Commentary

A clean effort

International cycling chief working to eliminate corruption at every level of the sport

Updated: May 6, 2014, 4:33 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPN.com

Brian CooksonAP Photo/Steve HelberBrian Cookson has established an independent committee to investigate the UCI.

Lance Armstrong spoke at length with calm resignation last week about how life after cycling has come into focus for him as he sits at home in Austin, Texas, still hamstrung by lawsuits against him, and so far refusing to meet the conditions that might reduce his lifetime ban. But the question that's still in play is what cycling itself will look like going forward, especially now that three more of his lieutenants, including team director Johan Bruyneel, were given multiyear bans two weeks ago after a protracted fight.

[+] EnlargeLance Armstrong, cyclist and founder and chairman of LIVESTRONG
Mario Tama/Getty ImagesLance Armstrong's ban likely will never be lifted. He might be able to get a reduction if he helps clean up the sport.

With Armstrong out of the picture, the most dynamic figure in cycling today isn't someone who races atop a bike at all. It's the Union Cycliste Internationale's new president, 62-year-old Brian Cookson, a reform-minded Brit who has repeatedly shown he's determined to clean up the sport and run the UCI with greater transparency.

To Cookson, that means taking a no-holds-barred look at the UCI itself, and achieving an ambitious agenda that is already falling into place well ahead of the first Tour de France of his tenure in July.

When he stormed into office last September after a bitterly fought election battle that featured some explosive leaked documents shortly before the vote, his victory marked the first time a standing president of a major international governing body had been defeated since Joao Havelange beat Stanley Rous to take over soccer's FIFA in 1974.

That alone should have been a hint that Cookson would upend early assumptions of him being "too nice" to fumigate a sport that some of his predecessors ran like their personal kingdoms. But Cookson immediately provided more thunderclap proof that he shouldn't be underestimated, with his decision to have an information security company ready to march into UCI's headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, moments after he won the election in Italy. Its orders? To back up the organization's computer hard drives because they might reveal, among other things, whether his predecessors, Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen, had been complicit in doping cover-ups, as charged.

Cookson has said the move to quarantine McQuaid's personal laptop wasn't a continuation of the strong-arming and skullduggery the UCI has been accused of in the past as much as a determined response to ensure the UCI could finally self-investigate what might have occurred.

"There is a little bit of misunderstanding of what happened [that day]," Cookson told VeloNews.com. "They went into the offices, back to the beginning of computerization of the UCI, and backed up that data. ... It was a precaution. And it was essential. If we hadn't done that, we would have been criticized about letting some critical information slip away."

So far, the centerpiece of Cookson's efforts is the establishment of a three-man Cycling Independent Reform Commission (or CIRC), a sort of truth and reconciliation panel that Cookson put into place in January to conduct a yearlong investigation into exactly what else happened, and just how high into the corridors of power corruption might have reached.

While UCI will foot the bill for the inquiry because "nobody else will," Cookson has said the panel will also operate with complete autonomy and not loop him in on its findings until its report is completed. Though the committee will have the option of offering reduced sanctions in exchange for testimony, it does not have any subpoena power to compel people to talk or turn over information.

Cookson has admitted that it's not an ideal option.

"It's not perfect, but what we have here is a best possible solution."

And he's right. Other moves he has made -- replacing certain officers in the UCI hierarchy, pushing for term limits for his job, taking a 25-percent salary cut and promising to boost the UCI's commitment to women's cycling -- all underscore his commitment to sweeping reform.

Corruption at every level -- riders, support teams, sponsors and governing body officials -- is the primary stain cycling has to overcome. Until Cookson came along, the UCI showed neither the will nor wherewithal to rigorously investigate itself.

What success cycling did have in rooting out the culture of cheating owes little to anything the UCI did before Cookson, and has more to do with the lawsuits Armstrong has had to fend off and the successful look by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency into the corruption on Armstrong's teams over the years as he was winning a record seven Tour de France titles.

It was USADA, not McQuaid's or Verbruggen's UCI regimes, that listened to one of Armstrong's former riders, Floyd Landis, after Landis was stripped of his 2006 Tour de France victory and decided he was ready to start singing in 2010 about what actually went on inside cycling and, more specifically, Armstrong's teams.

That eventually led to a USADA investigation and ruling in June of 2012 that Armstrong should be stripped of his Tour titles and 2000 Olympic bronze medal and banned for life. Just last week, the American Arbitration Association also handed a 10-year ban to Johan Bruynell, the team director who masterminded the logistics of Armstrong's campaigns, and eight-year bans to Dr. Pedro Celaya and Jose "Pepe" Marti, two other members of Armstrong's support team.

All told, a total of 17 people (12 cyclists and former cyclists, three team doctors, a team trainer and a team director) have been sanctioned as a result of USADA's work, and nine others have either admitted wrongdoing or otherwise been exposed, but were outside the statute of limitations for a case to be brought.

[+] EnlargeMark Cavendish
Bryn Lennon/Getty ImagesBritain's Mark Cavendish says it's time to stop trying to punish cyclists for past transgressions and focus on making the sport clean now.

That Cookson is not willing to stop there has been a point of contention. Some insiders, including British cyclist Mark Cavendish, have gone beyond seconding Armstrong's and Bruynell's complaints of a "witch hunt" against them.

Cavendish is among those who have been vocal about wishing everyone would just move on from their preoccupation with "the skeletons in cycling's closet."

"Mine might not be a popular view, but sometimes I wonder why we insist on rattling them around and whether the time hasn't come to simply concentrate on the present," Cavendish wrote in his autobiography, which was released a little more than a month after Cookson was elected. "To me, it's gone far beyond the point where the soul-searching has become useful to the sport.

"[A] 'Truth and Reconciliation' commission ... sounds like a nice idea but it's not going to work. ... Riders cling to their careers because that's what their identity has been constructed on. They're terrified of losing it all."

Armstrong admits he did that for a while. As he told ESPN.com's Rick Reilly last week, "In the past, I cared what people said, thought or wrote. I thought it would affect my livelihood. But that's been decimated now."

Even Armstrong will admit he has only himself to blame. It's hard to have much sympathy for how he received the stiffest punishment the sport has ever seen, given the long-running deceit he ran and spectacular way he profited from his victories more than anyone else. He was in line to earn $150 million in endorsements before confessing his guilt. There were also the many, many personal reputations he aggressively ruined in the hopes of defusing the suspicions about him.

Here's the other thing that makes the scapegoating complaints ring hollow: Armstrong, like Bruynell, refused to testify on his own behalf before the United States Anti-Doping Agency.

Nor has Armstrong given any indication that he'll come forward to speak to the CIRC investigators, despite his past remarks that he's willing to do so, and the public appeal that Cookson and commission chairman Dick Marty made to him in February.

Back then, the two men said Armstrong had one last chance to expose any wrongdoing which occurred in cycling between 1998 and 2013 and have his ban reduced to as little as eight years if he provided significant assistance in helping the sport get cleaned up.

(What incriminating testimony Armstrong has given thus far against folks in cycling has largely come out in sworn depositions in the lawsuits against him, or in his televised confession to Oprah Winfrey in 2013. But USADA has said it will give CIRC documents from its investigations, including around 37 names that were redacted from outsiders' view in the past.)

Not surprisingly, USADA CEO Travis Tygart strongly disagrees that Armstrong and his crew were treated unfairly. Or that Cookson should just take the advice of folks like Cavendish and abandon the self-examination he's dragging the UCI through.

[+] EnlargeTravis Tygart
David Butler II/USA TODAY SportsUSADA CEO Travis Tygart strongly disagrees that Lance Armstrong and other U.S. cyclists were treated too harshly.

"I have a couple thoughts about all of that," Tygart told ESPN.com on Monday. "First, you've got to remember, Lance not only used [performance enhancers] -- he distributed, he trafficked, he intimidated others in the sport, and he covered it up. So those are different offenses than many of the other riders committed. ... He conspired to defraud by use of these drugs. By the rules, all of those offenses enhance the penalty.

"As far as the length of Armstrong's ban goes," Tygart added, "he actually was given the same opportunity back in June of 2012, before we even brought the case against him. He could've gotten the same six-month ban and disqualification of results as the other athletes got [in exchange for truthful testimony]. So he was treated the same. And he refused that. He attempted to bankrupt us instead -- that was his stated goal. ... It's farcical now to say he wants to be treated like everyone else."

When asked if he sees any scenario in which Armstrong's Tour titles would be restored in exchange for testimony, Tygart flatly said, "No. That [restoring results of cheaters] is something governing bodies just don't do."

World Anti-Doping Agency head John Fahey and Cookson have said the same thing. A reduction in the length of his lifetime ban is about the best the 42-year-old Armstrong could hope for now.

Cookson himself declined an interview request for this article because, as UCI press officer Louis Chenaille explained in an email response, "The UCI is not commenting on the CIRC and its ongoing investigation, considering the CIRC is independent from the UCI. 
 The UCI will communicate once the CIRC has made its recommendation."

While Tygart applauds Cookson's efforts in the short time he's been in office as "spot on," he also cautions that Cookson is facing an enormous job.

"It's day and night since he's taken over, but I think he's got a culture and a bureaucracy that is not going to change overnight," Tygart said of Cookson. "They certainly turned a blind eye [in the past] to a lot of facts and evidence they certainly could've done a lot with. They discouraged eyewitnesses from coming forward. When Floyd Landis came forward, the UCI actually sued him.

"What we did was, we sat down with him. We said, 'As long as you are truthful and accurate, we are willing to do our job' ... We also knew you can't just take a whack-a-mole approach and punish the athletes, but not change the system when the fact is, the use of drugs in this sport happened generation to generation. Riders who doped and won became team directors who doped their riders and won. You have to disrupt the cycle in a major fashion to really change the culture."

Cookson has the same philosophical stance. It's refreshing to see.

Cookson has been adamant that under his watch, the UCI is not going to back off or say no más until the soul-searching and fact gathering and final report he commissioned are done. He has visited six continents in the eight months he's been in office, and repeats a variation of this message nearly everywhere he goes:

"Ethically and morally, our job is very simple. We have to have a sport where a parent can bring their child, and know that that kid can go all the way to the top of the sport if they have the ability and dedication, without having to lie, without having to cheat, without having to do things that will risk their health, without having to spend the rest of their lives looking over their shoulder.

"If we cannot do that as a governing body, then we have failed our members and our sport. And we are not going to fail. We are going to succeed."

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