An independent anti-doping agency for pro cycling? It sounds likes a great idea, no?
There are regular calls for an independent body and Greg LeMond is the latest to express concerns. Trust in the governing body has been eroded and across all sports there’s an obvious tension between the promotional role of a governing body and its duty to bust the cheats.
But can this be done? Would the WADA Code allow it? And isn’t a lot of testing already independent of the UCI?
Away from cycling there are obvious theoretical problems with a governing body charged with the mission of anti-doping. One minute the governing body wants to promote the sport, to increase participation and sell it to sponsors. But the next it’s tasked with catching cheats and unearthing scandal. There’s a tension, a conflict of interest.
It’s not theoretical, there have been cases when the UCI warned riders and teams instead of redoubling efforts to catch them. When Alberto Contador tested positive for Clenbuterol in 2010 it took months for the news to come out, his absence initially explained by a slippery story about a roundabout until the story was flushed out by Hajo Seppelt.
Independence is one of those things like motherhood, ice cream and apple pie, everyone wants more of it. Only first note that a lot of testing in cycling isn’t done by the UCI but by other agencies. For example the UCI tests in World Tour races but in lower level events it is often up to the local federation or anti-doping agency to conduct the testing. In France for example the AFLD agency does this. Viewed this way a significant share of testing is already completely independent of the UCI.
Back to the UCI and it has already moved to separate its testing functions. Here’s the governing body’s annual report:
The activities of the fight against doping in professional cycling road are managed by an independent foundation (Cycling Anti-doping Foundation) established by the UCI. The CAdF is responsible for the logistic and administrative management of the fight against doping, while the UCI retains its prerogatives in respect of regulatory provisions and penalties.
The CADF is the part of the UCI that runs the anti-doping tests and it’s already legally separate from the UCI and prepares separate financial accounts. That said its President is Pat McQuaid so this is more about legal and accounting matters rather than governance and ethics. But this makes us question what independence means. Imagine we created an independent body overnight, it would still have to be funded by the UCI and others. In other words our “independent” agency would remain very dependent on the UCI others for its funding. Here are the funding sources for the CADF from the latest UCI annual report:
Note that if the UCI “only” pays in 16%, it sets the terms for all the others, for example helping to mediate with riders, teams and others over their share.
So what is independent? For me it would have be strong enough to pursue prosecutions under its own steam, free from political pressure, for example the UCI could not lean on it. But money is always an issue and any agency can’t afford to upset the UCI, teams or rider because if they decided to withhold funding the agency goes. In other words staff within the agency are always going to be dependent on the sport for their jobs.
Set up a new agency with beaucoup Swiss Francs and the problems are not fixed overnight. When the UCI launched its biological passport it went after some small fry riders first because it knew the prosecution chances were better against an athlete without the legal firepower of, say, Alberto Contador. Similarly if it lost the liabilities would be smaller. In this light any new body would have to be resilient enough to cope with a legal siege. Cut loose from a governing body, there’s a risk the new agency could sink if it makes a mistake. At the same time it might want to go after some big names to justify its existence.
Also just because its independent doesn’t excuse it from all the other problems a bureaucracy faces. What if the new director is ineffective? What if the new rules aren’t clear? An independent agency could be Rottweiler but it could equally end up a Poodle.
The UCI has said it want independent testing but this is thwarted by the WADA Code. Here’s an excerpt from Velonews where they interview President McQuaid:
VeloNews: One of the claims from Change Cycling Now, and we took this stance in our recent five-point plan to help save the sport, is that the anti-doping effort needs to be truly independent of the UCI. It could be some of the same UCI scientists, but a different division, to truly have that separation. What are your thoughts on this?
Pat McQuaid: We’d love it to be truly independent. The UCI has said that for years. We’d love it to be truly independent. We’d love to have somebody running it for us. But the fact is, the rules don’t allow us. The WADA Code states, very clearly, that the international federation is responsible for anti-doping within the sport. So the rules don’t allow us to do that. Having said that, we have created, and step-by-step we are creating, that situation.
Is McQuaid right? Yes and no. Article 15 of the WADA Code sets the responsibilities and in big events like the Tour de France where “the collection of Doping Control Samples shall be initiated and directed by the international organization which is the ruling body for the Event.” In other words the UCI should initiate and direct the anti-doping measures. But first this leave considerable scope for the UCI to grant its anti-doping agency greater independence, to explore the frontier of autonomy.
Also Article 15.1 allows for others to test as well, so the sport could conceivable set up a third party agency that’s independent and offers additional services. This could be the “truly independent agency” that the UCI would love to see. Has the UCI approached WADA to find a solution?
Show Me The Money
Fiddling with structures is one thing but the real issue facing anti-doping today is a funding shortfall. You can create as many new agencies as you like and install a variety of legal firewalls but all this costs money.
Meanwhile the cost of conducting tests rises above the inflation rate. It all means that the money today can’t go as far. With national agencies facing cutbacks in their budgets (see here or here) and even riders going public with their complaints about not being tested often enough the problems are financial as well as structural. Everyone is already paying their share of money but looking at the funding sources above it seems astonishing that the race organisers are not paying more. Companies like ASO make millions from the sport and have an interest in keeping it as clean as possible.
Everyone, even the UCI President it seems, would like anti-doping to be independent of the governing body. It’s a measure of the sport’s dysfunctional governance that a lot of people are concerned about the UCI’s ability to test athletes.
But nobody really knows what an independent agency would look like. Close your eyes and imagine a big agency full of stern staff with investigators and prosecutors doggedly hounding the cheats. Now open them and look at the reality of today’s funding problems where adding a few more out-of-competition tests is proving a big ask. Imagine a new agency with its own offices, IT systems and all the other corporate trappings like designer logos and more.
Longer term it’s right to note the conflict of interest between a governing body’s promotional and policing missions and addresss this. I’m sceptical about the UCI hiding behind the WADA Code. Indeed surely the easiest and cheapest here is to explore just how independent the CADF can become whilst still complying with the Code?