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Commentary: Colombia’s cycling stars must preach the anti-doping message

Colombia’s star cyclists have the platform and the voice to enact real change and tamp out doping in their home country.

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This week, the eyes of pro cycling are on Colombia as the country holds the Colombia Oro y Paz race. Nearly every South American cycling star is in attendance, alongside the country’s biggest cycling celebrities: Nairo Quintana, Rigoberto Uràn, Sergio Henao, and Fernando Gaviria, among others. Colombia’s President, Juan Manuel Santos, said the race is proof that the country — once associated with the illegal drug trade — is changing.

“It’s a product of a force from many people from sport, from cycling, and that’s something that unites the country and gives it optimism and rigor, to promote something so important as cycling,” Santos said.

Yet this race comes on the heels of a year of doping controversies for the burgeoning cycling power. In February 2017, Colombia’s sole anti-doping laboratory received a six-month suspension from the World Anti-Doping Agency over quality-control issues. In June, the New York Times published a feature story in which rider Juan Pablo Villegas, who in 2015 went public about doping at the country’s races, said that Colombian national federation pressured him to retract his statement. And finally, in November, news broke that eight riders —  seven of whom were Colombian — failed doping tests during this year’s Vuelta a Colombia in July.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking element of the positive tests involved Colombia’s U23 national champion Robinson Lopez, who was just days away from finalizing a contract to race with the Italian team Uniero-Trevigiani. After his positive test for CERA, Lopez lost his contract and was banned. He may never get an opportunity to race in Europe again.

The wave of news seems to disprove Jorge Ovidio Gonzalez, president of the Colombian Cycling Federation, who told the Times that claims of doping in Colombia are “totally false.”

Who then is at fault? Is it the federation and its lack of regular doping controls? Is it the teams, which promote a win-at-all-costs mentality? Is it the riders, many of whom are looking for a ticket to the big leagues and away from poverty? Is it the easy access to performance-enhancing drugs?

As we’ve seen in so many stories before, systemic doping usually points to a corrupt system in which athletes, coaches, team directors, and even bureaucrats are, to a certain degree, responsible.

In my opinion, solving this problem should be the primary focus of Colombia’s athletes, coaches, and administrators. The country has built so much international momentum off of its stars that it would be a shame to see that progress crumble under suspicion.

And that’s why I think that Colombia’s star cyclists need to take the lead. They are the only ones with the platform and the voice to enact any type of real change.

The wide range of doping scandals last year leads to the notion that it has become a cultural problem rather than an isolated one. Stars such as Quintana and Chaves have fought hard for their results on the international stage and to earn the respect of their peers. For many years, Colombians and Latin Americans in general, have been stigmatized as dopers. Quintana’s struggles to combat this upon arriving in the European peloton are well-documented. While these stars are doing a lot at home funding programs and development, they tend to shy away from getting involved in the anti-doping conversation.

Up to this point, the Colombian cycling team Manzana Postobon has been a sole leader in the anti-doping movement, agreeing to participate in the biological passport program. The team is sponsored by one of the largest South American beverage companies of the same name, also one of the title sponsors of the Oro y Paz. Team riders and management have been vocal proponents of running a clean racing program, often facing intimidation at home for doing so. Despite this, the program has pulled through, finding opportunities for homegrown talent to race abroad while investing more money in growing the sport at home.

The team’s alumni include Quintana, Chaves, and Henao to name a few.

Of course, doping is not a problem exclusive to Latin America. Consider the recent suspension of the Russian Olympic team from the 2018 Winter Olympics, the French Festina Affair and the Armstrong case, and just last week the news from the Vuelta a Costa Rica. Doping has a global reach and impact.

The difference in Latin America and Colombia specifically, is that many of the aspiring athletes are from poor and struggling communities where opportunities are scarce. Marceliano Pulido of the Santiago de Tunja Cycling Club in Boyacá described cycling to the LA Times as, “a sport for the rich, practiced by the poor.”

Poverty and income inequality in Colombia remain high, making it difficult to afford high-end cycling equipment and the logistics of racing. The federation has boasted about its programs in supporting and developing talent at home to race abroad. Many of the WorldTour Colombian riders have contradicted those claims. Oftentimes they received little to no help from the federation in their ascent to the professional ranks, they say. Yet both parties remain silent regarding any effort to combat the doping problems at home.

And that’s where Colombia’s stars should do more. The country’s young riders look up to them, after all, not the federation. So what might happen if riders like Uran, Quintana, and Chaves told their countrymen that you could get to cycling’s top echelon without drugs? Might that bring about a cultural change?

Unfortunately, sports will never be completely rid of doping and cheating. Colombia is no different. If the country wants to dig itself out of this hole, its cycling superstars will need to grab shovels first. They have the power and influence to dictate the direction of Colombian cycling for future generations.

Espero que todas estas noticias inspire un cambio en la región. Sabemos que hay talento y inspiración para seguir adelante. Si se puede!

Rebecca Reza has been working as a cycling journalist and photographer since 2009. Based in El Paso, Texas, she manages her business, Giving Tree Media, working as a communications specialist for several stage races and pro cycling teams in the Americas.