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Changing the Business Model: A new approach to anti-doping

Would professional cycling benefit from a professional certification system to hold riders and teams accountable to each other?

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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 fourth article.

There is no greater threat to the future of pro cycling than the continued lack of a consistent and defensible anti-doping system. Athlete testing and punishment is often inequitable or inconsistently applied, the testing methods themselves are sometimes analytically inconclusive, and the responsibility and coordination between different governing agencies is often absent or unclear. The shortcomings of this system have been felt across the entire sport — from its shaky financial situation to the growing demand for fundamental structural and governance reform. Real progress and a more effective solution to the doping dilemma would allow the sport to attract more sponsors, generate more revenue and flourish in the future.

Over the past several years, there have been hundreds of articles and editorial pieces criticizing the current anti-doping procedures in pro cycling, and decrying the wide spectrum of failures, inequities, and unintended consequences; even proclaiming the end of sport. But few observers have had any concrete suggestions for new approaches to deal with the problem. In this article, we suggest some new ideas about anti-doping and propose a broad conceptual outline for the application of the professional certification model — and the creation of an independent cycling certification program.

A certification program would deemphasize the reliance on command and control thinking, and would reinvent the general governance and anti-doping approach in the sport by means of three cornerstones: A more comprehensive system of team and/or athlete auditing, monitoring, and tracking; the development and institution of stronger ethical standards and training; and more severe and permanent penalties for those found guilty of breaking the rules.

Certification at the Team Level

The most effective application of a certification plan would be to place the key responsibilities — as well as the repercussions for failing to meet them — directly on the teams. These are the entities which have the most power to implement immediate cultural change. An independent certification agency would be created and empowered — modeled upon the International Standards Organization (ISO) 9000 and 14000 protocols as a private and impartial standard-setting organization — and would be independent of the anti-doping and sporting federations. This new agency would set operating and behavioral standards, create appropriate metrics by which to measure adherence to those standards, and would hold teams accountable to the standards necessary to compete in pro cycling. The specific metrics would have to be agreed upon, but the objective would be to grade a team’s ability to meet specific ethical, operational, financial and administrative thresholds such that they could be certified for top-level pro competition.

Certification at the Individual Athlete Level

Pro cyclists have reached the top level in their profession, and are “professionals” in every sense — in training, physiology, nutrition, racing tactics, and so on. Yet, the only certification that a pro cyclist can obtain is a UCI license. And this is a somewhat arbitrary certification, because there is essentially no agreement about who should or should not be qualified to become a “pro” in the first place; there are few minimum requirements or standards. Only certain national federations and anti-doping authorities “test” their athletes for ethics considerations at all, or specify what they expect in terms of adherence to the rules. In short, if you’ve demonstrated that you can ride a bike fast, there are few other requirements for or barriers to obtaining a UCI license. This deficit of clear expectations and qualifications results in an over-dependence on the command and control model.

An individually-focused athlete certification program could be created so that the riders could exercise more direct control over whether they could truly be labeled as “clean.” Individual certification would have several distinct benefits, similar to what can be observed in other professions. First, the professional would determine and maintain their personal certification to participate in the industry. This would turn cycling’s traditional model on its head; everyone would have a strong competitive and financial interest in ensuring that the system works. Second, the oversight agency would uphold the certification, such that actual standards could be enforced. Third, non-compliance would be quickly identified, and the penalties would typically be severe and non-negotiable; the high frequency of testing would leave little room for unscrupulous practitioners to get away with violations.

Stronger Punitive Measures

If teams and/or riders were certified under this type of program, anti-doping punitive measures could finally be given real teeth. Explicit agreements within other certification models, such as those which disbar lawyers or prohibit doctors from practicing, would make it virtually impossible for cheaters to be repeat offenders in the future. Guilty parties are often permanently barred from being licensed again, even if they manage to escape financial penalties or jail time. The whole premise of employment in this sport needs to be changed — riders and staff need to understand that cheating can mean the end of their careers. Proven doping cases, even for first-time offenses, could lead to a lifetime ban for the rider; possible six-month loss of certification for the entire team (rendering it unable to compete in any events for the duration of the audit and investigation that the team would have to undergo to become re-certified); if any team staff were found to have aided and abetted the rider, these persons could also be given a lifetime ban; and if an audit discovered systematic, organized doping within the team, the team could suffer an effective “death sentence” — losing its certification altogether and being run out of the sport.

The beauty of an athlete certification model is that it encourages and empowers the athletes to initiate and maintain responsibility for their certification — in exactly the same way that other business professionals are responsible for accreditation to work in their chosen field. The athletes would gradually become collectively invested in making sure the process works, reporting wrong-doing as it happens, and ensuring that everyone is treated equally. So long as they maintained their regular testing schedule and produced no questionable results, riders would be allowed to maintain and affix a prominent symbol or logo of “good housekeeping” to their jersey — showing teams, organizers and fans that they are an accredited and certified clean racer. Over time, the purely economic value of being able to wear that “clean” symbol would grow significantly.