The US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) investigation into doping practices at the US Postal cycling team continues. Cycling’s governing body, the UCI, originally said it was a matter for USADA but since changed its mind and tried to take control of the matter, sending USADA a poorly-drafted letter. USADA replied, denying the UCI and in fact upping the stakes with requests for more documentation, creating a stand-off.
Now the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has backed USADA and gone public with criticism of the UCI, stating, amongst other things that “the UCI had misinterpreted its own rules“.
Something has gone very wrong at the top of the UCI.
When the head of a sports governing body is criticised for misquoting his own rules, things don’t look good:
- The President’s symbolic status takes a hit. When agencies like USADA and WADA make public criticism it is very noticeable, they are telling the UCI how to do its own job which must be highly embarrassing.
- The UCI appears to want to run a case but it doesn’t appear to understand the matter, for example the mistaken claim that the case started with Floyd Landis approaching US Cycling when he’d been in prior contact with USADA.
- The UCI is paying the price for the mistaken communications of a few top officials, the whole governing body is getting public criticism.
- The UCI just does not appear to be an impartial observer in this case. USADA has openly stated the UCI appears to be mimicking arguments used by Lance Armstrong’s legal team. Even if it is not the case, it looks like the UCI is trying to seize control of the case because it is proving highly embarrassing.
WADA’s latest press release isn’t the first one telling cycling to get its house in order. Recently I pointed out that the UCI needs to follow-up the USADA ruling and issue formal bans for Luis Garcia del Moral, Michele Ferrari and Jose “Pepe” Martí, all three staff or helpers of the US Postal Cycling team. President McQuaid asked aloud “they are not UCI licence holders, so under what grounds can they be sanctioned?” but helpfully WADA issued a public statement that the UCI must act or appeal. So far there’s nothing from the UCI on the matter but note tennis has now banned del Moral via the ITF.
It’s also worse from a strategic point for the UCI. WADA’s response said the UCI shouldn’t just accept the USADA’s jurisdiction but that it should offer “all support to USADA in the conduct of this case, including all documents required by them”. Prior to this USADA had sent through a shopping list of documents, now the UCI has been told in public to comply. In other words if the UCI tried to boss USADA, it’s now been told to do exactly what the US agency wants.
Why this matters
A sports governing body is only as good as its rulebook. The thing that separates a group ride from a race isn’t the numbers pinned on the back or a line painted on the road, it’s the way everyone agrees to sign up to a collective set of rules that stretch from bike design to race safety to anti-doping. The UCI is the governing body of cycling, it sets the rules and exists to uphold them. Everything else, like promoting the sport or welcoming athletes from around the world to its HQ, whilst useful and welcome, is incidental.
it appears as though battle lines have been drawn along the sporting authorities, with WADA standing behind USADA, and the UCI standing with the Armstrong team
This is a concern because the UCI appears to be taking sides. But we should ask whether everyone at the UCI is in agreement with this or whether the line is being set by a few top officials including the President? Are all officials at the UCI happy to be seen as taking sides in this case?
The UCI has a choice. It must decide whether to bow to WADA or continue to dispute things, either in open conflict via press releases or perhaps even going to the Court of Arbitration for Sport to plead its case. To continue the spat would risk being labelled “non-compliant” with the WADA Code. All signatories have a duty to uphold the Code in full.
If WADA is not satisfied it can impose strict sanctions. Here’s the WADA website:
What happens if a sports organization or a government does not comply with the Code?
WADA reports cases of non-compliance to its stakeholders who have jurisdiction to impose sanctions, including the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The Olympic charter was amended in 2003 to state that adoption of the Code by the Olympic movement is mandatory. Only sports that adopt and implement the Code can be included and remain in the program of the Olympic Games.
Note the last sentence: if a governing body doesn’t follow the Code, it can be ejected from the Olympics.
It’s perhaps inevitable that an investigation into the staff and riders of a top team from the past provokes ripples that reach the UCI. But the UCI has not played its hand well, seemingly confusing the fate of a few officials with the whole governing body. Rather than upholding its own rules, it seems to have allowed the President to launch a crusade that looks all too personal. Worse, in recent weeks all the letters and emails appeared to have backfired, putting the UCI at a greater disadvantage. Rather than obtaining jurisdiction over the case, the UCI gets humiliated in public after being told to go back and read their own rulebook by outsiders.
The saga seems relentless. Different sides will go back and forth in a long rally or press release tennis. But there’s a simple and pressing question: does the UCI support its President or the WADA Code?