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Excerpt: USADA Chief Travis Tygart shares his perspective on cycling

USADA CEO Travis Tygart discusses ethics, athletes' rights, and a path forward in the fight against doping

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Editor’s note: USADA Chief Travis Tygart recently had a detailed discussion with VeloNews contributor Steve Maxwell and his colleague Joe Harris about professional cycling. In the interview, Tygart addressed the broader topic of doping in sports, how cycling compares to other professional and Olympic sports, how USADA works with the UCI, and his vision to create new directions and solutions for cleaning up and reforming sports in the future. An excerpt of the conversation appears below. Read the full interview here.

The Outer Line: Those of us who follow cycling closely feel like the sport has tried pretty hard lately to clean up its doping problem and image. Many people feel that cycling is conducting more thorough testing and monitoring than many other sports do. From your perspective — reviewing and overseeing anti-doping practices across a wide range of sports – how do you assess the anti-doping situation in pro cycling?

Travis Tygart: Cycling’s culture, and the public awareness of doping in the sport, was built over many years. While cycling has made important strides trying to clean up its act, particularly with the new UCI administration, it has been a Jekyll and Hyde situation for many years. On the one hand, the UCI was pretty progressive when it devised the biological passport program; on the other hand, it wasn’t that long ago that the UCI was working to block our investigation, and was not following up on samples that were suspicious, or information regarding doping that was in its possession. So, some people would say cycling is doing more, others would say it may not be doing as much as it could. But the real measurement is not what it is doing compared to curling or badminton, but is it doing enough to give cyclists hope that they can win without having to become pathological cheaters.

TOL: How do you view the behavior, attitudes and ethics of pro cyclists in relation to other sports? Are there are generalizations that you can make about the character or culture of pro cycling versus other sports?

TT: I think in every sport at every level, and more broadly in most areas of society, there is a win-at-all-cost mentality that has taken over. Too often we are glorifying success, regardless of the path or circumstances it takes to get there. We see this from the parents at our children’s soccer games and we certainly see it at the elite competitive levels.

Every sport has to have an ethical and moral code, a corpus or a creed by which it lives and operates. There’s no question that pro cycling has had some bad actors over the years, and this moral code has been pretty weak. In the late 1990s and early 2000s – when the U.S. Postal squad was dominant – the creed was almost like “OK, we’re all going to use these drugs to cheat and go faster; if you get caught, we’re sorry about that, but you’ve got to keep your mouth shut.” There has always been this kind of group-enforced silence or omerta in cycling, and I’m not sure it’s completely gone away. We have to figure out a way to flip this type of lawless community on its head, flip it to be the opposite – a strong culture that rewards cleanliness, a culture that speaks out about dirty riders and stands up for clean riders when a doper tries to rob them.

I actually think that there could have been kind of a “tipping point moment” right after the whole Festina affair back in 1998 to 1999. People like Armstrong, Jan Ullrich and others could have used their influence in the peloton to turn things around right then. If the strong people would have stood up and led by example, a real change could have happened at that point. You can set an example not to dope, just like you can participate in doping. The effort and conviction to break the rules is just the flip side of choosing to follow the rules and set the right example. I think there was a chance to have flipped the culture on its head after Festina.

This might have convinced guys like (Scott) Mercier and (Darren) Baker to stay in the sport in Europe, and perhaps (Christophe) Bassons wouldn’t have been destroyed; instead he would have been pointed to as a hero. But the leaders, the strongest riders and the managers who remained, chose the opposite direction. It still kills me to think about that missed opportunity, that the same people who could have saved the sport at the time took it down the wrong path. Instead of reversing the situation, they decided to double down, and a lot of good people went ahead or were coerced or otherwise convinced to join in and made the same bad decisions.

TOL: Should pro cycling have a more formal ethics training or “certification” in place as part of the licensing procedure?

TT: Instituting ethics training can be a bit of an uphill battle in many sports organizations. For too many folks, having a set of ethics somehow means you don’t really want to win; that, “if you’re not cheating, you’re not really trying hard enough.” Learning ethics and prevention is important, but let’s face it, detection and enforcement also has to be an important part of the equation – we have to have enforcement of the rules and regulations to back things up. That kind of hammer is the only thing that some athletes, coaches and doctors are going to listen to. For athletes who are using sports as a way to lift themselves out of difficult economic circumstances, you have to look at the cost-benefit analysis from their perspective. Is ethics training going to be enough for an athlete who is weighing the choice of poverty over the chance to make a few hundred thousand dollars a year? Probably not.

TOL: What does USADA do to protect the future rights of athletes who come forward to expose doping-related activities?

TT: Our mission is to preserve the integrity of competition, inspire true sport, and protect the rights of clean athletes. The reality is that there are situations in which athletes who come forward and are truthful and honest about their doping activities and provide substantial assistance, including their knowledge of other doping activities can help us achieve those goals easier and more effectively. There has to be some sort of incentive to provide information that moves the anti-doping movement forward.

Unfortunately, many athletes seem to follow the same playbook when they are confronted with evidence of doping. Deny the charges and attack the system and those in the system working to protect clean athletes. It creates a burden for us, costs us valuable resources and makes our goal for cleaner, safer sport harder to attain. The ability to put shorter bans on the table, so long as the information that’s provided is truthful and helps us in our mission to clean up sports, and is an important tool in the longer term goal of drug free sport.

TOL: Based on your experience with the major U.S. sports, do you see a strong athlete’s union as a possible partner, or as a challenge to the anti-doping movement?

TT: It’s tough to make a generalization here – about whether a union would help or not in addressing doping. On the one hand, major league baseball’s union is now the catalyst for trying to clean up the sport; baseball is the only major pro sport doing blood testing now, and it has pushed the situation to where external coaches and trainers are no longer allowed. The baseball union should get a lot of credit for pushing those initiatives. On the flip side, the NFL Player’s Association is fighting tooth and nail with the NFL, but it’s a power struggle and nothing to do with anti-doping.

TOL: Perhaps most important – what are your recommendations for the future? What new initiatives would you undertake if you were UCI president?

TT: First, I would roll up my sleeves and have a good long listen to the people who are participating – to try to understand the athletes’ lives, and to make the system fair and safe for them. Sport is too often ruled by fear, and by the fear of retaliation. The bottom line is the system has to be cleaned out, so that riders don’t face the same no-win choices in the future. We can’t have top-level athletes being in the position of virtually having to cheat in order to win, or worse, cheat just in order to survive in the sport.

A lot of these guys are just never going to change; they’re just not going to have a big epiphany. They’re too vested in the system to stop doing what they’re doing – it’s all they’ve ever known. They’ve got everything to lose and gain economically because of how they’ve succeeded to this point.

The sport also needs a smart, crisp and timely process for hearing claims and reviewing alternatives, so that peoples’ voices can be heard, not necessarily agreed to, but at least heard. In the past, few people, including the UCI, were willing to stand up to the bullies. Frankly, I’m thrilled for all the clean racers out there that Cookson’s approach is different.