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Op-Ed: Cycling’s review commission is a step forward, but it isn’t enough

Cycling's independent commission is a big step toward repairing the sport, but Steve Maxwell points out a number of shortcomings in its charter

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Editor’s note: To close out the year, we are counting down the top 14 stories of 2014. VeloNews and Velo magazine’s editorial staff voted this piece as one of our favorite articles of the year.

Brian Cookson, president of cycling’s world governing body, the UCI, deserves commendation for following through on his 2013 pre-election manifesto to convene an “independent commission” to investigate pro cycling. From all appearances, this Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC) will be overseen by a very strong and experienced staff, and will operate independently of the UCI, as it looks into the history of doping and corruption in the sport.

As stated in its “Terms of Reference,” or charter, dated February 11, 2014, the CIRC proclaims that its priorities will be focused on “understanding and learning from the past to improve the future of the sport by eliminating undesirable practices and procedures as well as understanding the roots and mechanisms of the endemic problem of doping in cycling.”

No one can disagree with that. Anyone who wants to see pro cycling thrive certainly hopes that the CIRC will be as successful as possible.

But there are a number of shortcomings with respect to the published structure and operating plan for the CIRC that jeopardize its effectiveness, and call into question its ability to truly reform the sport. Four problems in particular stand out: the lack of power to compel participation; limited authority to grant leniency or enforce sanctions; a subordinate position relative to national laws; and an insufficient historical timeframe of review.

First, the CIRC has essentially no power to compel anyone to testify; its own charter says only that it “can interview any person who wishes to provide information.” Indeed, the commission seems to be relying on individuals to be in contact voluntarily to offer help — as opposed to identifying and compelling target witnesses to appear. Even if the CIRC does identify a list of targeted participants and contact them, it has no power to force them to appear. In a press release dated February 11, CIRC chairman Dick Marty actually asked individuals to contact the commission via an email address — seemingly a rather feeble initial approach for a commission charged with investigating serious charges of illegal performance enhancement, cheating, and corruption.

Second, the CIRC has set forth only limited power to confer judgments on those participants who do decide to show up. It can reduce the sanctions risked by individuals who have not yet been charged with any offenses, but who voluntarily come forward to testify and admit guilt. But how many witnesses are likely to show up at the doorstep in Lausanne, Switzerland, to voluntarily indict themselves? Some already-charged parties may participate in the hope of dragging others down with them. And some already-guilty parties might show up in an effort to obtain reduced bans. But this is already possible under World Anti-Doping Code, and is a big gamble; the power and authority of the CIRC is in this regard rather vague and subjective. Critically, the commission only has the power to recommend, not actually decide to reduce sanctions.

Third, in some cases, testimony provided to the CIRC might be used against the provider in a separate proceeding, in a court of law in his or her home country. Hence, many have questioned why anyone — and particularly those with the most knowledge of the inner workings and the most power in the sport — would take their chances and bother showing up at all. Although pro cycling does appear to be gradually cleaning up its act, it is well known that many ex-dopers still reside within the ranks of current riders, team managers, and officials. Indeed, it is many of these managers and officials, and their unwillingness to address the issue, that compounds the whole problem and helps to reinforce the sport’s legacy of omerta. The CIRC simply doesn’t have the right tools or the muscle in its current Terms of Reference to overcome this wall of silence.

There was much talk last year, both before and after Cookson’s election, about a so-called Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as being a more inclusive, transparent and thorough process, to finally break the omerta and root out the causes of doping. It is useful to quickly review these differences, because although the UCI has clearly decided to take a different and simpler approach with its CIRC, there may still be some aspects of a TRC that can at least be partially incorporated to make the current process more effective.

As opposed to an independent commission (IC) like the CIRC, which has an agenda to report its findings and make recommendations, a TRC is a process to come to terms with past wrong-doings. A well-organized TRC can compel testimony, and exercise authority appointed from ruling bodies to offer amnesty as well as to recommend rehabilitation or reparations where needed. This is achieved through what is best described as “comparative justice.” Participants in TRC self-admit in an open forum (most voluntarily, and some by subpoena) what each “player” contributed to the “game.” Every admission is respected because it builds a more complete picture of how the game was played. Only when the full story of the game is known, and only after comparing the testimonies and actions of the participants to each other, can any one person be judged for his or her individual actions when the game was played.

All parties in a TRC are motivated to tell the full truth because if their testimony is incomplete, or if other testimony contradicts their statements later in the process, leniency will be less likely. On the other hand, participants in an IC often have both the opportunity and the incentive to under-deliver. Participants may be able to get away with selectively telling the truth, giving incomplete testimony, and confessing to certain actions — but not necessarily all of their actions. The CIRC should strive for complete testimony, not just simple admissions of guilt, and it should try to at least incorporate certain critical elements of a TRC into its model. Without any real incentives to offer potential participants, and without having made the necessary agreements with governments and other agencies to apply a TRC’s power, the CIRC risks failure before it even begins.

Finally, the CIRC states that it will investigate the period of 1998-2013, although it retains the option to change or extend this time period. Observers of the sport know that there has always been some form of doping or enhancement from the very earliest days — alcohol, amphetamines, cocaine, and even tobacco. Hence, there is always the question of “how far back do you go?” A 15-year timeframe neatly coincides with the infamous Festina Affaire through the end of the Lance Armstrong era, but the root causes go much deeper. The CIRC should review 30 years of recent history to truly understand and fix the corruption that poisoned the sport.

It was in 1983 that Francesco Conconi and his colleagues at the University of Ferrara began to refine the science of blood doping, which set cycling’s EPO era into motion. Conconi’s work with the aging Italian cyclist Francesco Moser to break the hour record was the crown jewel of this experimental process; this eventually led to better understanding of the curve matching hematocrit to athletic improvement. Conconi also had a star researcher on staff at the time whose name would later become synonymous with the Armstrong era: Michele Ferrari.

Most importantly from the perspective of cycling’s omerta, Conconi was able to entrench EPO in the sport and help make it the prevailing driver for success. His lab effectively replaced the need for blood transfusions by determining the equivalent dosing cycles for EPO, and may have helped to proliferate this knowledge throughout endurance sports. At the very height of the EPO era, Conconi was able to delay the development of an EPO test via his appointment as the Italian Olympic Committee’s medical director, and president of the UCI’s Medical Commission.

From this perspective, the Festina Affaire was merely the mid-point of a very dark race that became even more scientific and deeply entrenched afterwards. Without looking back to 1983, the CIRC may fail to uncover the key indiscretions, and fail to punish or rehabilitate the key personalities who developed and reinforced this framework of corruption across the sport. It will also fail to appropriately recognize the deaths of many riders — like that of Johannes Draaijer in 1990 — and the hopes and dreams of thousands of other aspiring riders, as the collateral damage of the doping arms race.

Admittedly, a TRC is a more logistically complex undertaking, and the UCI likely opted not to go down this track for fear that it would cost too much or last too long. Likewise, Mr. Cookson undoubtedly felt he had to draw the historical line somewhere, and the Festina Affaire was certainly one dramatic turning point in the sport. And we can only hope that the CIRC will be as successful as possible. But hopefully there is still the time and willingness to amend the CIRC’s charter, and take into account at least some of these issues and considerations to make enlightened mid-course corrections. The CIRC must do as much as is possible to break the omerta and root out the corrupting influences. It must take counsel from unconventional sources, criticism from its strongest opponents, and testimony from all sides. Without these contributions, the CIRC may not fully understand and appreciate the real causes of today’s problems, or be able to clear a path for the UCI to take cycling towards a more prosperous future.

Steve Maxwell is a business contributor to VeloNews. He and Joe Harris are the authors of The Outer Line blog, where there is considerably more detail and background on the pros and cons of a truth an reconciliation process versus an independent commission, the modern history of doping, governance and reform in pro cycling, and descriptions of the various players involved in this drama. A full set of specific and actionable recommendations for fixing the sport can be found in the associated October 2013 report, “A Roadmap to Repair Pro Cycling.”