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It’s the credibility of the Union Cycliste Internationale — not Lance Armstrong — that will hang in the balance during the coming weeks.
All eyes will be on the UCI during a Monday press conference, at which cycling’s governing body is set to announce its position on the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s “reasoned decision” behind its sanctioning of the beleaguered Texan, a report that also casts a critical eye at the UCI.
UCI president Pat McQuaid has publicly indicated that the organization will take its “responsibility” in the Armstrong case. But will he rubber-stamp USADA’s lifetime ban and formally strip Armstrong of his seven Tour de France victories, or will the UCI throw up a surprise?
With many calling for heads to roll at the UCI in light of the devastating accusations leveled against Armstrong and his entourage, it will be interesting to see how McQuaid treads the turbulent water.
There’s a lot at stake for the UCI, which once again has seen its credibility come under heavy fire over its ability — or the lack thereof — to successfully monitor anti-doping controls in a sport desperate to turn the page on its past.
There’s a lot more to the USADA case than just Armstrong, and the UCI will be under the microscope not only based on how it handles the intricacies of the file, such as the reduced six-month bans for witnesses, but also on how it tries to gain control over a scandal that threatens to engulf the entire sport.
The governing body’s integrity has come under question since the unflinching, detailed USADA report was released some two weeks ago.
Many have asked how the UCI could not have known how bad things were, and why the organization didn’t do more to try to combat doping during the EPO era.
David Millar, who was attending a press conference at the world championships in Valkenburg as an accredited journalist for the BBC, suggested that the UCI must own up to its responsibility.
While a confirmed anti-doping control for EPO wasn’t approved until 2001, Millar and most observers suggest that the UCI could have done more than just leave it to the laboratories to try to combat the growing problem.
“I think it’s time for the UCI to say, ‘Maybe we didn’t do everything we could have done, and we’re sorry for that.’ Now they’re just saying, ‘Oh, we did everything we could, we have no regrets,’” Millar said.
“I think (former UCI president) Hein Verbruggen has a lot to answer for,” he continued. “He was at the helm when this got to its worst. Pat (McQuaid) came in in 2005. Hein Verbruggen seems to be pretending that nothing ever happened and it would be very annoying that he would never apologize for what happened. … It doesn’t give them (UCI) any credibility.”
The now-honorary president Verbruggen has been in the shadows since McQuaid formally took over the UCI presidency in 2005, but many say he remains highly influential within the halls of UCI headquarters in Aigle, Switzerland.
And the Dutchman roiled the waters last week when he exchanged messages with a reporter from Der Telegraph, suggesting that there is no proof that Armstrong ever cheated.
While there is growing pressure to show Verbruggen the door, it’s highly unlikely UCI will do so.
Others have claimed that the UCI ignored efforts by riders to reach out to the governing body and speak openly about the doping problem.
Whistle-blowers like Jesus Manzano, Jorg Jaksche and Floyd Landis all claim they were largely brushed off when they approached the UCI with what they said was evidence of widespread cheating.
Jaksche, who also gave evidence to USADA investigators, said he spent “hours” speaking to the UCI in 2007, outlining what he claims were “anti-doping rule violations” at Telekom, ONCE, CSC and Liberty Seguros.
“The UCI showed zero interest in hearing the full story about doping on these teams and did not seek to follow up with me,” Jaksche said. “Despite my efforts to assist in cleaning up cycling, the UCI attempted to push for two years of ineligibility in my case, and Pat McQuaid told me he’d have liked me to have handled things differently, from which I can only conclude he wished I had not been as forthcoming regarding the degree of doping that was taking place in the peloton.”
Even more troubling are suggestions of corruption within the governing body.
McQuaid has repeatedly denied a story, told by both Tyler Hamilton and Landis, that Armstrong said the UCI had accepted a bribe to cover up a doping positive from the 2001 Tour de Suisse.
Interestingly, the director of the Lausanne laboratory that conducted the tests told AFP this week that there was no such positive test in 2001, though he admitted there were three suspicious results from the Swiss race, and that there was another suspicious control during the 2002 Dauphiné Libéré (now Critérium du Dauphiné).
“Armstrong had another suspect result during the 2002 Dauphiné Libéré,” said Dr. Martial Saugy. “The politics of the UCI at that time, if there was such a result involving an important competitor, was to meet them and ask for an explanation. That was their approach to prevention.”
“The UCI said to me at the end of June 2002: ‘We warned the rider for whom you had a suspect result in 2001, he gave another suspect return at another lab and he would like to know by which method it was tested.’ … The rider was Armstrong. It was then that I learned about it.”
Those kinds of stories, though hard to prove and even harder to act against, infuriate those who wonder whether the UCI can be trusted to operate and enforce anti-doping controls.
Longtime nemesis Dick Pound, the former director of the World Anti-Doping Agency, wondered that again last week, suggesting that there is an inherent conflict of interest between the UCI, which now owns and operates its own races under Global Cycling Promotion, and the anti-doping controls.
The UCI, however, has taken some initiative on the anti-doping front, earning plaudits from the International Olympic Committee for becoming the first major sport to embrace the so-called biological passport program.
Those efforts, pushed forcefully by McQuaid, coupled with rider-whereabouts requirements and increased out-of-competition doping controls, have helped the peloton clean up its act since 2008.
Even Millar said McQuaid deserves credit for pushing the biological passport and forcing sanctions. But he was quick to add a caveat.
“Hats off to Pat. The UCI is correct that the sport has done the most in the fight against doping, but that’s because we had the biggest problem,” Millar said. “We started to accept it earlier than other sports and that’s something we should be proud of. That’s a message that needs to get across now … that the reason the sport is so clean now because there has been a big culture shift, but it is so difficult to dope now. It’s hard to beat the system.”
McQuaid insists that the sport has turned the corner on the doping scourge, but how the UCI publicly reacts to the 200-page report on Monday will surely prompt strong reaction from all quarters.
McQuaid has publicly admitted that cycling had a doping problem, but has refused to say that the UCI could have done more. Last week at the Tour of Beijing, he refused to expand on the Armstrong scandal beyond a short statement saying the cycling governing body was studying the USADA dossier.
At a press conference last month at the world road cycling championship, McQuaid defiantly said the UCI had “nothing to apologize for.”
“I don’t see why we should be apologetic. We do more testing than anyone else,” McQuaid said testily. “UCI is not to blame for the culture of doping in the sport.”
McQuaid also confirmed that the UCI will not pursue an “amnesty” program, allowing former dopers to come forward for reduced bans, saying WADA rules do not allow it.
There’s no question that the USADA dossier has swept across cycling like a tsunami, taking down not only Armstrong’s seven Tour wins and causing a lot of collateral damage.
It’s almost dizzying how quickly events have unfolded. Within a week of the release of the 200-page report and the accompanying 1,000 pages of witness testimony and other evidence, Armstrong’s longtime sponsors abandoned him and he was forced to leave the chairmanship of the cancer charity he founded.
The wave has swept beyond the U.S. borders. Matt White was forced out of his job as Australia’s national team coordinator, and Stephen Hodge — a rider linked to the Festina affair more than a decade ago — also stepped down from his job at Cycling Australia after admitting his own doping past.
Levi Leipheimer, one of 11 riders who helped the USADA investigation, was sacked by Omega Pharma-Quick Step. And Rabobank pulled the plug after 17 years of sponsorship, saying it had lost confidence in the UCI’s ability to govern the sport. Spanish federal prosecutors are now studying the USADA dossier to see if there’s enough there to file criminal charges.
Johan Bruyneel, a key player in the USADA report, lost his position as team manager at RadioShack-Trek and is now preparing his defense, promising to take the case to arbitration. USADA lawyers are probably licking their chops at the chance to call witnesses at a Bruyneel hearing and have even suggested they would call Armstrong to testify.
Without question, the Armstrong scandal has had a devastating effect on the sport. Headlines such as “Tour de Farce” are once again on the front page of newspapers around the world despite what many see as legitimate efforts over the past several years to right the ship.
McQuaid admits cycling faces a credibility crisis, but suggested too many focus on the past and not where cycling is right now.
“I perceive it, yes. I can read it because you guys write about it all the time,” he said. “I know the work I do. I know the work my staff does. Everyone is 100 percent committed. No one takes a day off.
“There were 1.5 million people on the roadside for the Olympic road race. That tells you something as well. The perception may be there because certain people are so focused on doping and doping issues that they do not see the rest of what’s going on. Cycling does suffer from that and I am aware of that.”
The UCI president will have his chance to address cycling’s past on Monday. What he says may well decide whether the sport — and the UCI — have a future.