A Different Approach

It should be clear to everyone involved at this point, that the disciplinary process for rule-breaking riders is hopelessly slow, convoluted and ineffective. Further, the length of time it has taken for the UCI and Spanish Federation to figure out what to do with Alberto Contador’s doping positive has compounded the damage of the “adverse clinical finding” ten fold. Pro cycling is killing itself slowly, with drugs, indecision and incompetence.

It seems like every other article I read these days concerns either Contador and the Godot-like wait for a verdict on his case OR Lance Armstrong, Floyd Landis and the grand jury that cogitates in silence on an entire era of alleged pro cycling malfeasance.

This morning it occurred to me that FIFA, the governing body of football (soccer), would never do this to itself. Corrupt though it may be, FIFA lets nothing stand in the way of the game. If football’s biggest star, probably Lionel Messi at the moment, were found to have spiked his corn flakes with banned substances they would have, in conjunction with the Spanish FA, suspended him for some arbitrary length of time and left the chips to fall where they might.

FIFA doesn’t care that much about what’s fair. It allows football fans to seethe in rage, to debate in the most colorful language, to riot in the streets, but eventually to let the games go on. Messi would sit. He might appeal. His appeal would be upheld or denied, and the game would go on, and on, and on, earning and entertaining as it went.

Neither FIFA nor the UCI are governmental organizations. The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) hears any extra-organizational cases brought to them, and rules with the force of law.

What the UCI calls “complex,” FIFA calls ordinary. Where cycling dithers, dodge, obfuscates and ponders, FIFA decides.

It is fair to suggest that there is a far bigger doping problem in football than in cycling. It is fair to say that cycling is infinitely more transparent in the way it deals with its athletes. It is fair to say that FIFA is an oligarchy of corrupt old men who pillage their sport’s multi-billion dollar/euro/yuan/shekel revenues for their own fortunes and power. Those things all might be true. Or not.

But what you can’t say is that cycling runs its business more effectively. Someone at the UCI (paging Mr. McQuaid … Mr.McQuaid to the white courtesy telephone) needs to understand that they are as complicit in the sport’s demise as the dopers who steal the headlines. As every official from Paris to Madrid scrambles to avoid accountability for Contador’s ultimate fate, the fiddle music grows louder and Rome continues to burn.

In the 7th century B.C., a law scribe named Draco converted the system of oral law in force in Athens to a set of written laws, famous for their severity. In modern times, “draconian” has a pejorative connotation, but what Draco intended was for the law to be clear and decisive. Setting aside the issue of appropriate punishments for a cyclist’s indiscretions (most minor crimes in the Draconian system were punishable by death), perhaps what the sport needs is a little more draconian application of its rules.

There is a saying that goes something like this, “It is far easier to beg forgiveness, than ask permission.” The UCI needs to act quickly and decisively in all doping-related matters. It can apologize to those it wrongs later.

Alberto Contador may or may not have cheated in order to win bike races. Even when we get a verdict, some will believe and others won’t. All of that is immaterial now. In effect, the reigning Tour de France champion has already served 6 months of a purgatorial sentence. No matter what happens next, the Spaniard has lost, and cycling has, too.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. randomactsofcycling

    Yes, for crying out loud, someone have the balls to make a decision! So what if he quits the sport? Anyone that believes any rider, or even group of riders is bigger than the sport is clearly not fit to govern the sport.
    Very good point you have made here Robot.

  2. Timothy Day

    Great post, Robot. So sad that the only pro-cycling chatter around the water cooler in our office is about Lance, doping, and “that little Spanish guy”. Wish this would get out of the headlines already!

  3. Souleur

    good discussion Robot

    And with that, I move we make Jonathon Vaughters president of the UCI.

    All who affirm…say yeah

    All who dissent…say nay

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  6. MattyVT

    I would generally agree with Souleur about Vaughters except that his recent move to sack Matt White seems to be out of character. White is a very competent and well liked DS and the reason given for his dismissal was that he incorrectly advised Trent Lowe to visit a local but not team approved doctor for treatment of an illness. Surely I’m not the only cynic (not to elevate myself to status of pundit- my opinion isn’t necessarily well-formed or educated) who finds the timing to be more than just coincidence as the Postal doping investigation continues to gain steam.

    Inaction is itself an action, and the lack of a single, unified message about the Contador case is sending the message that nobody is really in control. If he’s proven innocent people will say the system doesn’t work and lose interest. If he’s proven guilty people will say the system doesn’t work and lose interest. At least the RKP readership isn’t going to need to recount their votes for 2010 Rider of the Year.

    And I’ll wager a pair of Rapha bibs that if Contador “retires” that he’ll be back at it in less than 5 years.

  7. Anna D

    only quibble with “shoot now, ask questions later”- need to make sure it’s possible for an athlete to get their lives back if innocent. In the current culture, even those who can prove they didn’t are shunned outcasts, usually because of the amount of time it takes to prove their innocence. so if they’re going to accuse everyone, they need to be able to *truly “apologize” and have it mean something.

  8. James

    Too bad we can’t just dump the lot…riders, UCI, teams, etc., take a year off and start all over again fresh. We could test every rider that comes into the sport, issue the draconian rules which need to be implemented and, with luck, have a sport that is fair and appealing to the fans. Imagine…

  9. Matt Walsh

    You have hit all the biggest nails on the head. The UCI is a governing body afraid and/or incapable of governing Yes, make the hard call and apologize later. If they don’t get their shit together soon, the sport dies. Pro cycling is the most criminally mis-managed sport in the world. We all suffer for that, from top riders to sponsors to fans.

  10. sophrosune

    It would be preferable if the UCI took on a role more like FIFA: “Okay, clenubterol. That’s 6 months. Next.” But the UCI seems to have painted themselves into a corner where they must follow this so-called transparent system and I am not sure why that is. It seems WADA is calling the shots as much as the UCI is. I think it’s because the UCI really is not in control of anything. There are no clubs, no stadiums, no regional focus to the teams. The teams themselves change every year with new sponsors. With FIFA it’s the guys who hold the purse strings. With UCI it’s just a collection of bureaucrats who were never particularly good at anything before this gig.

  11. Lachlan

    All true, it makes no sense to anyone outside the UCI I think!

    but, FIFA don’t care about doping (its in there interest not to be interested!) and testing is almost non existant.
    In Puerto none of the football clients claimed to be on the books ever got exposed… it was never quite clear why.

  12. Touriste-Routier

    Actually the problem doesn’t just lie with the UCI & WADA, the initial disciplinary decisions are made by the national federations, which by nature are subject to potential partisanship.

    What is the point of having an international governing body that sanctions (through their affiliates) the teams, races, and racers, but leaves all disciplinary actions to their affiliates, until they don’t like the decision, when they then institute an appeal?

    Perhaps it is time for the national federations to step aside from any management of “international pro cycling” (except for selecting national/Olympics/worlds teams) and to centralize the management of international pro cycling within (a hopefully improved, stronger, and more competent) UCI, that has a neutral 3rd party handling disciplinary decisions. WADA should be restricted to managing the testing, protocols, and procedures, and should merely be reporting the facts (and perhaps bearing witness) with a unified standard. Get them out of the discipline business/appeals process.

    While they don’t have to be as extreme as FIFA, a clear set system of due process with timelines, with sensible punishments (for both rules violations and procedural violations) would go a long way to regain credibility.

  13. Stephen

    “…he Spaniard has lost, and cycling has, too.”

    Yes – Cycling is the BIG loser here.
    Yet, AC will be getting paid his full contracted amount during the time of suspension.

    I only wish that I had a contract with my employer where I could be found guilty of breaking the law and told I could not work for a year but…… by the way we will still pay you!

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  15. Brett

    It’s pretty easy to say all of this when it’s not your life and career on the chopping block. A few months to make a decision is nothing when a livelihood and reputation for the rest of one’s days is at stake.

    Also, why the doomsday, “THE END IS NIGH” sandwich-board approach anytime a doping issue comes up? Cycling won’t die. It’s not killing itself with drugs. Its not football, its not American football, its not baseball. Its a sport that is prohibitively exspensive to many would-be participants and a sport that will always have an ebb and flow in it’s engagement with the general public. And yes, the profit to be made from it will also always have an ebb and flow, just like any other market.

    Maybe if we turned to extol the virtues of cycling rather than wallow in the muck (four posts RE Contador, one RE Landis on the opening page of RKP? people would still be interested.

    1. Padraig

      Brett: No one wants a speedy resolution more than the athletes. I’m not in a rush to judgement other than the fact that if an athlete is innocent, that should be sorted out so they can get their careers back on track. As for “THE END IS NIGH” … well, things aren’t good. Perhaps you’ve heard of Leopard-Trek? The single best team on the planet couldn’t secure a title sponsor.

      Cycling is prohibitively expensive? Have you looked at motorcycling lately? What about skydiving or golf? We get off easy.

      So are you suggesting that the bad news about which RKP has written lately is driving people from the sport? Really? One little blog driving people from the sport?

      We at RKP are a passionate bunch. We write about those things that excite us, pro or con. Right now, we’re feeling a bit of outrage about pro racing. And, frankly, it’s the biggest news going.

  16. Brett

    @ Robot: Thank you.

    @ Padraig: Athletes do want a speedy resolution, I agree, especially if it is in their favor. I just think that it is easy for us watching to be impatient for the plot to move on, it takes time for something good to come to fruition. Any custom framebuilder will vouch for me here! And that’s just waiting for tubes and tweaking design, it’s not the legal, moral, or ethical snakepile that determining one’s guilt or innocence can become.

    Sponsorship: George Hincapie seems to think sponsors are still coming to the sport. Maybe Leopard-Trek was shopping around. Lot’s of expensive guys on that team.

    Cycling is prohibitively expensive compared to a soccer ball, which I think FIFA has built it’s empire on, and I think was your comparison. You name more expensive sports, yes. So can I; have you looked at catamaran racing? Stunt flying? F-1 racing?

    No, I’m not suggesting that RKP “one little blog” is driving people away from the sport. I argue actually that people are not really being driven away, but the natural ebb and flow continues on like the seasons continue to change. I will say though, that I was cooled to RKP a bit when I otherwise love the blog and will continue to read it. Though the more exuberant posts are more interesting and encouraging than joining the dogpile of doping coverage.

    All in all, I think this is a healthy sport, enriched by good people with unique individual selves and a variety of motivations. But that could just be the positive thinking talking.

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