Amateurism at the top

A long read coming up but it’s about the way our sport is organised at the top level. Cycling might be about aching legs, fitness and fun. But at the top there’s also lot of money changing hands so it also involves planning, agreement and meetings. Just as a rider needs to train right and perfect their race tactics, those administering the sport need to do their job properly too.

Shaking hands is easy: the agreement celebrated here collapsed within months

Would you run a big business securing your deals on the basis of a handshake here and a nod there? Maybe not. Would you even reach agreement by email or letter? You could try an informal approach but at some point you need lawyers and contracts otherwise you’re flying by the seat of your pants.

Perhaps we miss the times of old where “my word was my bond” but I suspect such nobility has always been rare when money and power are at stake. But today more than ever you need a water-tight contract to signify agreement.

Only it looks like the governing body of the sport is behaving like a rank amateur. Why? Well let’s look at two examples that popped up in a single day.

A public relations measure
First came the ruling this week from the Court for Arbitration in Sport (CAS) over the “Riders’ Commitment to a New Cycling” initiative. This was something rustled up in June 2007 in response to the fallout from Operation Puerto. It required the riders to sign a one page document with the following declaration:

I do solemnly declare… …that I am not involved in the Puerto affair… …I accept, if it should happen that I violate the rules and am granted a standard sanction of a two-year suspension… …to pay the UCI… …an amount equal to my annual salary for 2008.

You can read the one page document in full here. Now I’m not a lawyer but you might as well sign a piece of tissue paper. “I am not involved in the Puerto affair” is meaningless, show me the doper who would admit to banking with Dr Fuentes, because surely cheating already involves telling lies? Above all the bit that states a rider will pay “an amount equal to my annual salary“is a nice idea but no more because the declaration is not a contract.

The initiative was legally useless, signing the document amounted to no more than a rider giving his autograph to Pat McQuaid. What we got as a PR stunt, riders were signing a document with more holes than a piece of Swiss cheese. Don’t take my word for it, the CAS verdict on the document is scathing, calling it invalid and a public relations measure.

Turf wars
The second example yesterday was an interview with UCI President Pat McQuaid. As background, right now nobody knows the participation rules for the biggest races next year as the UCI is seeking to create new rules for 2011 and beyond. You can read more on the uncertain rules for next year here and you can read about the UCI’s struggles to get the new World Tour off the ground here. Given the uncertainty and confusion here, speaking to Velonation, McQuaid declared

I don’t know what Christian Prudhomme is taking about, but my interpretation of the discussions that we have had with ASO is that it has been agreed…
…The UCI ProTeams, the number of which will be limited to 18, will have the right to and be obliged to participate in all the UCI World Tour events…
…Christian Prudhomme doesn’t rule cycling, doesn’t organise cycling, or doesn’t decide who rides races – the UCI does.

Let’s look at this. What the UCI are saying is that by interpretation things have been agreed. Only this means there’s actually no formal agreement in place. People might have come out of a meeting with a handshake but pro cycling is big business and millions of Euros are at stake.

For me it’s simply unimaginable to launch a reform of the cycling calendar and to determine the rules of participation in the grand tours and classics without a formal agreement providing clarity for all. Let’s also note that the statement that the UCI picks which teams gets to ride races is false and likely to raise hackles with ASO and RCS.

Good fences make good neighbours
Anyway, that’s just two examples on the same day. Maybe you like sport to escape from the world of contracts, to break free of the confinements. But at the pro end the sport is a business involving hundreds of millions of Euros a year and it has to be run on a tighter basis.

There’s a phrase from a poem that says “good fences make good neighbours” and it means that by respecting boundaries we respect each other. Only the UCI and the race organisers seem confused over their territory, there is no clear definition of the wall that separates their turf.

Agreements over anti-doping measures and race participation have to be set out in black and white, there’s too much money at stake for informal agreements and public relations stunts. We need a higher degree of professional in the administration of our sport. Proper agreements that stand up under law allow people to commit for the future. Unless the ink is dry on a contract between race organisers, the UCI and the pro teams then any agreement risks unravelling in no time, as has happened before. You can’t have a professional sport run on the basis of amateur agreements.

Photo: velonews

Postscript: I’ve come back to edit a couple of typos but also want to state that we need to be careful not to be too hard on the UCI. Whilst I can shine a harsh light on the frequent mistakes I’m not trying to bash them for the sake of it. My point as ever is that we need higher standards of professionalism and administration. Stronger paperwork and professionalism makes for a stronger governing body.

5 thoughts on “Amateurism at the top”

  1. I love this blog. You always find an unusual or overlooked aspect of cycling to shine a light on, and bring a fresh pair of eyes to familiar themes. And you consistently do so with great balance and consideration, which is vanishingly rare these days.

    In particular I enjoy the layers of context you're able to reveal – as with the Italian flags – which show cycling not just as a thing in itself, but as part of the fabric of European culture. I never knew cycling commentary could be so genuinely thought provoking.

    There's more useful information, genuine wit and fresh insight here than there is in any of the mags or CN type websites. So, ta for that. And keep digging up them nuggets!


  2. its such a pure pleasure , time and again, reading your words !
    I wont be laying by saying that when thinking what will the next day bring , your blog is one of the real and good reason 4 anticipating it with thirst …..
    Tel Aviv

  3. Matt, I've added a permanent link from here to your site.

    But I'm trying not to dump all over the guy, this is an institutional problem and not the fault of one guy. Even if things could be improved simply by shackling a decent PR guy and an honest lawyer on to each of McQuaid's wrists.

Comments are closed.