Skins was under the illusion that professional cycling had been fundamentally reformed to contain doping and minimise the risk of scandals with which the brand of any sponsor could be associated
Those are the words from sports clothing company Skins from press release issued via its Swiss lawyers as it announces legal action against the UCI. You can read the full text online as they set out their case against the UCI in a bid to claim US$ 2 million in damages.
The more I look at this, the stranger it seems and unless we get documentary evidence to show Skins have been misled then it’s hard not to view this as a publicity exercise at the expense of the sport.
The clothing company started sponsoring pro cycling in 2008 and like all sponsors, did this in good faith. However where they got the illusion of “fundamentally reform” is hard to spot.
Cast your mind back to 2007 and it was another year for scandal as several high profile riders were caught doping, for example Michael Rasmussen was ejected in the middle of the Tour de France, Alexander Vinokourov was given an extended ban and Spanish star Iban Mayo was caught for EPO. All this happened but I’d missed any talk of substantial reform to the sport although 2008 did mark the introduction of the bio-passport tool but this was a useful addition.
Come 2008 and if the names changed, the story was the same with Tour de France drugs busts, this time Riccardo Riccò and Bernard Kohl. In between 2007 and 2008 it’s hard to know what the fundamental reform was that fooled Skins to invest in the sport.
Now many would like to see the UCI and its senior officials in court and held to account. At the last UCI press conference the governing body starting proceedings saying one question per journalist. But it was when one journalist started asking repeated questions about Armstrong’s samples from the 2001 and pressing McQuaid on the suspicious vs positive data that we got some insight into the matter before the matter was stopped. In order to get to grips with the issue more probing is required rather than one question. So perhaps an experienced lawyer or even a judge cross-examining officials could be useful to discover more.
But the same is true for Skins. When did they think the sport had changed? Who told them this? Did they do any homework before investing in the sport. And the claim for US$2 million is a very round figure rather than a precise calculation or even an assessment of any damages incurred. Above all what assurances did the company get that the sport had changed before it started sponsoring the sport? For the legal action to have any chance of success it should show that it was misled by the UCI.
We should note the legal action is brought by the same lawyer who is representing Paul Kimmage. Is this some sort of tandem action where Skins work one side of the UCI whilst Kimmmage does another?
Indeed the trouble here is the UCI’s defence is not very satisfying. It needs to point out the sport is the persistent victim of scandals and that the governing body does not control everything. In a way this is the King Cnut defence, named after the English and Danish king who was supposedly the ruler of the waves but stood on the shore and the rising tide soon made his royal robes damp: even the King cannot control the seas. So the UCI could stand up in court and admit it can’t it cannot stop the tide of scandal.
This could all be a marketing operation. Had you heard of Skins before? For the price of a letter from a Swiss lawyer now everyone knows they side with anti-doping and demand UCI reform.
What could be better? Well plenty actually. The chairman of the company went public with calls for the UCI to resign and this was fine, public campaigning that did look like positioning. But legal action is something else. The risk is this looks like a firm that spends more time talking with lawyers to squeeze money out of sport than it talks with athletes about compression wear. Plus there’s the question of where the money goes. Were Skins to win, the money comes out of the UCI and goes to Skins and its lawyers, meaning none of us get to see much of this.
Skins invested in cycling and the risks but now it’s gone sour they’re complaining. It’s a bit investing in a high risk scheme and complaining when things go wrong. A more enlightened view might allow the company to set out its stall for UCI reform, committing resources to reform rather than legal action, giving money to athletes and advocates rather than lawyers?
Still all of this remains to be seen and perhaps Swiss law allows companies to go after sports governing bodies. If Skins feels it has lost $2 million, imagine the sums available to companies like Festina, T-Mobile, Astana or Lampre?
Many want to see the UCI reform itself and legal pressure like this only adds to the chorus of voices. Perhaps the “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” doctrine has some supporting Skins. But it’s one thing to offer ideas or just plain old criticism but another to start legal action.
I can see why Paul Kimmage is using the Swiss courts after he’s been sucked into this but Skins have only been a small sponsor and hopefully they’re not in financial peril. Seeing a firm suing the governing body is rare and seems odd, especially as there’s little contractual basis between the UCI and a clothing company that’s decided to sponsor teams and athletes.
Short of any documents, contracts or other agreements – and there was no obvious change in the sport around 2008 – it’s hard to see this as a genuine legal action. But that’s as things stand today and it’ll be interesting to see what happens and whether Skins and its Kimmage-connected lawyer can show evidence otherwise. If so everything changes.