For the third time, Lance Armstrong has been stripped of his Tour de France titles, and more or less everything else. He’s still World Champion from 1993. Still a winner of the San Sebastian classic. His cameo in Dodgeball is his to keep. But that’s about it. We’ve all pulled over his giant statue. He’s now starting a new career as a cautionary tale.
The focus now is on the UCI, and especially the press conference yesterday where an increasingly testy president Pat McQuaid spent an hour batting away the suggestion that the UCI might have done anything wrong. Yes, cycling was host to the largest conspiracy ever seen in any sport (well, there are one or two other teams from the 1990s who may secretly feel they’ve been unfairly overlooked) but no, you could hardly have expected the UCI to do anything about it, because people kept lying to them.
That was, at any rate, the general thrust. And it’s true that the testing regime for EPO was in its early stages – those who felt it was more a test for catching the stupid than the merely dishonest were probably about right. And it’s true that the nature of a conspiracy is that they don’t have a Facebook group. But… well, look at it this way. Even I knew that it was possible to evade an EPO test. I didn’t know where you might buy EPO, or how to take it, but I knew that those who wanted to use it could slip through the tests by careful timing and taking lots of very small doses. (And, it now turns out, hiding behind the sofa. Thanks, Tyler.) If I knew, it’s inconceivable that the UCI didn’t know.
Indeed they admitted as much with the 50% haematocrit rule, which was designed to save lives, and did so.
The issue, though, isn’t one of chemistry. The issue is that the UCI, in common with many other governing bodies, is responsible for two different things. They have to sell the sport, and police the sport. And the suspicion that that the cynical might have that maybe the UCI with its policeman hat on didn’t look too hard, in case it was forced to acknowledge seeing something that was going to make its other life, with its salesman’s hat on, impossible
Like Railtrack, in the days when it was responsible for both making a profit running railway lines and for diminishing those profits by spending the money required to keep the lines safe. It could really only do one or the other. In both cases, a train crash is inevitable. It doesn’t even require any real dishonesty, it just requires that you focus on one thing to the exclusion of the other.
Lance Armstrong’s donations are the clearest example. Let’s forget the idea that they were a bribe, and accept that they were used for anti-doping activities. Indeed, let’s just assume that the whole thing was as above board as it could have been. As Pat McQuaid said yesterday, the UCI isn’t, in the context of these things, an especially rich organisation. So $100,000 would be very useful to an organisation that was promoting a sport, or trying to clean one up.
But the UCI has its other hat. You can’t allow those who are being policed to give the police money. It is the most basic conflict of interests you can think of. If I went to the local police station with a bright innocent smile and gave the desk sergeant £100 for any purpose he wanted, I’d probably get arrested. (Well, I ought to get arrested. I might, instead, have bribed my way out of being arrested for bribing a police officer, and got into a virtuous circle of paying my way out of my next crime rather than my last, but you see what I mean.) The same would apply with knobs on if I tried it with the judge.
It’s all the more unbelievable that the UCI would accept money (‘we’d do it differently’) from riders again in the future. Even if it’s done with the most high-minded of intentions, they shouldn’t even countenance it.
The years since Armstrong’s last Tour win have seen real progress in anti-doping. The tests are better, though not flawless, and they’re backed up with better investigation processes. The anti-doping agencies have more independence than they did.
We may even be edging towards a point where whistleblowers are accepted and protected. It’s ironic, but welcome, that some of the initiative is coming up from the teams rather than down from the UCI. All the same, I’m quite sure the sport is significantly cleaner now than it was in 2005, and the UCI takes some of the credit.
But you also have to remember that the UCI’s reaction to the whole USADA investigation that brought Armstrong down wasn’t 100% supportive. Yesterday, not long after he acknowledged the assistance given to USADA by some of Armstrong’s former team mates in the form of reduced bans, he was reported as describing some of them as ‘scumbags’ who had damaged cycling. That’s the other hat again, right there.