support of cyclists and fans who believe in cleaning up our sport.
On October 28, Silvestre was interviewed by the Brazilian TV program Fantastic, which was in search of an opinion on the Lance Armstrong fallout. On camera, Silvestre agreed to what the world already knew, that yes, “There is doping (in cycling). It’s a common thing.” Silvestre bravely chose this moment to remind the world that doping isn’t just a problem in North American and European racing, but that it’s a global epidemic in sport, even in Brazil, site of the 2016 Olympics. As a coach within the Brazilian federation who traveled abroad with the national team, Silvestre noticed the pattern of results stemming from the riders in his own country. Some Brazilian cyclists were not producing the same results abroad — referring to races where drug testing is protocol — as they were at home. Hoping to call out the problem of doping in his own country, Silvestre opened up about what he believes is going on behind closed doors. He told Fantastic:
I speak as the coach of the Brazilian federation, about athletes that live a fantastic period, racing for their clubs and when they come to the selection to race outside the country, their results diminish. Why? Because they quit training? No, much to the contrary. When they go to the selection, they train 15, 20 days. They train more and when they come to international events, they drop [back or out]. Therefore, what do you say? Why? One word: It is doping.
Three days after the TV interview, the Brazilian Confederation of Cycling (CBC) removed Silvestre from his coaching position. The CBC stated that it had “trust and confidence” that the sport is “clean” in Brazil, despite the fact that the CBC website lists nine Brazilian riders have been given doping citations in 2012 alone. At this time, there has been no investigation launched to take a closer look into Silvestre’s concerns. Silvestre, 51, a two-time Olympian in track cycling (individual and team pursuit in 1980 & 1988) who speaks five languages, has decades of coaching experience, and is largely regarded with respect among the international peloton, has chosen not to comment on the current situation. So I will.
When an upstanding coach dares to call attention to a problem within his own federation, and is subsequently fired and silenced, this isn’t just an issue for Brazil. This is a problem for anyone who believes in the necessity and progression of clean sport. It’s a problem for all of us who believe no matter how ugly doping is, there is still hope we can clean up the mess. When the Lance Armstrong cloud broke last month, many of us clung to the silver lining that maybe now — despite the heartbreak of fallen heroes — we can rebuild the sport to a better level. Silvestre opened a door to help us get to that level by choosing to speak out on doping instead of remaining silent. Brazil slammed the door not in his face, but in all of ours.
No matter the cover-ups and controversies that currently plague cycling, now more than ever we must remember there are good, honest people at the core of our sport who are working to amend and transform problems into solutions. They should be heard, not fired.
In a few months, my competition calendar will find me at UCI races in Central America, taking on the hills of Costa Rica and El Salvador. I’ll probably lose a spare part or an energy gel, and chances are I, or some other racer, will need a little bit of help. At some point, we all need a little bit of support. Despite my wavering faith in Brazil’s federation, I still have hope that Silvestre will be back at the races, wearing the colors of a trade team or national federation that believes in clean sport, sincerity, integrity and change.
Kathryn Bertine is a journalist, author of “As Good As Gold” (ESPN Books), and a pro cyclist with Team Colavita-espnW. She races for the nation of St. Kitts and Nevis.