A Case For Amnesty

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I began working on a more positive post today but I couldn’t hold back with my opinion after reading about Levi Leipheimer getting sacked by Omega-Pharma Lotto, and Team Sky forcing all of their riders and management to sign a pledge swearing that they have never doped or they will be fired. Is that really a choice?

Changing the culture of doping and cleaning up cycling is full of complexities that I don’t believe that there is a single silver bullet for. I won’t pretend that I have any of the answers, but the part I’d like to discuss are the punishments we’re currently seeing. Some worrying precedents are being set and there are so many different shades of grey in these situations. Firing riders for coming clean is only dealing with a symptom of a much wider problem.

Why Would Anybody Confess?

As professional cyclists and staff are witnessing, there is a clear disincentive to come forward and make confessions. If a person is going to lose his livelihood it’s extremely unlikely that he’s going to take the moral high ground and come clean for the sake of his piece of mind or the good of the sport. It’s not going to happen, especially when he’s got a family to care for and a reputation and legacy to protect. This is probably why we’re barely hearing a word from many of the pros. The negative consequences far outweigh the positive ones.

Punishment Drives More Deceitful Behaviour

Perhaps the bigger challenge is as riders observe their colleagues being punished, the riders who are still doping will begin to realise how high the costs are. Rather than promote the cleaning up of the sport, it will push the behaviour further underground and make it more insidious. It will force them to become even tricker. They’ll become more creative dopers. Look what the Festina Affair did. This is exactly how USPS followed up. The ‘new beginning’ in cycling was worse than the old days. It was simply smarter, trickier, and deeper hidden. It’s only now that we know how they took cheating to a whole new level because the costs became higher.

Punishing people for coming clean and cleaning up the sport are two completely separate issues. If we want to punish people, we need to keep testing and using strategies such as the whereabouts and the blood passport programs. But if we want to clean cycling from doping, a punitive approach may not be an effective strategy. It doesn’t work for crime, it doesn’t work for kids acting up in school, etc. Instead we need to be considering strategies to get the past sorted out, learn from it, and move forward. While riders, sporting directors, and others are in danger of being ‘punished’ and thus losing their careers, there is no reason at all for them to bring their skeletons out of the closet.


From a fan’s perspective, why do many people dislike riders like Vinokourov and Valverde? Because there is no sorrow and no seeking forgiveness after returning to competition at the highest level. They haven’t acknowledged their past and they’ve served minimal sentences and denied wrongdoing. For the redemption story to really work there needs to be reduced penalties (such as Danielson, Vande Velde and Zabriskie) or amnesty. The good needs to outweigh the bad and a climate needs to be created where riders can come out and confess.

I believe David Millar is a good example of this. He repents of his past and therefore is able to be outspoken about change. Nobody is going to do this while their livelihoods are at stake if they are found out. Jonathan Vaughters can be a polarising character, but he’s another good example. If he’s really doing what he says, then he’s another fantastic redemption story where he’s gone and done the wrong thing, but now he’s looking for ways to clean up cycling.

Why is truth and reconciliation important?

Last month Pat McQuaid suggested that an amnesty or truth and reconciliation commission might be introduced into cycling, but later said that the sport would be better served by concentrating on the future rather than revisiting the past. How can we get on with the future without acknowledging the magnitude of the problem we’ve come from? Einstein defines insanity as doing the same things over and over and expecting different results. This is the easy way out until the next generation has to deal with it, again.

We need to be considering amnesty so that riders and management can feel free to come clean and provide useful information and dialogue on making change to the culture. We’ve seen small but positive signs in recent days. Velonation had an interview with Taylor Phinney about the pill culture of cycling and said, “I feel comfortable talking about this right now, in light of recent events.” Others applauded him.

A Possible Amnesty Deal

If an amnesty deal were to be reached, it would need to come with conditions. Information, advocacy towards anti-doping, or whatever that may be, it needs to be used for the greater cause. Once the amnesty date closes, if your name ever has evidence against a link to past doping, then the consequences are harsh. This is where the equation changes. Yes, the costs are high for coming clean, but they’re even higher if you don’t.

However, none of this will happen without confidence in the UCI (and national federations) in their ability to do something with this information and implement the structural changes that need to take place. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Athletes who are currently doping will of course continue to do so, and that will never change. People are people and we’re dealing with money, ego, a financially unstable sport which solely relies on sponsorship and a UCI points structure which may encourage cheating. These are much larger issues that need to be dealt with.

Your thoughts?

Thank you to Justin Coulson(Phd Psychology) for prompting this topic and all the discussion which lead to much of this piece.