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Cycling is a simple sport, at least to the untrained eye. Though for those who follow it closely — fans, journalists, the cycling industry — it is a multifaceted behemoth with storylines and details that extend way beyond the basic business of racing bicycles.
These days this is true to such an extent that many of us could be considered verging on the polymathic. The varied and complex curricula that combine to make up many of the sport’s building blocks require us all to take at least a passing interest in a number of fields.
For example, there’s economics, if you want to understand and compare team budgets and rider contracts. There is physics, with various calculations such as watts per kilogram, and VAM, or mean ascent velocity, used to measure performance. And there is biology, which in turn leads to the worlds of doping, ethics, and law.
Given the sport’s propensity to insist on tangling itself up in those dark arts with alarming regularity, it’s no surprise that we often take an interest in other sports when similar scandals rear their ugly heads. Which brings us neatly onto the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and its latest debacle with Russia.
There’s a lot to unpack in this case, and much of it isn’t particularly relevant to cycling. However the issue of whistleblowers is relevant to any sport that has faced corruption, or widespread cheating.
At the center of the IOC turmoil is Russian middle-distance runner Yuliya Stepanova, who was banned in 2013 for two years due to biological passport irregularities, and set the ball rolling on this scandal. As part of her punishment, Stepanova also had her results from 2011 onwards forfeited.
Back in 2014, Stepanova appeared on German television channel ARD in a Hajo Seppelt documentary (Seppelt was the man who helped force the Alberto Contador clenbuterol case into the open). With her husband Vitaly (an anti-doping fighter and former employee of RUSADA) by her side, she accused her country of running a state-organised doping program. She blew the whistle. And while many athletes who are caught doping stay quiet, and either move on or return to their sports, Stepanova is a rarity.
But she is not alone; in fact, we have come across several of our own whistleblowers in cycling.
In 2003, Spaniard Jesus Manzano was sacked by his Kelme squad; the next year he lifted the lid on doping practices within the team (including his own near-death experience). He was forced to join minnows Amore e Vita before leaving the sport in 2004. His confession signaled the tremors before Operacion Puerto’s earthquake.
Then there was Jörg Jaksche (pictured above), one of the few riders banned as a result of Operacion Puerto in 2006. He confessed his involvement and kept on going, naming names and telling the UCI at some length about what was going on at the teams he was involved with. Nevertheless, the sport’s governing body continued to push for a full two-year ban. He soon retired, a victim of omertà, blacklisted as teams refused to hire him.
In 2010, Floyd Landis went public with his allegations against Lance Armstrong and the U.S. Postal Service team, kickstarting the series of investigations that would eventually lead to the downfall of the seven-time Tour winner. At the time the UCI threatened Landis with legal action, while President Pat McQuaid called Landis and eventual whistleblower Tyler Hamilton “scumbags” in 2012.
Stepanova’s treatment at the hands of the IOC and its president, Thomas Bach, is not quite at McQuaid-level of vitriol, but thanks to the IOC ruling to punish only those Russians who have been caught doping previously, she has been blocked from competing in the upcoming Rio Olympics.
Once again, a whistleblower is effectively punished for doing so. Some would say it is not a surprise, as scandal-averse sports organisations look to maintain cleanliness (or at least the appearance of it), and profits.
But still the decision is incomprehensible, in the context of what we are led to believe is a “cleaner” sporting world than that of a decade ago. Surely after the work Stepanova has done — and the risk she has taken — in order to expose a scandal of this magnitude, she deserves better. And surely if the reward for the risks taken by the couple amounts to basically nothing, then others will be discouraged from doing the same.
Therein lies the problem. Yes, every one of these people have made mistakes. They all doped, breaking the laws of the sport and in turn breaking the trust of fans. But at what point does a good deed outweigh the bad?
Some will point to others who have cooperated in order to commute their sentences, only to dope again — Danilo Di Luca springs to mind — as a reason to distrust Stepanova and those like her. This questioning of credibility has been seen time and again. But who can be considered more credible to speak out than those involved in the activity they are speaking out against? Reformed or not, admitted dopers exposing others is preferable to unrepentant silent dopers.
There should be punishment for those who break the rules. But Stepanova served her time and gave the governing bodies a big helping hand in cleaning up their sports, regardless of whether they have acted on that information responsibly.
Large-scale doping systems are rarely brought down by anti-doping authorities on their own, as we have seen in the past: Operaction Puerto was a Spanish police investigation; USADA’s takedown of Armstrong began as a Department of Justice investigation. The need for people to speak out is strikingly obvious. Turning away potential whistleblowers by doling out treatment like the IOC has to Stepanova is not the way forward.
Fortunately, cycling seems to be moving towards a more progressive future. The oft-proposed and much-talked about “Truth and Reconciliation” process never came into being, but after the UCI’s CIRC Report, an anti-doping hotline was set up by the UCI and the Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation (CADF). It’s a positive step and has hopefully been of use.
In the post-Verbruggen, post-McQuaid era, pro cycling has yet to be tested in the way the IOC has been recently. But when the next whistleblower does come along — and there will always be another — we should all hope that the treatment of the past will stay there.