It’s hard to know where to begin with the Landis emails. So I’ll take a look at the UCI, since most people are concentrating on Landis, the emails and the others named in them.
For me, the UCI is part of the problem here. Whereas a governing body should aim to be beyond reproach, many get there share of controversy. But our organisation seems especially quick to get entangled. Often the UCI makes matters worse and above all, its President, Pat McQuaid becomes part of the story. He should to be above these things.
This is a delicate thing to write, the UCI does more than pro road racing, it oversees everything from BMX to cycle ball. And it does a lot of good, it is opening up the sport all round the world, although globalisation is not a process owned by the UCI of course.
Yet every time the sport gets plunged into a mini-crisis, the UCI seems to adopt a defensive posture and to make pronouncements that exaggerate the problem. The UCI itself ends up taking sides, being part of the story when they should be a distant referee. The recent press releases contain misleading statements and the public pronouncements of McQuaid only raise more questions. Let’s take a look at McQuaid’s comments:
“I think Landis is in a very sad situation and I feel sorry for the guy because I don’t accept anything he says as true,” McQuaid said in a telephone interview on Thursday. “This is a guy who has been condemned in court, who has stood up in court and stated that he never saw any doping in cycling. He’s written a book saying he won the Tour de France clean. Where does that leave his credibility? He has an agenda and is obviously out to seek revenge.”
New York Times, 21 May 2010, online.
Now McQuaid does not accept anything Landis is saying as true? Only speaking to Irish radio station Newstalk on Thursday night ( 20m45s), McQuaid switches to “I’m not saying anything of what he is saying isn’t true.” If we reverse the Irishman’s double negative and this implies that some of the things Landis is saying may well be true.
Maybe some might say it’s mean to hold someone to every word. But that’s exactly what someone in a powerful position has to do. Each word must be weighed to avoid confusion, implication and above all incrimination. PR agencies and lawyers run training courses every day of the week for public figures and managerial staff just to ensure they don’t say the wrong things.
Indeed McQuaid’s next sentence is “it needs to be investigated, let the authorities get on with it“. But if USADA is investigating a live case, is the head of the UCI not prejudicing the case with comments about Landis being a “liar”, alleging blackmail and adopting a stance firmly against Landis?
For a different way, check out the WADA statement on this matter. In some senses it is very non-committal at the same time, it’s saying “we’d like to get to the bottom of this” whereas the communications from the UCI suggest denial and a wish that this would all go away. WADA is offering hope.
The same radio interview also saw McQuaid repeating the old myth that Lance Armstrong is the “most tested athlete in the world“. I won’t begin to look at other sports but in road cycling alone, a number of riders have been tested more often than Armstrong. Sprinters in particular, by virtue of so many top-3 places a year, get called to the doping control truck far more often than a rider who is absent from the results 11 months of the year. A readiness to defend some with false statements makes me wary.
It’s not the first time
McQuaid doesn’t seem keen to poke into the darker corners in the sport. When the new test for CERA became available, there were suggestions that stored samples from past races should be retested. But this was resisted by the UCI. Here’s Pat McQuaid speaking to the Associated Press agency on 21 October 2008:
“From the UCI’s point of view, we prefer to look forward rather than look backward. To randomly say ‘OK, let’s take all the samples from 2007 from the Tour de France and put them all through testing processes’ … it’s futile, it’s expensive and it’s not going to serve the purpose in the anti-doping fight of today.“
Now what if you could catch some cheats here, surely this would serve the anti-doping fight very well? It reeks of a sport trying to contain the problems, sweeping problems under the carpet in an area where phrases like “maximum transparency” and “zero tolerance” are by-words for the anti-doping cause.
Let’s make no mistake, Pandora’s Box is wide open already. Revisiting events from the past is unlikely to shake the sport much more. Indeed some sponsors will fear entering a sport where the governing body acts in such an arbitrary way.
The UCI and Pat McQuaid aren’t responsible for the mess but they are part of the problem. Rather than issuing confusing statements, the UCI should have said something like the following:
“we’re aware of these emails and are assisting and monitoring US Cycling and USADA in their investigations. These are grave matters and whilst Landis has disappointed many riders and officials with his past conduct, he is a UCI registered rider and will treated like any other rider“
Here are some other suggestions:
- The UCI could send senior officials on a “media handling” course, with role play and legal advice. They might have sat through one of these but it’s time for a refresher. Conflicting statements only reflect badly on the sport.
- Up the UCI’s public relations effort. The statements issued from Aigle frequently appear as petty, defensive and reactionary. Journalists frequently despair when they receive them when the aim should be to have the media approving.
- When anyone raises allegations, don’t bash them down. Even if someone does have an “agenda”, the agenda to make the sport healthy is surely more important, any information from Landis here could come in handy. All UCI-registered riders should be given a fair hearing.
- Step back. Too often the UCI and especially McQuaid become part of the story. A governing body should have a position but this should be obvious and guided by the rules. There’s no need to wade in to every issue.
- Heal thyself: the UCI bungles plenty of its doping matters, news is often leaked or badly handled, eg the Pellezotti case. Slamming others for leaks can be seen as hypocritical.
Sorry if this is a very long read but the sport needs to be run properly. Fair rules, applied transparently and strong leadership will allow things to improve. Fingers crossed.