Op-ed: Thompson says cleaning house is the only way forward

Three-time Olympian Inga Thompson says the only way to keep kids coming into cycling is to ride the sport of all former dopers

As cycling’s latest doping conspiracy unfolded, I was more than a little surprised to read an article in which the author flatly stated that women’s pro ranks were unaffected, “since there wasn’t the prize money involved, etc., there was just no reason for the women to dope.”

Oh really?

With one general statement, the author can simply wipe away reality and, yes, the many women who have tested positive or otherwise been mired in their own controversies. Where has she been? After spending 10 years in a sport that I passionately loved, I finally, regretfully, sadly, and quite angrily walked away with a sense of disappointment and resignation. Over those final years I was repeatedly subjected to pressures to be a “team player” by the very same people who eventually went on to work with the U.S. Postal Service and the coaches for up-and-coming riders of today that were “forced” to dope.

Watching female athletes around me on an international level test positive at a time when it could be easily buried, seeing their boyfriends and husbands get caught with drugs, getting soundly beaten time and time again, fellow riders dying in their sleep, never able to scream about what should have been obvious to anyone was just too much to take.

Women I had handily beaten in the past were suddenly – and I mean suddenly, as in over-night – “untouchable.” These were riders who were admittedly talented, but riders I had regularly beaten. Now they were defeating me so definitively, so soundly, that it became gut wrenching.

I was frustrated and angry, knowing full well that I was not about to make the same obscene choice they had. But, as a result, I found myself beaten before the race even started. It eventually drove me out of the sport I loved and into retirement much earlier than I would have otherwise chosen to. I was finally sick of the pressures from the management above me to be a “team player” or risk getting pushed out of the elite. It was hard racing those years being blackballed, yet I was good enough to make the team automatically. Nonetheless, the passion for this beautiful sport of ours was slowly just sucked away by the corruption. I just didn’t care to fight this fight anymore.

I remember one of my favorite Dutch women with whom I loved to chat in the peloton during races — until I arrived at an international stage race and learned she wouldn’t be there. She had died in her sleep… from a heart attack.

“So sad,” said the coach who then, quite callously, offered to introduce me to the young up-and-comer who was replacing her.

Please do recall that a big share of those men who doped during their own pro careers are now coaching women and young riders.

Think about that. Would you hand your son or daughter over to a program if you knew the people overseeing them were ex-drug addicts doing cocaine, meth or heroin? That’s how I feel about handing my son over to the grassroots programs or big teams coached by ex-dopers.

Maybe you think I’m being too optimistic about my son here? Well, he has the genes. You should see his natural hematocrit levels. It’s genetic. With my own history of three Olympics and nine worlds, medals at worlds and even the climber’s jersey at the Tour de France Feminine, he has something of a head start. Add to that the fact that his father was a very good cyclist in his own right and the kid has some natural talent.

I’ve watched him on a bike. It’s a beautiful sight. Yet, I find myself discouraging him from riding. If he lives up to his potential as a racer, I have to face the reality of his ending up in the hands of the men who ruined the sport, destroyed lives, and continue to do so.

I’ve encouraged him to play football because I know he’s not going anywhere in that sport. Eight-man football in a town where if you’re in high school and male, you will play on the team because there are probably fewer than 20 boys in the entire school. No, he’s not getting a scholarship for football, so I know he’s safe.

Why again won’t I encourage my son to pursue cycling? I’d be handing him over to ex-dopers, now coaches, directors or team managers. Many have since confessed their sins and declared themselves to be “reformed” or “on the wagon,” so to speak. Wow, they all found “God” at the very same time. Would this have anything to do with the subpoenas? What about all the dopers that didn’t have to fess up because of a subpoena?

Wake up cycling fans. This latest scandal can’t simply be dealt with by saying, “let’s just forget this and move forward for the good of the sport.” Remember? That’s what we said after the 1984 Olympics blood doping scandal. That’s what we said after the Festina Affair. That’s what we said after Operación Puerto. That’s what we said after the Telekom team imploded. No. I’ve heard the same arguments for years: “This bad press is just hurting us; stop digging and move forward.” But we can’t move forward until there is full transparency of past and present practices. No one wants to hand their child over to drugs.

Not only were potential victories, honor, fame and money stolen from me, now my ethics of making the right choice to walk away is being stolen from me. People assume that if I was at an International level during the Lance era, I, too, must have doped. I didn’t make that choice, yet I am being painted with the same brush. At this point everything — including my own past — is being stolen from me.

By now, we all know that Lance’s samples from 1999 were re-tested in 2005 and they showed evidence of doping. A lot of people — including the UCI — went into full defensive mode and denied there was a problem. Do you want to know what I thought? I wanted to know how many more samples are out there. At this point, I am publicly urging that WADA and other anti-doping agencies and governing bodies open up the freezers and test each and every sample still available.

I, for one, want proof of my innocence. I’m not looking for medals or even stolen prize money at this point. I want my honor back. I was among those who made the right choice during the most difficult time in the sport. I want that on my résumé. I’m not the only one that wants proof of my bravery to make the right choice in the most difficult of situations.

I’m pretty sick of listening to these dopers whine about how hard it was to walk away because of the pressure. They just had to dope because of the peer pressure or they didn’t want to stand up and do the right thing. Frankly, it’s pathetic that they didn’t have the backbone to make the right choice under pressure. Really? I’m supposed to feel sorry for you? They need Spinagra. It helps you grow a spine under the pressures of doing the right thing. And now, they want to be coaches? Coaching our children! We don’t want coaches that couldn’t do the right thing under pressure. We want men and women as coaches, coaches who can make the right choices! Hiring newly reformed ex-dopers will not inspire confidence in sponsors or the public; only a complete purging can restore the confidence that has been lost.

Meanwhile, let’s focus on what’s important and it isn’t semi-repentant dopers. What counts now is the sport we should be able to offer our children. No parent that loves their child will hand them over to semi-repentant dopers.

Let’s look at the past, clean out the sport; then and only then, can we finally do as the apologists say and “move on.”

—Inga Thompson
Three-time Olympian (1984, 1988, 1992)
Seven-time worlds team member (1985-1987, 1989-1991, 1993)
Two-time Pan-American Games team member (1987, 1991)
Team 7-Eleven (1985-1989)