Changing the Business Model: Setting ethical standards in cycling

Have cycling's rules and regulations come up short? Steve Maxwell and Joe Harris think the sport needs a set of ethical standards.

Editor’s note: VeloNews contributor Steve Maxwell and his partner Joe Harris are publishing a multi-part series of articles about how to improve the sport of cycling’s business foundation. This is an excerpt from the fifth article.

Professional cycling has never adopted a formal set of ethical standards for its riders, teams or governing officials. There has been no clear standard for responsible and ethical behavior — no training or guidelines, no expectation that people should do the right thing, even when “no one is looking.” Cycling has instead always relied on the strength of its rules and regulations — and prescribed punishments for violating them — to guide the behavior of its participants, to maintain order, and to keep the sport from breaking down.

But after more than a century of continuous cheating, a thoroughly entrenched culture of doping, and too many scandals to count, one could argue that the UCI’s rules and regulations have devolved into nothing more than strongly worded suggestions. Individuals with the right finances, advisers, and influence in cycling have basically been able to chart their own path. Worse, there have been examples where the governance structure itself has apparently fallen into that gray area where “turning a blind-eye” and actual collusion with the doping culture start to converge.

This problem is not just in pro cycling; there is simply no precedent for formal ethics programs anywhere in professional sports. There are codes of conduct and personal/professional behavior in the NBA, NFL, many professional European football leagues, and MLB, but these generally deal with relatively marginal issues, such as being civil in mandatory post-game press conferences, not using foul language, or not engaging in direct personal violence on the playing field. And these codes of conduct have obviously not stopped cheating or anti-social behavior; consider Michael Vick or Alex Rodriguez, Ray Rice, or farther back, Eric Cantona or Diego Maradona.

Instead of thinking in terms of true ethics, sports tend to speak in terms of the loosely defined ideals of sportsmanship. Helping someone up after a hard foul in basketball? Shaking hands with the losing team at the end of a game? Across a variety of playing fields, these types of actions imply that things are fair and honorable among those playing the game. But when the underlying model tacitly encourages cheating, criminal behavior and doping, or even fosters an environment where such practices are critical for success, then public perception of the game is compromised. Even cycling’s most appealing images of sportsmanship — like Tyler Hamilton signaling the lead group to wait for Lance Armstrong in the 2003 Tour de France stage to Luz Ardiden — only camouflage the true, two-tier situation in the sport — “Yes, we are all dopers and cheaters, but the peloton will do the honorable thing and wait for the fallen yellow jersey.”

Historically, an unspoken system of “shadow” rules evolved in pro cycling — a double standard that has led to an ethical breakdown, and in turn has encouraged individuals to exploit the limits of the rules to their own advantage. For example, blood transfusions led to EPO, which led to the implementation of the 50 percent hematocrit limit. But this temporary “rule” essentially gave every athlete a free pass to use EPO without consequence so long as they took precautions to stay below that threshold when tested. This effectively opened the door for some athletes with low hematocrits to utilize EPO and considerably boost their performance. When an EPO test was eventually developed, new methods were developed to navigate around the constraints — methods which now also include blood substitutes and as-yet undetectable Xenon gas inhalation treatments.

This ethical breakdown became so deep that cycling’s prevailing culture began to retaliate against those who fell out of line with this unspoken interpretation of the rules. Said another way, the sport has pushed people out not for breaking the rules, but for not breaking the rules in the accepted way! The previous UCI administration even took legal action against individuals, in what many believed to be a thinly-veiled attempt to silence criticism about the problem.

The ethics impasse helped cycling’s cheaters to develop several, by now well-known and sometimes overlapping categories of behaviors and excuses to explain their actions:

1. ‘Everyone else does it’

This is perhaps the most common or widespread excuse. This rider sees everyone else engaging in an illegal activity, and succeeding — and furthermore sees that few people are ever punished. So why not take the seemingly negligible risk and “join the club” too? An unbroken string of generally unrepentant riders has joined in this chorus over the last 30 years — including many of the most famous names in the sport.

2. ‘I had to do it just to survive’

This rider feels like he has to dope just to keep his place in the peloton, essentially bolstering his “skill set” in order to remain employed in the industry. This person is the most trapped in the corruption — capable but probably unable to keep their job without doping. However, this person doesn’t see any irony in the fact that they may be cheating others out of contracts by participating in the doping to begin with.

3. ‘They made me do it’

This is the rider who didn’t want to and who might not have otherwise broken the rules but, given the choice between a clear conscience and remaining employed, yielded to subtle, or more direct coercion. The rider risks a more or less equivalent economic penalty whether run out of the sport by his or her own team for “not getting on the program” or by the regulatory authorities due to a positive test.

4. ‘I just did it this one time’

This may occasionally be true, but this rider may not believe he is doing anything wrong unless someone catches him in the act — “I’m not really breaking the rules until that one time you catch me.” Worse, and sometimes after a lifetime of success, retired riders such as Erik Zabel and Stuart O’Grady have been caught and trapped in a web of previous lies, drawing their entire careers into doubt. A disingenuous variation on this theme was Ivan Basso’s claim that he was only thinking about doping, but not actually doing it.

5. ‘Yes, I did it, and I’m bringing down everybody else with me’

Here, think of someone like Hamilton or Floyd Landis, who succeeded to varying degrees in cycling’s screwed up ethical model before being caught, and then chewed up and spit out by the pervasive culture of omerta. These riders had a strong enough ethical grounding to eventually decide to retaliate against the structure which had forced their earlier unethical decisions. This “scorched earth” approach utilized by whistleblowers is perhaps the truest expression of the ethical confrontation cycling has created for itself. Here, the entrenched and supposed leaders of pro cycling find themselves at war — defending what they would like to think is right, against those who actually are right. Whistleblowers in the sporting arena, or in the financial and business world, are often ostracized because they have already participated in the system and profited from the corruption up to a point. But then, left with little other choice, they acknowledge the errors of their ways and decide to take the ethical path of tearing down the corrupt system altogether.

A key problem highlighted by these examples is that cycling has never developed a trusted independent body or reference point for the reporting of unethical behavior. In fact, many riders who were exposed in USADA’s Reasoned Decision document and in other subsequent “tell all” books have said that there was essentially no place to turn, that the only place to report unethical behavior was, in fact, to the very person enabling or encouraging that behavior — the team manager, coach, or doctor setting the expectation to dope.

And unfortunately, many people who were central in allowing this corruption to develop, who grew, improved and systematized doping practices in the sport, and who may have benefited the most from it, still have very little incentive to step forward and testify. Nor do those who committed the perhaps lesser sin of looking the other way. But with all of these tired excuses and their implications now firmly in the public eye — and with the Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC) due to report its finding early in 2015 — the sport needs to turn its focus to the causes of the problem rather than the symptoms.