UCI Extends Olive Branch

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The sports governing body, the Union Cycliste International (UCI) found itself backed into a corner this summer, but is fighting back with flower power. President Pat McQuaid has essentially been placing flowers in the guns aimed at him since the Lance Armstrong scandal erupted.

McQuaid has placed a daisy here and a carnation there to hold back the fire coming from within cycling, the international newspapers, and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). After what started as a hard-line approach on October 22, when McQuaid announced the UCI’s approval to strip Armstrong of his seven Tour de France wins, the governing body has extended several olive branches.

The latest came on Wednesday afternoon out of its headquarters in Aigle, Switzerland. The UCI sent a press release saying it selected Australian John Coates, from the sport’s high court, CAS, to assemble an independent commission. The commission’s responsibly will be wide-ranging, but the major charge is to discover if the UCI had a hand in helping Armstrong cheat.

Most journalists were busy writing about the commission when another e-mail arrived from Aigle, this one better than the first. The governing body said that it would come to the table with the major stakeholders and work on solutions to help make cycling better. It essentially opened the doors to compromise, to leagues, to sharing TV rights and to a separation of government and drug testing. It was a peace and love move and it kept the guns from firing.

Let’s step back and look at where we came from and where we’re going, or could go.

The Cause

Armstrong knocked out cancer with his left fist and swung at the Tour de France with his right fist. Seven times his rivals fell, but along the way allegations brewed. The US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) finally caught up with him over the summer, a year and a half after he retired the second time. It ruled he doped all along the way and October 10, posted a 202-page document and testimonies online to prove it.

The UCI received a 1000-page version with expanded details into Armstrong cheating. Though McQuaid gave the OK to strip Armstrong of his seven wins, he still held his ground in press conference on October 22. He called whistle-blowers Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton scum bags, he deflected blame for cycling’s EPO-fuelled years and re-confirmed the defamation case against journalist Paul Kimmage.

Given the hard talk, Journalists in the room and viewers of the worldwide web-cast wondered just how the UCI could save itself and, above all, cycling. Were we all as doomed as the disgraced Texan cyclist?

The calls to action

The calls to action followed. WADA president John Fahey told Australia’s Fox Sports must “take the blinkers off” and build confidence. “I don’t think there’s any credibility if they don’t do that and I think they need to get confidence back into the sport so that its millions of supporters around the world will watch and support the sport going forward. Right now if you were a cycling fan you’d say to yourself ‘Why bother?'”

Jonathan Vaughters heads the teams association, the AIGCP and team Garmin-Sharp. He called for an independent review of the anti-doping system with WADA’s support. European newspapers – The Times of London, L’Equipe, La Gazzetta dello Sport, Het Nieuwsblad and Le Soir – went further. They said, “We are alarmed and deeply concerned by the grave situation facing this sport and issued a joint manifesto. We covered the manifesto’s eight action items, which are listed here again for reference.

1. That the UCI recognises its responsibilities in the Armstrong case.

2. The creation, under the responsibility of WADA, of a neutral and independent commission to investigate the role and responsibility of the UCI in the Armstrong case and the fight against doping in general; to report errors, abuses and possible complicity.

3. That the organisation of controls at the biggest races is directly by WADA and the national anti-doping agencies.

4. That the suspensions for serious doping cases are more severe and that teams pledge to terminate contracts and not sign for a further two years any athletes suspended for more than six months.

5. The restoration of the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ that allowed the temporary suspension of riders involved in a doping investigation.

6. A stronger involvement and accountability of the title sponsors of teams.

7. The reform of the WorldTour, its points system and licensing, which remains closed and opaque. We propose that the licences are no longer awarded to the managers but to the sponsors.

8. The organisation of a major ‘cycling summit’ before the start of the 2013 season in order to define the new organization and new rules.

The Action

The UCI must have heard the calls because in five day’s time, via its management committee, it announced a commission and held off the Kimmage lawsuit.

“To be honest, I was surprised they went as far as they did in that Management Committee meeting because I didn’t expect very much to come of that other than to endorse what McQuaid said in the press conference a few days earlier,” Kimmage told us.

“It seems that they go it completely the wrong way around, to hold a press conference, make all these statements and then five days later go and undo half of them. … Reading [into it], there’s clearly a lot of discontent within the Management Committee with how McQuaid has handled things. I think the more pressure, the more the Management Committee are reminded of that, the better the sport will be for it. Already, with the backlash of the press conference, the newspapers issuing that manifesto, it just keeps the pressure on.”

Kimmage ticked off McQuaid and his predecessor Hein Verbruggen with his articles last year. (Read more about it here) He kept the pressure on, even if they called off the hounds. He formally sent a request a Swiss prosecutor to open a criminal investigation into the UCI’s actions. He said they must “be held accountable for the way they mismanaged the sport for the last 20 years.”

The UCI said it was upset with Kimmage’s legal action, but it kept filling the rifles’ barrels with flowers. It sent out its e-mails on Wednesday: one confirming the commission and another one, 2 hours and 11 minutes later, calling a consultation with cycling’s stakeholders.

“The consultation,” it said in a statement, “will be launched in the first quarter of 2013 … to the future of the sport – and discuss how to bring in lasting improvements to tackle issues of concern within cycling and work together to build a bright future.”

‘The bright future’

Coates is the president of the International Council of Arbitration for Sport. He will recommend the three candidates to form the independent commission. That commission will look into alleged UCI wrong-doing during the Armstrong years and make “recommendations that will enable the UCI to restore confidence in the sport of cycling and in the UCI as its governing body.”

The commission is asked to report back no later than June 1. However the first quarter, consultation meeting opens cycling to a bright future and could have us all singing Kumbaya My Lord.

What’s possible? What needs to happen?

Vaughters will not stand for teams association (AIGCP) re-election in March. He or his successor will follow the manifesto’s line and ask for a separation of anti-doping operations from the UCI. The move would lessen any chance of future cover-ups and bribery claims.

“I think [UCI anti-doping experts] Francesca Rossi’s and Mario Zorzoli’s work has been excellent. My desire is that you should take those components, people like Rossi and Zorzoli, and separate them out from [the UCI]. They shouldn’t be under the same roof. [I’d like to see] that group was moved to a different office, with WADA having the ultimate authority and ultimate auditory power, and [funded directly] by the teams and race organisers,” Vaughters explained.

“Right now we send €120,000 a year to the UCI. Well, why couldn’t we send that to [them]. It’s a separate company, but with the same execution and process that the UCI has now. In a way, the UCI should just do that of their own good. It’s the case of not wanting to throw the baby out with the bath water because there are some excellent people working at the UCI on the biological passport. That all needs to be kept in place, but the ultimate authority should be moved outside the UCI. It keeps them from ever facing suspicion.”

The UCI put in place the whereabouts and the biological passport systems, and the no-needle policy. Given the moves it has made recently, it seems will to accept something like Vaughters proposal. If it does, he said, the teams would be willing to contribute more money to anti-doping efforts.

“[Now] they say, wait, we are going to pay more money to an organisation that’s under scrutiny?” Vaughters added.

“The teams pay for 75% of the biological passport, but the race organisers need to take a bigger share, especially the extremely profitable race organisers. The teams need to increase their funding as well. That’s going to increase the number of tests, the research that goes into testing for new elements, build stronger blood profiles with more points of reference. … At the end of the day, if you want to prevent doping, you need to make sure the enforcement is effective. Outside of that, you can have gentlemen’s agreements, manifestos, you can yell… All of it is great and wonderful, but the enforcement has to be more effective and keep up with the science because at the ground level the reason why EPO became so effective was due to the lag time from when it started until when there was an effective test for it. That’s down to funding and research.”

What about a league? It’s been batted around for some time via the teams association and by several big players, including former Highroad general manager, Bob Stapleton.

McQuaid and his governing body will not relinquish complete control, but it could give teams more power to prevent a true break-away league. Such a move would give the UCI more time to work with its new anti-doping arm, regulate and organises races like the World Championships, Tour of Beijing and Tour of Hangzhou.

“There’s been a lot of talk about a break-away league. First, I believe in the UCI for all their faults because somebody has to be the controlling body. What would be fantastic is if the teams were given more of a say, part of the television rights and let control their sport,” BMC Racing’s new performance director, Allan Peiper told CyclingTips.

“If the UCI was used as a controlling body and as a partner of a professional league, where they take their percentage of the television rights so they can use that money to train good commissaires, who earn a decent wage, have respect from the teams and develop our sport in the world. If the teams had control and all had an equal share in the television rights from the big organisers, then cycling would be more stable. Then we would make decisions and stick by them because it’s in our general cause, not just because of our sponsors, but because we have some stability to fall back on. If we could agree on that then it would be a big step forward, but again, the multi-culture sense of cycling, organisers who own a cluster of races, sponsors who basically hold the wand over the teams whether they fold or carry on… It’s a precarious world, but it could help give cycling stability.”

A utopian world?

With teams having more say and anti-doping completely out of the UCI’s offices, we would be approaching a utopian cycling world. Imagine the critics lowering their guns and joining hands with the UCI.

Kimmage would have a hard time imagining it. He said an ideal outcome to his case would be to have McQuaid and Verbruggen behind bars. In fact, even Cycling Ireland is debating the legitimacy of McQuaid’s presidency. Even with a new president, the e-mails Wednesday point cycling towards a brighter future.

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