I get it. I get why riders in past generations used performance-enhancing drugs. I’m not saying it’s right nor do I condone it, but I get it.
The fallout from the USADA Reasoned Decision has been explosive. It absolutely had to happen to expose the sheer amount of doping so we could stop pretending that it didn’t happen. Until these revelations, Australian pro cycling had barely had a blemish and there was a lot to be proud about. Ignorance is bliss sometimes.
More than any other revelation that has come to light with Aussie riders, Stuart O’Grady’s admission to using EPO in the ’98 Tour de France will probably shock Australian fans the most. He’s an affable character with that homegrown Aussie hardman reputation that all of us aspire to.
He’s done Australian cycling a huge service with an Olympic gold medal, two Tour de France stage wins, a Paris-Roubaix victory, and many other accolades that put him in the record books. His limited confession yesterday to using EPO once in his career tarnishes everything, and many people assume that if he did it once, then he was probably doing it all along.
I don’t know whether that’s true or not (I doubt it), but one thing I do know is that it didn’t take an evil person to cross that line in that era. There was no line. It’s a grey area that a person goes deeper and deeper into before it turns black.
Fortunately rules like the no needle policy make that grey area more apparent and harder to enter. The anti-doping fight is far from being won, but steps in the right direction are certainly being made.
Klaas Faber, Dutch anti-doping expert, said to me, “social control is the holy grail of anti-doping which will stamp out undesirable behaviour”. That takes a change of culture which doesn’t happen overnight but the USADA investigation and the French Senate report are big steps in the right direction which will change behaviour.
So yes, Stuart O’Grady and likely other Australians have skeletons in their closets from the ’90s and 2000s, but to me it doesn’t make them bad people nor does it diminish what they’ve done in the sport — especially the path they’ve laid for the new crop of young cyclists.
If you’re utterly disappointed and draw a hard line calling O’Grady (and others from that era) a cheat, then you have to look at the context of the time and how things were different. What’s done is done, and instead of focusing on the names of implicated riders, this exercise should be used to help change cycling’s culture for the better.
O’Grady’s bigger mistake, in my opinion, is not seeing this coming and hoping this would be swept under the carpet. He would have left a much cleaner legacy if he had come forward earlier in the ASADA investigations or while the Vance Report was being written. Blatantly lying in the face of recent questioning was a mistake. But as we’ve seen, there is very little incentive for athletes to come forward. However, I think the public deserves more respect than O’Grady’s limited confession that we’ve all heard before. He has done very well off the back of positive media attention, and now needs to own up to setting the record straight.
If there’s one lesson for our current athletes, it’s that retrospective testing is always a possibility and these things can and will come back to haunt you.
Don’t judge the character and career of O’Grady until you’ve ridden a few kilometers in his shoes. It’s easy to say you would have taken the moral high ground and “hardened the f#ck up”, but if there was one guy who would have done that if he thought he could, it would have been O’Grady.
To be clear, I don’t defend or justify doping nor do I make excuses for anyone, but I don’t judge O’Grady on it. And when I put it into the context of the era, I can imagine what it might have been like. I won’t pretend that I would have been any wiser.