The storm about Chris Froome’s TUE saw the rider catch most of the headlines but behind it is really a tale of UCI procedures. This blog’s been questioning whether the UCI really followed WADA’s guidelines while the Journal Du Dimanche was also suggesting that Sky benefited from preferential treatment because UCI President Brian Cookson’s son Oliver works for Team Sky. It’s an embarrassment that’s easily addressed.
The first step is to recognise a conflict of interest. In its response to the JDD’s allegations, the UCI looked angry:
The UCI would like to express its profound disappointment with the speculations that have been made suggesting its President could have any influence on the granting of TUEs. The UCI President and the UCI Administration have absolutely no involvement with decisions on TUEs. Insinuating that Brian Cookson’s son’s employment with Team Sky could have something to do with the decision to grant the TUE is an unfounded allegation which will be dealt with seriously.
There are two problems with this response:
- It’s denying a problem: the JDD could be wrong but there is a genuine conflict of interest where staff in the UCI are being asked to rule on a matter than affects their President’s family. This should be accepted, not denied. Note this works both ways, for example it is conceivable someone within the UCI might not like the President and takes a decision that’s punitive to his family. Or even leaks information which lets newspapers put together a story suggesting cronyism
- It’s responding to events: As Hunter S Thompson recalls, Lyndon Johnson first got elected to the US Congress in 1948 but he was trailing in the polls so LBJ told his press manager to accuse his pork farming opponent of “carnal knowledge” with the sows. His campaign manager was shocked. “We can’t say that, Lyndon, it’s not true.” “Of course it’s not,” Johnson barked at him, “but let’s make the bastard deny it.” Each denial from the UCI risks the Streisand Effect. Saying “trust us, it’s not fishy” is fine but it’d be better if there was a systemic protection in place to shield the UCI
Family connections are just one example. From a pro cycling perspective arguably the biggest conflict of interest is Igor Makarov’s role on the UCI Management Committee while owning the Katusha team and being the boss of Russian Cycling, all while sponsoring the European Cycling Union with his Itera company and more. There’s also the UCI’s institutional conflict as a race promoter via Global Cycling Promotions, the governing body is tasked with regulating the sport while trying to promote on particular event; we saw how the aborted Tour of Hangzhou was fast-tracked on to the World Tour calendar without even a trial event.
What to do?
We’ve been here before with the McQuaid family. Previous President Pat McQuaid has a race-promoting brother Darach and a rider agent son Andrew. Nobody denies the right to work in sector they grew up in, know and enjoy. This applies to Oli Cookson and others too. The first step is to recognise the problem rather than deny it.
Pat McQuaid did spot the problem and said he’d leave the room if discussions related to the business activities of family members but this was always unsatisfactory, as if popping out for a coffee would leave those in the room free from influence. Given the staff depend in part on the President for their job there are always going to be concious and unconscious decisions.
The UCI does go further and it’s got a code and an Ethics Committee:
With this we’re almost there. But you might remember the Presidential race between Pat McQuaid and Brian Cookson last year where the UCI Ethics Committee was asked to look into President McQuaid. It turned out the secretary to the Ethics Commission was also the UCI’s legal manager and reported to the President and therefore not independent. Indeed when Igor Makarov presented his – still mysterious – dossier on Pat McQuaid to the UCI it turned out Pat McQuaid might have known what the Committee was doing with Makarov alleging “a basic demonstration of the absence of independency [sic]“.
Once a conflict of interest is recognised the simplest action is to avoid ruling on areas that concern this issue. But the UCI cannot avoid issues that affect, say, Team Sky or Russian cycling. So therefore it must report these issues to the Ethics Commission and ensure these people monitor what happens. Better still when an allegation about cronyism appears the UCI doesn’t have to say “trust us” it can instead point to systems and procedures. Instead of a press release denying “…that Brian Cookson’s son’s employment with Team Sky could have something to do with the decision to grant the TUE” the governing body should be boasting about its transparent and powerful systems.
Now I can imagine some readers don’t trust the UCI all that much and a private commission might invite suspicion. With this in mind the commission should report its work to the UCI’s annual congress and be open to questions on the matter. Better still a regular outside audit is needed. The UCI’s auditors or some other external agency looks for conflicts of interest and monitors the cases handled by the Ethics Committee. It then checks to see if the decisions were taken in a reasonable manner and reports back as part of the UCI’s process.
10 days until the Tour de France. Shouldn’t we be talking about the Tour? Yes… but that’s the point, until the UCI has measures and systems in place to protect itself against trouble then every storm sees the governing body, and by extension the sport, forced to run for cover. Allegations about Brian Cookson’s links to Team Sky whether patriotism, friends or family won’t go away but this doesn’t mean the UCI President should be defensive nor that Oli Cookson can’t work in the sport.
All organisations have conflicts of interest and the UCI has some obvious ones. Cycling’s governing body has struggled with issues of trust and reputation. The first step is to recognise the problem and register these conflicts of interest, the next step is to be open about these and then ask outsiders to review and validate the procedures and decisions.