On amnesties

Pro cycling struggles to escape the past. As much as we want to look to future races, scandals from a decade ago rumble on. Even watching live coverage of a race means noting riders linked to ongoing investigations, appeals as well as those previously banned and maybe some you just can’t bring yourself to trust.

So the idea of drawing a line under a colourful history is attractive, a way to distance the sport from events that are getting pretty old. Some are calling for an amnesty, for cycling’s version of the “truth and reconciliation” hearings that helped to heal a post-Apartheid South Africa. In return for coming forward and confessing to past mistakes, those who go public could get an amnesty from prosecution. Only I just don’t see this working.

If someone, whether an athlete or a team manager, has made a career out of doping then what would motivate them to come forward? They’d risk being reclassified as a cheat and if they receive a legal pardon, many fans and potentially sponsors might not be so welcoming.

Worse, it would only encourage the most obvious cheats to come forward. Someone fearing a spell in court is due might as well admit to a few mistakes, make a quick show of it and all of a sudden find past mistakes are excused. Meanwhile those who seem untouchable continue as normal, indeed they benefit from reduced competition.


For me it would only work if there was a way to bring everyone into this, to get every rider, soigneur, team manager, doctor, pharmacist and even a few mafiosi to suddenly admit everything, to take down the whole supply chain. It’s like the 2009 film “The Invention of Lying” but this time everyone in the sport compulsively switches from lies and silence into telling the truth. For real?

Past examples
Allowing people to come forward, admit wrongdoing and get a clean slate isn’t new. We see plea-bargaining used by many judicial systems to secure a result that’s often mutually beneficial to prosecution and defendant alike. Blanket amnesties are more rare.

For example some countries have given an amnesty to illegal immigrants but this has divided critics, some say it takes immigrants away from the margins of society and black-market employment but others say it incentivises others to risk the journey to the country of amnesty and can even increase immigration. A solution, but a partial or temporary one at best perhaps.

Tax dodging
There have been tax amnesties but these tend to see those worried about prosecution coming forward whilst serious evaders and even criminal money laundering continues unabated. In particular Italy has launched several amnesties for citizens with undeclared sums of money held abroad (NB a practice employed by many a sports stars).

Each time the finance minister promises never to use it again… but in the last decade there’s been one roughly every three years. As a result those who come forward do so out of convenience and many stay silent, knowing if they start to feel some heat from the tax inspectors that they can probably use the cover of an amnesty to come forward. Here it appears that there are short run benefits from repatriated money, but longer term Italian society could be losing out because it creates a culture of leniency where tax evasion might go unpunished.

Any hearings for the sport are going to be difficult. If someone comes forward and makes accusations often they can be easily denied. An amnesty can encourage several to co-operate in order to denounce someone but what I’m saying is that simply holding some hearings is not enough. It could be a chance for some to make false accusations or we could see people confessing in full but their evidence not being enough to convict others. In short, it’s hard to make this happen.

Culturally ready?
South Africa’s reconciliatory saw many willing to make amends, to put an entire political system behind them and forge a new future together. It’s a far more noble idea that trying to clean up cycling.

Cycling has to want more openness and I’m not sure we’re there yet. All too often a whistleblower is treated as a troublemaker. I don’t just mean Floyd Landis, see how others who sounded the alarm have been treated, from Christophe Bassons to Jörg Jaksche. The reaction rarely one of “let’s open an investigation and get to the bottom of this“.

Co-operation works. In exchange for leniency many will confess, whether in sport or crime.

But I’d be worried that only those who have most to gain come forward. In other words the ones close to being prosecuted could confess whilst those with the most sophisticated doping methods continue unchallenged, safe in the knowledge that they’ll probably get away with it. Note we’ve already seen some co-operation, for example Danilo Di Luca got a reduced ban from the Italian authorities after co-operating.

But I struggle to imagine a full-scale amnesty appealing to many involved in the sport, the incentive for those who have escaped sanction to come forward is small, especially compared to the benefits of protecting their current salary, reputation and endorsement rights. The real benefits flow to the impatient fans keen for a fresh start but this a lot of riders risk losing out.

This might strike a negative note but I’m just thinking aloud here. If there are examples from sport or the wider world that have worked and could be a model here then I’d be interested to learn more.

  • Note I’m just touching on the subject of amnesties, whether immigration, tax or criminal. These are very sensitive debates and there’s no single form of amnesty, rather it can be applied in many ways. There’s a ton of academic literature on the subject, from legal analysis to sociological, economic, criminology and more. I’m just trying to explore the basic angles and incentives involved rather than present a full view.

14 thoughts on “On amnesties”

  1. Reading Tyler Hamilton’s letter it occured to me how relieved he seemed to be to have told the whole truth after so many years of lying. I think for many riders the prospect of freeing up their conscience and not having to lie anymore (foremost to friends, family, parents) could be an attractive component of an amnesty too.

  2. To hold “cycling’s version of the ‘truth and reconciliation’ hearings” would require both the perpetrators of doping and their victims to face one another and tell their stories. Unless the athletes, sponsors, and fans who feel themselves to have been cheated speak their truths, there would be no reconciliation. Similarly, those young cyclists who feel as though they were forced to dope or expected to dope by team leaders and management would need their turn. Only then would the accused cyclists and managers be able to respond to the harms they contributed to. Amnesty by itself does little unless those harmed are given their day and the perpetrators have to address them directly. I’m not saying this will ever happen but it might be the only way to put the past to rest.

  3. The criminal activity involved with the supply chain needs to exposed and give more than 60 minutes. How about 30 minutes a day, every day along with the smack and crack smugglers from Kabul to Bogata? Then go grass routes and put a PEDARE sticker on your bumper. Man, positive Pro athletes are the coke snortin stockbrokers, Rock n Roll high rollers in all Sports. But oddly enough we dont really care that much about the strung out actor as much as we do about the toothless crack head in the nearby projects. Houston we have a problem; we may never get back to mother nature if we dont realise that the problem is with our society at large. Soccer Mom’s need to take charge here and start petitioning the president/prime minister/taoiseach so that we can raise awareness and understand human behaviour from a new perspective. Your kids wont learn much from a Tour winner getting a 4 year ban when they got their ass kicked by a 16 yrs old on a blood booster supplied by his father. If you think that sounds crazy then look at how many U23 teams have been involved in drug busts recently. That’s the future not LA, he’s done.

  4. Great post, well balanced and thought provoking as always. I agree with you on this issue; I’d love to see it happen but I suspect it won’t.

    A key point is who should run the amnesty and who could pay for it. An international body is needed and that is where the problems begin.

    I just can’t take seriously the idea that the UCI could oversee the hearings. There are a 101 reasons why. For a start, some of their most high profile employees would need to take the stand. Current and former.

    How about WADA? Arguably a much better choice but why would they set up hearings for cycling and not, say, weightlifting, sprinting or speed skating to name but three sports that all have questionable pasts.

    The same could be said about CAS. However, ultimately it would be CAS deciding whether or not riders had exemption from prosecution. Overseeing an amnesty would be outside their normal remit but I think they would be best placed to take on the task, if they were given sufficient financial support.

    Providing the money to run the hearings, to pay for all the recordings, the translators etc is a messy task. My view is that most national cycling federations would struggle to find the funding, even if they were willing to do so. They would all have to provide some financial support to lend the project legitimacy and avoid accusations of favouritism. Corporate funding is probably a non-starter: I can’t imagine any company already sponsoring a cycling team would want to donate to the amnesty fund. The risks to their brand value are just too great.

    As you correctly say, the situation in South Africa was ‘a far more noble idea that trying to clean up cycling’ and the motivation was correspondingly much greater. It’s a shame but for cycling, I can’t see anyone coming forward with the type of support that would be required. So the amnesty remains a dream.

  5. Whoah – here we see the danger of including the key words “illegal,” “immigrant” and “amnesty” in your cycling blog: political rant-spam.

    On the actual subject, I think that a blanket amnesty is unlikely to be a panacea. Negotiating amnesty with individual riders may be a more successful, albeit still tricky route. I’m not sure that amnesty alone is enough incentive for riders to break omerta and describe the full network that enables their doping. Even with a blanket amnesty, you get something similar to a prisoner’s dilemma – if everyone comes forward and confesses, it works. If you can’t be sure that everyone will come forward and confess, and you want a future in the sport, it may not be enough incentive to turn in your suppliers and, inevitably, piss off a bunch of other people who can make future success or employment in cycling very difficult for you.

  6. Great idea. From conversations with ex-Pros etc. it seems that more than 50% of riders from the 90’s/early 00’s where doing it. It was THE culture of the time amongst the successful riders. Are they 100% to blame for this? I think the UCI is as complicit as anyone.

  7. While I am a proponent of some sort of amnesty program, I readily admit that there are certain pitfalls, as eloquently elaborated here in the original post and via the various comments. However, the bottom line is how do you break free from the past, especially when there are plenty of factions (media, fans, labs testing old samples, etc.) who keep digging it up?

    If one truly wants to clean things up, there needs to be an incentive for cooperation. At the moment, not only do current pros have to deal with their colleagues if they break silence (and/or “rat anyone out”), but they also risk losing their results and careers via automatic suspension if they admit anything. The problem with one off amnesty or plea bargaining is that it isn’t applied evenly. If you need cooperation of the players, they need some sort of guaranteed protection from losing everything.

    In looking at the LA case, Tyler, Floyd, and Frankie all being retired or banned have nothing to lose at this point, but if the reports about his alleged testimony are true, George could very well be in his last race. And if he is guilty of doping, one could argue that maybe he should be. Nonetheless, there needs to be something other than the threat of going to jail for perjury that will allow for cooperation.

  8. I’ve tidied up the comments after one spammer copy-pasted a political tract on amnesty. I don’t mind politics when it’s policy… but not ranting and spam. Thanks for the alerts.

  9. Doping, Charging, Preparation, being Professional.
    Call it what you like, but it has occurred with regularity, and is passed down with knowledge,
    like Father to Son, for generations.

    It is not exclusive to Professionals, but it happens.
    Blind eyes being turned, within organisations, old friends, cameraderie.

    For an Amnesty that some dream of, to occur, you would have more luck with buying a pair of Red Shoes & tapping them together three times…..

    It will NEVER happen.
    Some will confess, most will deny, and life goes on.
    The issue is not the disease, it is that no within has a reason to cure.

  10. While this theoretical exercise is quite interesting, elevating doping (which is basically cheating while playing a game) to the level of comparing it with moral crimes such as apartheid or tax evasion seems excessive. I would rather compare doping in the 1990s with the prevalent use of physical violence in the pitch as a means to victory in 1970s-80s football, which was eventually curbed by changing the games regulations and improving refereeing, not by defenders making public apologies for their health-threatening tackles. Violating the rules in order to win (in cycling, football, or whatever other sport) is bad, but it is also part of the game, and it is inevitable that many will try, and some will succeed in getting away with it (and we should do everything possible to prevent it). Yet it is not the moral abhorrence of metaphysical transcendence some seem to make of it. It is just a game. Let’s not overdo the issue by taking it to the moral realm.

  11. It very much is a moral issue, peoples live are turned upside down by the consequences when caught. Where there is suffering and doubt you have to debate the issues in a moral context. Sport can teach us so many things in life beyond following the rules and regulations after the line is reached or when the whistle goes.

  12. Well, Maradona won a World Cup scoring a goal with his hand, and Thévenet won two Tours de France using corticoids. Both got away with it. Too bad. Life goes on. Now we have better rule-enforcement tools, and some players and riders are still trying to cheat, and they will continue to do so. It’s human nature, this is a game and a business. Let’s just improve controls. Preaching won’t work.

  13. I think that riders who have committed doping offenses should not be fined or ejected from the sport for a year or two, but should be able to race again immediately but have to wear a pink tutu.

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