If you’ve read my stuff over the years, you might recall that, while at my old gig, one of my favorite times of year included the last two days of March. Alas, it wasn’t for anything that appeared on the racing calendar, though. It was largely because I had the privilege of setting aside my normal duties and concentrating on fake news.
Yup, over those couple of days we would all concentrate on coming up with the goofiest – but potentially believable – “news” story for an appearance on the homepage on April 1. Indeed, the tradition pre-dates the web and, in the old days, we would produce at least one page in the appropriate edition of VeloNews dedicated solely to our April Fools’ Day coverage.
We had our hits. We once printed a story about Eddy Merckx’s decision to mount a comeback. As I recall, Sports Illustrated actually believed the story and repeated it as news. (I mean, come on, SI. Who would be crazy enough to believe that a five-time Tour winner would be in such need of adulation that he would return to the sport after retirement?)
The big score for me, though, was in 2005 when, under the nom de plume, Philippe Farceur, I wrote about a major shake-up in the management of the UCI. Ridiculous as it sounded, a heated argument between former UCI president Hein Verbruggen and WADA president Dick Pound resulted in Pound agreeing to take over the top spot in cycling after Verbruggen told him that “he was a windbag and that he couldn’t do better if he was in my shoes.”
Yeah, yeah, pretty nutty, but some actually bought it, including the Boston Globe, whose sports columnist John Powers reprinted it as gospel (and without attribution) and then became indignant when we pointed out it was an April Fools’ Day story. (I’m still rather proud of that, especially since Powers’ column appeared on the same day his newsroom colleagues were getting a Pulitzer Prize.)
Well, maybe Powers was just ahead of his time. I, for one, think it’s now time for life to imitate farce.
Change requires … actual change
That cycling is facing a tough road these days is something of an understatement. Think about the response to the events of the past few months, not by you, your cycling buddies or die-hard cycling fans. Instead, think back to how your non-cycling friends have reacted.
If yours are anything like mine, the first response to your interest in the sport of professional cycling usually involves a question, or two, or three about that fella from Texas and all of that there doping stuff.
To paraphrase, “Austin, we have a (credibility) problem.”
This is serious, too. It’s a crisis that far transcends the problems we faced back in the day, when the Festina scandal threatened to “forever change the face of cycling.” Remember that the best response from that total [email protected]#$% came from the International Olympic Committee itself, when it held the world’s first international conference on doping in sport and took the first critical steps toward the formation of the World Anti-Doping Agency. The Olympic movement embraced the idea that the interests of a sport and the enforcement of doping rules may be inherently in conflict and that they should – at least at some level – be separated.
Cycling’s response was a bit more tepid. Far from changing the face of cycling, the guys in charge of the sport when it almost careened off a cliff, remained in charge of the sport. Topping that list, of course, was the aforementioned Hein Verbruggen and his heir apparent, then UCI vice president, Pat McQuaid. No new faces. Same old … uhhhh …. stuff.
Rather than embracing reform, cycling’s governing body did all that it could to fight it, delaying even its endorsement of the WADA Code until the last possible minute – the eve of the Athens Olympics in 2004.
I was at that first conference and I have to admit that I left more than a little skeptical of its outcome, particularly since they appointed a long-time IOC vice president, Dick Pound, to head the new anti-doping effort. I had serious doubts about an IOC insider being able to get past the inherent conflicts of interest that kept us from taking major steps toward serious reform.
I was quickly proven wrong when it came to Pound. Sure, there were problems with the new arrangement, due in no small part to the decision to leave national and international governing bodies in place as the first line of defense in the war on doping. But WADA effectively staked out its independence and Pound did his best to build a wall between the IOC, its international governing bodies and the new agency. In large part, he did so by speaking out publicly and offending more than his share of entrenched insiders, taking particular aim at cycling.
Cycling deserved to be singled out. It still does.
Pound was quoted in 2004 as saying that the public continued to know “that the riders in the Tour de France are doping.” I think we can all now agree that he was right. At the time, however, Pound was criticized by Verbruggen, McQuaid and one Lance Edward Armstrong, who characterized Pound’s comments as “careless and unacceptable.”
Remember when, in August of 2005 – not long after Armstrong’s “I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles” speech from the podium in Paris – L’Equipe revealed that an examination of pre-EPO-test samples from the ’99 Tour showed several turned up positive and that six of them belonged to Mr. Miracles.
In response, the UCI appointed Emile Vrijman, a Dutch attorney and FOH (Friend of Hein) to “investigate” the matter. Vrijman’s report was largely critical of WADA, Pound, L’Equipe and anyone else who raised the critical questions of what those samples may have represented.
Pound and WADA characterized the Vrijman’s work as “flawed” and “farcical,” a critique soon dismissed by the UCI and Verbruggen, who took umbrage at anyone who challenged the report and its conclusions.
Okay, now flash forward to the present. We now have a situation that again offers an opportunity to reform cycling.
As far as cycling is concerned, little has changed in the governance of the sport. Verbruggen is gone … well, sorta. McQuaid has stepped in as president. We have a new scandal and, much like the controversy surrounding those suspect ’99 samples, the UCI quickly took steps to address the situation (or as Mr. Armstrong quite correctly surmised in his recent CyclingNews interview, they took steps to “CYA”).
Recall that following the UCI’s acceptance of USADA’s reasoned decision and the accompanying penalty against Mr. Armstrong, McQuaid called for the creation of an independent commission to investigate a number of questions surrounding the sport. Topping the list of questions that needed to be addressed quickly was whether or not the UCI itself was somehow complicit in covering up doping allegations involving the sport’s biggest star.
McQuaid promised to cooperate, offering to supply the commission with documents essential to answering that big question. Well, McQuaid has apparently reconsidered. When the independent commission proved to be a little too independent, the UCI backed off.
McQuaid has now withdrawn the UCI’s support of the commission’s work, after refusing to live up to his promise of cooperation and without having submitted any documents of importance. This past week, the commission ceased operations and the UCI is now embracing the idea of a “Truth and Reconciliation” commission as an alternative.
Look, I’m not sure reconciliation is possible at this point, but I’d be willing to concede that it might be. I am quite certain, however, that the whole “truth” thing isn’t, at least as long as we have the same people in charge of the same things in this sport.
McQuaid needs to step back. Verbruggen just needs to go away. We need a new guy in charge of cycling and – despite it being a joke the first time I floated the idea – I think that guy is Dick Pound.
Aside from doping, Pound probably doesn’t know a helluva lot about cycling. His athletic career involved swimming, a sport in which he represented Canada at the 1960 Olympics. That doesn’t bother me one bit, either. We don’t need a cycling insider to take over this sport right now. What we need is someone who has no vested interest in cycling; someone who doesn’t shudder at the thought of what exposing closeted skeletons will do to friends and associates or whether the truth will be – and lordy I hate this line – “bad for cycling.”
Since the Armstrong debacle, Pound has gone as far to suggest that, if UCI muckity-mucks were in any way complicit in covering up doping, the governing body should be stripped of its Olympic charter. He’s right. The alternative is complete and comprehensive reform and I can’t think of anyone more qualified to oversee that reform than Dick Pound himself.
Love him or hate him, Pound’s tenure as president of WADA and his continued presence on that organization’s board, has proven that his is a take-no-prisoners approach. Pound, if anyone, has proven his independence. It’s something we need right now. If we can’t do an independent commission, let’s take a shot at independent leadership.
I can’t think of anyone better to shake things up for a year or two and then hand the sport back to the “experts.” Right now, at this critical moment, we don’t need a former racer or a former team director to change the face of cycling. What we need is an obnoxious, in-your-face, SOB, who isn’t afraid to step on toes or to make enemies. What we need is someone whose independence is proven. What we need is someone who can put this sport back on the road. We need to put Dick Pound in charge of that effort.
I was kidding the first time. This time I’m serious.
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 [email protected]. 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.