Whistleblowers part 2 – the cost of speaking out
As was detailed in part I of this feature, the long history of cycling is dotted with examples of people who spoke out about problems in cycling. Whether it was about doping or corruption, their testimony turned a spotlight onto issues that needed to be addressed.
Many times their words fell onto deaf ears, causing problems and frustration for those who spoke out.
Former professionals Paul Kimmage and Graeme Obree were two who experienced disbelief and ridicule after they came forward.
Both spoke to CyclingTips about their experiences and, two decades later, reflect on their decision to become whistleblowers.
Paul Kimmage: “I was shocked at the reaction”
Had things turned out as he anticipated, Paul Kimmage would have been credited with doing a service to the sport. He had written a warts and all autobiography Rough Ride, which was published in 1990 to critical acclaim, but was slated by many within professional cycling.
He said there was one clear moment where he realised that things were not going well.
“It was the day after I was on the Late Late Show [Ireland’s most popular TV talkshow – ed.] I was in the Easons bookstore in Dublin signing books. The early edition of the Evening Press newspaper came in. There I was on the front page, with the headline “Roche may sue over the Late Late Show.”
“I understood at that moment that this wasn’t going to plan. And it didn’t get much better after that.”
Kimmage was a professional between 1986 and 1989. During that period, he wrote a series of newspaper diaries from pro races. His writing ability was obvious and he provided a previously-unseen glimpse inside the peloton.
He took things a step further with Rough Ride, talking in depth about his life and career, about his interactions with his fellow professionals, but also about doping.
While books dealing with this topic are now widespread, it was very much a different era; the issue was hardly ever discussed, the problem very much downplayed.
“I suppose what made me do it was a sense of responsibility to the sport,” he said, explaining his motivation.
“I had just left pro cycling and I was waiting to take up a very exciting job as a journalist. It would have been easy to just continue on but I was really very disturbed by what I had discovered about the sport in my time as a professional.
“I felt a responsibility to the next generation coming through that they wouldn’t have to face the decisions that we were being faced with at that time. I felt a duty to the sport to try to do something about it.”
The Dubliner put himself in the firing line by admitting that he had taken amphetamines during a couple of small criteriums. In Catholic Ireland, that caused shockwaves, but so too the statement that the sport as a whole had a problem.
Roche and Sean Kelly weren’t implicated in the book, but the former felt the criticism of the sport in the book and on the Late Late raised indirection questions about his own career. Hence the statement to journalists that he would consider suing.
Kimmage admits now that he was “very naïve, in that I wasn’t worried when the book was released. When I look back now, it is 25 years ago and I am not at all the same person as I was back then.
“In trying to help the sport by putting a spotlight on this problem, I naively thought that everybody in cycling would stand up and applaud that.
“This was something rotten at the core of the sport. As I have said many times, if you love cycling, then do you ignore the problem or do you try and deal with it? Well, I love it and I tried to deal with it.”
Unfortunately, rocking the boat wasn’t appreciated, as the newspaper headline showed.
“I was shocked at the reaction. It is no secret that myself and Stephen went back a long, long way. And I had been nothing but supportive and complementary to him in the book. But he didn’t seem to understand or care what the book was about, [just] that it was about doping in the sport. He refused to acknowledge that.
“I was shocked, really, that he should react that way. That pretty much set the tone for everything else that followed.”
Roche never followed through on the threat, but things would get worse anyway over the next couple of months. Being a whistleblower didn’t make him popular.
“That was May of 1990. I went to the World Cup that year, to Italia ‘90. That was great, I had a fantastic time,” he said. “Then I went straight from the World Cup to the Tour de France, which was my first time back at the race as a journalist. It was just a month after Rough Ride had been published.
“The reaction there was pretty awful. I was really in hiding for the whole three weeks that I was on the race.
“The sense of betrayal I got from pretty much everyone was really hard for me to deal with.”
He said that there was one moment in particular that stung badly. “It was before one of the stages. I met [former RMO team-mate] Thierry Claveyrolat, who was a really close friend. He spat in my face and accused me of betraying him and the sport. And that was really, really, really hard to take.”
What Kimmage found most difficult about that exchange was that Claveyrolat hadn’t read the book (it hadn’t been printed in French), but simply went off Roche’s second-hand account of the it in L’Equipe.
“He was just judging me on that. For someone you really liked and admired, and who had been so good to me and who I had been so good to, it was really, really hard to take.”
“That Tour was a miserable time, it was probably the most miserable sports event I had ever been at. I actually felt under siege for that race.”
Given how affected he was at the time, you’d forgive him for wanting to turn back the clock. However although it took time for him to come to terms with things, he wouldn’t change anything.
“I have never, ever regretted it,” he insists. “I didn’t understand – again, naively – how important it was, given what I was going to go on to do, to be a journalist.
“Imagine how compromised I would be now as a sportswriter, given everything that has happened since, if I hadn’t actually taken that step?”
He said that particular realisation didn’t dawn until long afterwards; it wasn’t a conscious decision to speak the truth because of the role he was going into.
“In hindsight, though, it was hugely, hugely important for me to do that. To take that step. So I have absolutely no regrets about it.
“And it is still an absolutely huge source of satisfaction for me, to walk into bookstores and it is still there, still on the shelves. That people are still picking it up and still finding it relevant.”
Graeme Obree: “Doping destroyed my career”
Heading into 1995, Graeme Obree seemed set for a big professional career. He stunned the cycling world in 1993 when he beat Francesco Moser’s long-standing world hour record, then won the world individual pursuit championship later that year in record time.
After taking the hour record again the following season, the Le Groupement pro team signed him up. However things unravelled very quickly and he parted company with the squad. It claimed he was unprofessional and had missed pre-season meetings; he later said it was more than that.
Obree said that he was encouraged to dope and refused to do so. He talked openly about the doping problem in cycling and, like Kimmage and Giles Delion before him, was slated by the-then UCI President Hein Verbruggen.
“I did an interview about it in 1997 in L’Equipe magazine, It was quite a big article. I spoke out because doping was so wrong, and also because it destroyed my career. There was an opportunity to change things.
“But at that point Hein Verbruggen’s response was that it was sour grapes because I never got the big road career.”
Explaining how he got to the point where he felt he had to go public, he said he had gone from a completely amateur background, riding local races for small money, then headed towards the professional scene. He said that the Le Groupement team put pressure on him to step things up, in terms of a more ‘pro’ preparation.
“Clearly this is what happens. It is a bit like the mafia – if everyone is not implicated in a crime, then there is a loose cannon who can whistleblow,” he said, talking about one of the reasons for that peer pressure. “So if everyone gets involved with it, then nobody can squeak [speak out].”
“There was an attitude that it was unprofessional. They actually lost respect for me because I wasn’t willing to [take drugs]. They saw me as a rank amateur not willing to take professional action. The reason my career ended so quickly was because I wasn’t willing to do it.”
Obree could have kept his mouth shut and gone along with what they said, making a lot of money. Or, having decided to stay clean and leave the sport, could have simply said nothing.
He struggled with bipolar disorder and talking about doping undoubtedly further added to his struggles.
However, like Kimmage, he wanted to try to make things better for future riders put in the same position.
“I spoke out because I thought I could institute change. It wasn’t sour grapes. And I was the lucky one, I was still world champion in that system.
“But there were other people who had to decide to take the drugs or just leave the sport, having invested years and years of their life, forgoing college and everything else. They did all that and ended up saying, ‘you know what, I am not doing this shit.’
Even if his speaking out didn’t change the system, he still felt that letting people know the truth was vital. “It was almost to educate people not to go into this sport,” he now says, rationalising things.
Blamed even after the Festina Affair
The staggering thing about Obree’s experience was the short- and longer-term reactions.
“Some people thought it was sour grapes and it couldn’t possibly be that bad. There was a real incredulity about it,” he said. “People wanted to believe that the sport they are passionate about is not as bad as that, that I was just speaking nonsense.”
“What I had said in L’Equipe was that this was going to explode. I said they needed to deal with this now internally, because otherwise it will blow up their faces publically and it will be absolutely devastating for the world of cycling.
“It was as much about pressure on cycling itself, to say, ‘you guys need to deal with this.’ That was 1997. Then the Festina Affair happened in 1998.”
Talking to Obree, he now in two minds about what he did. One part of him wishes he kept his mouth shut, given the amount of criticism and ridicule he received afterwards. It’s staggering how far people went to fault him.
“When the Festina scandal happened, people said, ‘Graeme Obree caused this. He spoke out, he focused the eye on this and he caused this scandal.’ So I actually got blamed for the thing that I pointed out!
“They say, ‘everything was fine until you focussed attention on this.’”
Indeed that kind of attitude persisted for years. “When I was telling folk how it really is, they were saying ‘that is just bollocks’. Then the Lance Armstrong thing happened and they said, ‘I can’t believe that.’
“I said, ‘I fecking told you that for the last ten years!’”
Another part of him is glad he had the courage to say what he said. “You can never go wrong with the truth,” he reasons.
“There must be a lot of young people out there who thought, ‘I’ll just do something else.’ They were never put in that situation as a result.”
Appreciation needed for those pushing for change
Kimmage and Obree had it tough, but things are undoubtedly better thanks to them and other whistleblowers since.
Attitudes have also moved on, somewhat, even if some whistleblowers receive very serious threats after speaking out. One route open to those who wish to be more discrete is to speak confidentially to journalists, the UCI’s Cycling Anti Doping Foundation or to WADA.
What’s important, Kimmage argues, is that people appreciate the value of those telling an uncomfortable truth.
“Whistleblowers are everything. When you look at what is happening in Russia now with the doping controversy, there were two tremendously whistleblowers that were there, the Stepanovs, who have done a fantastic job. Without them we wouldn’t know any of this.
“You look at everything that has happened in the sport and all of the big controversies, and you can see the role whistleblowers have played.
“I think it is hugely, hugely important.”