The Explainer: Can reform begin at home?
As we approach the end of what has been a momentous year for cycling, a lot of us are left wondering where the sport goes from here.
Padraig and I have been chatting back and forth and one thing he asked for was something of a follow-up to the piece I did on the likelihood of reform at the UCI.
As I mentioned in a recent column – “When it comes to the UCI, change is needed … but it ain’t easy” – the structure of our international governing body is such that, despite its superficially “democratic” façade – real power in the organization is held in the hands of a very small number of people with the same set of skewed priorities and ingrained conflicts-of-interest that caused the problem in the first place
Padraig was interested in hearing about how our own national governing body was set up and whether we could possibly start the “revolution” from this side of the Atlantic.
Is reform possible?
Well, the short answer is “no.”
Back in the day, the old U.S. Cycling Federation (USCF) was something of a democratic organization. You bought a license and you earned the right to vote for members of the board of directors. Admittedly, not all that many voted and we’d see boards composed of people chosen in elections with less than 10-percent voter turnout.
Indeed, you still have the right to vote for board members, but your vote just doesn’t count for much. In 1999, a few years after the creation of USA Cycling, the successor to the USCF, there was a “special” meeting of the Board of Directors called by president Mike Plant (who, you might recall, remains a member of the UCI Management Committee) for which the agenda included some major changes to the Bylaws of the organization.
The measure was essentially railroaded through the board, without much discussion, save a vigorous effort from board member Les Earnest. If you’ve not heard of Les, you should, especially if you’re a reform minded cycling fan. Les’ professional background is in computers. He’s responsible for the development of the first spell checker, the first effective pen-based computer and was appointed as the executive officer of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab in 1965. The guy is wicked smart and he loves bike racing. We’re lucky to have him around. (Author’s Note: I was incorrect in naming Les Earnest as the sole opponent of the Plant “reform” initiative. Board Member Chuck Collins was the member of the board who voted against the measure, as is correctly reflected in his comment below. My apologies to Chuck and I guess I’ll chalk up my error to an aging brain. I even wrote about Chuck being a lone voice in the wilderness at the time.)
Anyway, Plant’s changes were couched as an “emergency measure” (with no real explanation as to what the exact “emergency” might have been) and as such went into effect immediately upon passage. The net effect of those “reforms” was to place considerable voting power into the hands of a small group representing the USA Cycling Development Foundation. Indeed, while representing less than one percent of USA Cycling’s membership, the Foundation can effectively choose the majority of the membership on the USA Cycling board of directors.
Now, if you want the particulars, I am going to direct you to Les’ site, where he recently posted an essay describing the cycling’s current problems, a series of “coups,” representing what Earnest calls a “flagrantly crooked takeover by business interests” of the sport and the legal challenges that have resulted from those.
What is disheartening is that you find yourself agreeing with Earnest’s conclusion to the question “is reform possible?”
In short, it is not, unless there are serious changes to federal law (namely the “Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act). It is a dire conclusion when you realize your hopes of reform are rooted in that painfully rare phenomenon known as “Congressional Action.”
We do have one huge advantage
Now, I have to say that I have my reasons to believe that the situation here in the U.S. is still better than that of the UCI. It’s not that this country’s governing bodies are somehow better or less encumbered by conflicts of interest.
No, what sets American governing bodies apart from their international counterparts is that collective decision by those U.S. Olympic Committee-affiliated NGBs to hand off their authority to deal with doping cases to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.
Recall, that one allegation out there in the whole Armstrong case is that his “donation” to the UCI to assist in its anti-doping efforts was merely a pay-off to the organization to cover up an alleged positive doping test from the 2001 Tour de Suisse. While the UCI has yet to share the documents associated with that incident, how can anyone – after having seen USADA’s evidence – reasonably conclude that Lance Armstrong honestly made a contribution to the UCI to actually boost its efforts to control doping? (If you’re one who can reach that conclusion, by the way, give me a call. I have a really nice bridge to sell you in New York.)
The one element of the American system that should serve as a model for the rest of the world is precisely that separation of powers.
Read Les’ article and think about it for a minute. Then try to imagine the outcome had every bit of evidence in the Lance Armstrong case been in the hands of Mike Plant, Jim Ochowicz or Thom Weisel. The record books would remain intacct and few would be talking about reforming things these days.
It took a tenacious – and, above all, independent – agency to reach the conclusion that the Emperor did, indeed, have no clothes (well, at least no yellow jerseys).
That sole element, though, doesn’t mean that the U.S. system is otherwise any better than that which governs the UCI. We need fundamental reform. If you have a racing license, vote. And then let your opinions be heard. Contact the members of the board. Despite the lopsided and undemocratic imbalance of voting power, there are some good folks on the USA Cycling Board of Directors. Let them know how you feel. Demand changes. Finally, be willing to back up those demands with action … or as some suggest, in-action, meaning that you don’t renew your license for a year.
The sad truth, though, is that the current structure is largely the result of the inherently apolitical nature of folks in the sport. Hell, we didn’t get involved in cycling to add yet another political aspect to our lives. As a result, though, we let these folks take control. In some cases, they’ve done okay. In others … well, not so much.
If you want to see change in the organization, get involved. It will take all of us.
The big events of 2012?
Padraig had some other thoughts about closing out the year. I know at my old job, we would have editors and a few contributors sitting around voting on who was worthy of this, that or the other prize for things they did over the course of the previous year.
Certainly we here at RKP are not above pontificating now and then, but I want to hear from you, too.
I have my own opinion as to whom, for example, should rank as “Person of the Year” in cycling. What I like, though, is to hear what you have to say.
Please, use the comments section below or send me an email (Charles@Pelkey.com) and let me know your thoughts about the year in cycling.
- What were the highlights?
- What were the low points?
- Who are the heroes?
- Who are the villans?
- Which was the greatest day of racing?
- Which of the three was the best grand tour?
- Which was the best one-day race of the year?
- What great technical development may actually prove to be more than just a way to get you to spend more on bikes?
Feel free to comment on anything and everything. We’ll cobble together an awards column, but rest assured, it will be with your input.
Finally, dear readers, I first want to thank you for indulging my off-topic detour last week. Like all of us, I was pretty shaken by the events of the previous day.
I managed to attend the funeral for my friend, Bob, and tears aside, the event quickly devolved into an opportunity for many of us to share stories about an old friend. My contribution?
Well, a few years back, we were having lunch on campus at the university here in Laramie, when a young man walked past, resplendent in full western regalia: hat, boots, vest and even chaps, despite there not being a horse anywhere within miles.
“Ya know, Charles, I never got that; the whole cowboy thing here in Wyoming,” Bob said. “I mean, I’m from New England … and I don’t dress up like a @#$% ing Pilgrim.”
A lot of us ended up the day laughing as we shared a host of Bob’s best one-liners. I hope we can all leave that kind of legacy when we’re gone. I’ll miss you, Bob, but I will almost always remember you with a smile.
The Explainer is a weekly feature on Red Kite Prayer. If you have a question related to the sport of cycling, doping or the legal issues faced by cyclists of all stripes, feel free to send it directly to The Explainer at Charles@Pelkey.com. PLEASE NOTE: Understand that reading the information contained here does not mean you have established an attorney-client relationship with attorney Charles Pelkey. Readers of this column should not act upon any information contained therein without first seeking the advice of qualified legal counsel licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.