Pro cycling struggles to escape the past. As much as we want to look to future races, scandals from a decade ago rumble on. Even watching live coverage of a race means noting riders linked to ongoing investigations, appeals as well as those previously banned and maybe some you just can’t bring yourself to trust.
So the idea of drawing a line under a colourful history is attractive, a way to distance the sport from events that are getting pretty old. Some are calling for an amnesty, for cycling’s version of the “truth and reconciliation” hearings that helped to heal a post-Apartheid South Africa. In return for coming forward and confessing to past mistakes, those who go public could get an amnesty from prosecution. Only I just don’t see this working.
If someone, whether an athlete or a team manager, has made a career out of doping then what would motivate them to come forward? They’d risk being reclassified as a cheat and if they receive a legal pardon, many fans and potentially sponsors might not be so welcoming.
Worse, it would only encourage the most obvious cheats to come forward. Someone fearing a spell in court is due might as well admit to a few mistakes, make a quick show of it and all of a sudden find past mistakes are excused. Meanwhile those who seem untouchable continue as normal, indeed they benefit from reduced competition.
For me it would only work if there was a way to bring everyone into this, to get every rider, soigneur, team manager, doctor, pharmacist and even a few mafiosi to suddenly admit everything, to take down the whole supply chain. It’s like the 2009 film “The Invention of Lying” but this time everyone in the sport compulsively switches from lies and silence into telling the truth. For real?
Allowing people to come forward, admit wrongdoing and get a clean slate isn’t new. We see plea-bargaining used by many judicial systems to secure a result that’s often mutually beneficial to prosecution and defendant alike. Blanket amnesties are more rare.
For example some countries have given an amnesty to illegal immigrants but this has divided critics, some say it takes immigrants away from the margins of society and black-market employment but others say it incentivises others to risk the journey to the country of amnesty and can even increase immigration. A solution, but a partial or temporary one at best perhaps.
There have been tax amnesties but these tend to see those worried about prosecution coming forward whilst serious evaders and even criminal money laundering continues unabated. In particular Italy has launched several amnesties for citizens with undeclared sums of money held abroad (NB a practice employed by many a sports stars).
Each time the finance minister promises never to use it again… but in the last decade there’s been one roughly every three years. As a result those who come forward do so out of convenience and many stay silent, knowing if they start to feel some heat from the tax inspectors that they can probably use the cover of an amnesty to come forward. Here it appears that there are short run benefits from repatriated money, but longer term Italian society could be losing out because it creates a culture of leniency where tax evasion might go unpunished.
Any hearings for the sport are going to be difficult. If someone comes forward and makes accusations often they can be easily denied. An amnesty can encourage several to co-operate in order to denounce someone but what I’m saying is that simply holding some hearings is not enough. It could be a chance for some to make false accusations or we could see people confessing in full but their evidence not being enough to convict others. In short, it’s hard to make this happen.
South Africa’s reconciliatory saw many willing to make amends, to put an entire political system behind them and forge a new future together. It’s a far more noble idea that trying to clean up cycling.
Cycling has to want more openness and I’m not sure we’re there yet. All too often a whistleblower is treated as a troublemaker. I don’t just mean Floyd Landis, see how others who sounded the alarm have been treated, from Christophe Bassons to Jörg Jaksche. The reaction rarely one of “let’s open an investigation and get to the bottom of this“.
Co-operation works. In exchange for leniency many will confess, whether in sport or crime.
But I’d be worried that only those who have most to gain come forward. In other words the ones close to being prosecuted could confess whilst those with the most sophisticated doping methods continue unchallenged, safe in the knowledge that they’ll probably get away with it. Note we’ve already seen some co-operation, for example Danilo Di Luca got a reduced ban from the Italian authorities after co-operating.
But I struggle to imagine a full-scale amnesty appealing to many involved in the sport, the incentive for those who have escaped sanction to come forward is small, especially compared to the benefits of protecting their current salary, reputation and endorsement rights. The real benefits flow to the impatient fans keen for a fresh start but this a lot of riders risk losing out.
This might strike a negative note but I’m just thinking aloud here. If there are examples from sport or the wider world that have worked and could be a model here then I’d be interested to learn more.
- Note I’m just touching on the subject of amnesties, whether immigration, tax or criminal. These are very sensitive debates and there’s no single form of amnesty, rather it can be applied in many ways. There’s a ton of academic literature on the subject, from legal analysis to sociological, economic, criminology and more. I’m just trying to explore the basic angles and incentives involved rather than present a full view.