Managing the UCI’s Conflicts of Interest

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

Conflicting examples
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.

33 thoughts on “Managing the UCI’s Conflicts of Interest”

    • Yes, essentially that Cookson Jnr is a bag carrier for the Team but the PR image of sending him out to Colombia to monitor Henao’s “science” study doesn’t look good.

      But the point with the piece above is that it doesn’t matter if Oli Cookson is Team Sky’s boss or its most junior member, the governing body should recognise, register and monitor all the obvious conflicts of interest.

      • Surely any conflict of interest regarding the role of Oli at Sky is relative* to his role there. For example the potential for conflict would be far greater if he were Team Doctor than if he were the Bus Driver.

        It’s also quite sweet that some of the more ‘out there’ elements of Twitter and the forums think that Oli’s presence gives greater access for Sky to Cookson than 30 years of contacts and friendships….

        * see what I did there

        • Agreed. I’d suspect that longstanding colleagues at BC like Dave Brailsford, Shane Sutton, Rod Ellingworth et. al. are probably also personal friends to Cookson. Something that is virtually guaranteed to happen in any walk of life – how do you legislate for that?

          The cycling world, like every other aspect of life, is suffused with personal links and backscratching, a part of being human.

          I applaud any improvements in transparency at the UCI but where exactly do you stop looking for conspiracies?

        • Agreed. The issue with the McQuaid’s was that they were the respective bosses of their companies and UCI decisions could directly impact on their wealth. I really think people don’t understand what a conflict of interest is. Like 6 degrees of freedom, you could turn up potential (but far from likely or damaging) conflicts of interest in nearly every business relationship. The fact is that most people aren’t even aware of them.

    • In my view Birnie nailed this issue on the Cycling Podcast. Not all conflicts of interests are avoidable and some situations unavoidable conflicts can reasobably be allowed to remain if they are disclosed and if proper procedures are available to manage and monitor them (others of course may require a more structural or remedial solution).

      From my armchair, the recent allegations around Ollie Cookson and Froome’s TUE are abject nonsense. Cookson could have told his son not to take the Sky job or Sky could have refused to offer him a job, however, it seems a very long bow to draw to positively call this a conflict of interest given the facts. I do however agree with Inner Ring that the UCI press statement wasn’t well thought through.

      The UCI need to invest in a better PR director. I am convinced that so many of McQuaid’s troubles could have been mitigated (at least from a public perception standpoint) if he had had taken (or listened to?) better PR advice. Anne Gripper the former UCI doping chief has publicly said the same thing. Surely that same PR team from McQuaid’s days is not still at the UCI? This recent press statment has some faint echoes from that past.

  1. You can install external independent commissions for everything until the UCI itself is left without any tasks. Organizing the Worlds, for example. Of course this is a huge conflict of interest, given that Cookson is British and has strong ties to British Cycling. Should it be outsourced to an external organization, governed by a board consisting of one member from each country in the world? If the organization cannot demonstrate through behavior that it can be trusted it loses all its right to existence.

  2. As an aside, at least the photo proves that Cookson is still a cyclist at heart and continues to ride for pleasure. Can’t imagine McQuaid or Verbruggen riding in anger during their presidential term.

    • Wait, is that a BMC he is riding? Does he have a receipt? 😉

      This is one of the problems with such a small sport. It is easy to make allegations over just about anything, which often are really about nothing.

      Of course there are going to be relationships formed, when there are very few degrees of separation. Add the over-reactions of the largely uneducated populace (thank you Internet) and you get the tempest in a tea cup.

      • Thinking about it Mr. Cookson is probably riding a borrowed bike, can’t imagine him carting his own mount all the way to California for a photo opportunity, besides he probably rides a cast-off GB squad Pinarello at home? Just surprised that he’s not riding one of the ToC race partners bikes from Bianchi, Cannondale or Trek?

        What exactly is he doing leaving the race house? Commissaires duties checking the safety of the course à la MTB commissaires?

      • Lets not get people started, as some of our curmudgeon posters will start to question if he was paid to
        ride a BMC and Shimano! At least he is wearing socks

  3. If we’re going to take this conflict of interest thing to the next level–in the photo of Cookson a la TT above, was that BMC bike “donated” to, or purchased by, him? What’s the relationship? Let’s ask the JDD to investigate 🙂

  4. Can BC wear the rainbow stripes on his socks?
    For a minor race in the English backyard perhaps but at the ToC, really BC…. He must have been heavily fined, wearing those stripes without due right is expensive 😉

  5. A lot of chatter without the first piece of evidence of any potential corruption or wrong doing. I agree with the views of all the previous esteemed posters – you have a well considered and intelligent group of supporters INRNG. There are certainly things which can be done to improve the openness of UCI procedures, but Rome wasn’t built in a day.

  6. Personally, I think it is a conflict of interest to load a rider up full of PEDs and send him out to race. If he’s that ill that he needs banned drugs, he should be able to obtain a TUE for medical reasons but then be required to sit out for a reasonable length of time.

    • Any discussion about racing with an illness is a distraction from the key points.

      Somehow, a rider can get a TUE fast-tracked. Does this apply to all WT riders? Is there a rule that states you call Zorzoli to expedite? How many TUE’s were issued this way?
      The UCI’s TUE process is a public display of exactly how important anti-doping controls are to the federation. Anti-doping is unimportant to the federation.

      We’re years after the Armstrong controversy now and the federation is still clearly not protecting the integrity of the sport.

      • The comment is not about racing with an illness, it’s about racing on PEDs.

        To say that anti-doping is unimportant to the federation due to this one case is simple hyperbole.

    • True, and that´s the proposed idea of MPCC. But then Sky is not part of MPCC… and we´re back to zero, unfortunatelly. I´m always puzzled by the quantity of swimmers and ciclists suffering from asthma and in need of TUEs for medicine. Looks like the higher the level they train and compete on, the worse it gets.

      • Now this resonates with me, and brings up a really interesting point.

        Liability: What if rider X who has been given a TUE for a medication which should be taken while resting and recovering and not racing. Yet that rider X chooses to race the next few days and our rider X takes down via crashing 2 guys and they can not race for the rest of their life who is responsible? UCI, Rider X, Team of rider X , Drug Manufacture, race promoter?

  7. This entire situation is blown up out of all proportion.

    I don’t agree that riders should take medication during the race but the fact is the WADA codes allow for a fast tracked TUE and regardless of whethor the UCI had 1 or 50 committee members the result would have been almost certainly the same (i suspect the doctor in question was probably appointed by his predcesor). If the codes allow it then you have to accept it or change the system. And the system is not UCI’s so any call for the UCI to clean up this area of emergency TUE is trolling. It’s ultimately not their system to clean up.
    The Conflict of interest issue is simply a sideshow. The son does not work for the UCI and is therefore not a direct employee. He’s a minor employee of a company that does business with the UCI. Its not exactly an unknown link.
    I would be suprised if there has not been several emergency TUE’s this year and only these ones get highlighted.

  8. There are such conflicts at various levels of the sport. e.g. Gerry Ryan is Cycling Australia President, a major sponsor of CA, owner of men’s pro OGE and key sponsor of women’s OGE-AIS teams. Consider for example selection of national squads, or commercial decisions, especially considering the parlous financial state that CA is in.

  9. Given some of the comments here, and particularly elsewhere, I think it is worth clarifying what a “conflict of interest” is. It is not in and of itself evidence of corruption or wrongdoing, it is merely a situation which might provide motivation for such wrongdoing.

    Olly Cookson working for Sky clearly creates a conflict of interest for the UCI. It is perfectly conceivable that Olly might become close with a Sky rider who then tests positive. He might then call up his father and ask him to intercede. The problem arises, however, not because the conflict exists but if the UCI do not have proper measures in place to mitigate the risk of wrongdoing arising from it.

    This is where the UCI response has been weak. They have basically said that it is outrageous for anyone to suggest a conflict of interest exists rather than acknowledging that it exists and explaining how the risks are mitigated.

  10. Regarding TUE’s, the rules are what seem to be the problem. When a rider is sick, waiting for approval can aggravate their condition. I suggest my mother’s rule: If you’re too sick to go to school, you’re too sick to go out and play. TUE’s should carry automatic approval but with a prohibition from riding for X days.

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