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Team Sky’s zero-tolerance policy wrong approach to rebuilding cycling

Team Sky’s zero-tolerance policy to cycling’s doping past is the wrong approach, writes Matt Dathan

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lance armstrong
Lance Armstrong has been banned from cycling for lifePhoto: US Air Force/Wikimedia

lance armstrong

In the aftermath of the Lance Armstrong revelations, the debate in cycling has turned to the sport’s future.

How does cycling deal with its troubled past in a way that can truly rebuild its reputation?

While the sport’s leading teams are united in their determination to guarantee a clean future for the sport and to rebuild its reputation, they are divided in the approach they are taking.

Team Sky’s zero-tolerance policy and Team Garmin-Sharp’s truth and reconciliation approach are two models at opposite ends of the spectrum.

This contrast in how to deal with past wrongdoing echoes the debates that took place in post Nazi Germany and post-apartheid South Africa, and although on an entirely different scale of wrongdoing, cycling is in need of a similar recovery of reputation.

Team Sky last week reaffirmed its zero-tolerance approach to doping and has begun a process of interviews with its riders, management and support staff.

Anyone found to have had a past role in doping will be forced to leave, albeit with a generous financial pay-off.

Over the past week three of Team Sky’s coaches have fallen victim of this process. Race manager Bobby Julich admitted to having taken a banned substance as a professional rider in the late 1990s, while sporting directors Sean Yates and Steven de Jongh also left the team over the weekend.

General manager Dave Brailsford accepted it was highly likely that Sky would lose further talent but insisted it was a price worth paying to ensure cycling’s dirty past does not jeopardise the team’s future.

Jonathan Vaughters, who confessed to doping while a team-mate of Armstrong, is head of Team Garmin-Sharp and disagrees with Brailsford’s approach. He wants to see a truth and reconciliation process that would provide a strong incentive for everyone with a doping history to be honest with their past.

According to the head of US Anti-Doping, Travis Tygart, setting up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission is the only way the sport can move on from the Lance Armstrong era.

And considering the extent to which a culture of doping dominated the sport over so many years, from the top teams through to those at the bottom, everything possible must be done to reveal the truth in order for the sport to come to terms with its past, to learn from such a horrific era and to ensure the sport never falls victim to such institutional wrongdoing ever again.

The risk of future revelations of cycling’s past would risk tipping the sport beyond the point of redemption. And therefore Team Sky’s policy fails to tackle the problem on three levels.

First, it fails to provide sufficient incentives for past cheats to confess, which risks endangering the sport further down the line.

Secondly, zero-tolerance fails to come to terms with the reality of an era in which so many cyclists and staff were coerced into doping just in order to survive.

And thirdly, it fails to recognise the value of having past dopers on the team who possess the knowledge and awareness of doping activity and might therefore be invaluable in preventing such practices from occurring in the future.

Under Sky’s rules, team members are faced with the decision whether to confess in the name of rebuilding the sport’s reputation or to keep the ‘code of silence’ – known as the ‘omerta’ – in order to protect their personal reputation. Not all riders have the moral courage or the financial stability to self-sacrifice for the greater good of cycling.

Team Sky’s zero-tolerance policy is only adding to an individual’s incentive to maintain the omerta, while a truth and reconciliation approach adds to the incentive of confessing.

Brailsford’s hard-line stance to dealing with cycling’s past appears brave, bold and even heroic on the face of it.

But when one considers the extent to which doping became part and parcel of the sport – so much so that Armstrong’s former masseuse Emma O’Reilly said taking performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) “was like putting your socks on in the morning” – it becomes clear that the policy fails to acknowledge the institutional culture of doping and the intense pressure placed on riders to take PEDs.

This sounds hard to accept to begin with – how can anyone defend athletes who have intentionally cheated? And indeed some riders, such as Sky’s former sporting director De Jongh, have admitted they chose to dope out of their own volition.

But the overall picture that has emerged from Usada’s report paints a picture that being a clean rider during the Armstrong era was the exception to the norm and this was due to a deeply entrenched doping culture that gave riders little chance of success without taking illegal substances. As Brailsford
has said himself, these cyclists lived in an era in which more people chose to dope than did not.

The French cyclist Christophe Bassons, who was known as Monsieur Propre (Mr. Clean), told BBC Radio 5Live’s Peddlers: Cycling’s Dirty Truth documentary how he was offered a 1,000 per cent salary rise from his team manager at Festina in 1998 if he used EPO and growth hormone. He refused this offer, which would have seen his monthly income rise from €4,500 to €45,000.

Bassons was in a very small minority who had the courage to decide not to dope. Yet when he decided to speak out against the prominence of PEDs in the sport during the 1999 Tour de France, he was singled out not only by his rivals but by his own team-mates and fellow countrymen, who united in the peloton on the following day’s race to deny him support as he broke away to try and win the stage. He quit the sport and became ill with depression, all because he had the moral courage not to cheat.

Therefore, it is not hard to realise why so many riders succumbed to the temptation to dope and why for many it was a matter of sustaining their livelihood.

Matt DeCanio told of his moral dilemma when cycling for a small team in Tuscany. The team’s general manager would get furious, DeCanio recalled, when his riders failed to win races and would force them to take PEDs or face the prospect of being dropped or even sacked.

Tyler Hamilton spoke about how it took 1,000 days until a professional cyclist in the peloton hit the ‘fork in the road’, at which point he would be forced to decide whether to take PEDs. He said you reached a stage where you became “sick and tired of getting your butt kicked by people you know you’re better than” and submitted to cheating in order to be able to compete.

Team Sky’s zero-tolerance policy therefore fails to acknowledge the degree to which cyclists were under pressure to dope, many of whom became reluctant products of a deeply embedded culture which was too powerful to stand up to and the consequences of rebuffing often too severe to contemplate.

To deny these riders any form of restorative justice and instead force them out of their team is a punishment that does not fit the crime.

And finally, cycling needs the experience and knowledge of past dopers and support staff who facilitated the doping to ensure the sport’s future is clean.

The former team owner of HTC-Highroad, Bob Stapleton, believed it was these people who should become part of the solution, and that is why he hired confessed doper Rolf Aldag as sports director. His experience, Stapleton said, would help young athletes learn to compete in a clean environment.

If cycling is truly going to rebuild its reputation as a clean sport, it must first come to terms with its past.

Its teams and authorities must unite and do all they can to encourage all information about past wrongdoing to be revealed. Without the truth there is no opportunity for reconciliation.

Team Sky’s zero-tolerance approach is neither encouraging truth nor facilitating reconciliation, and therefore hampers the opportunity for cycling to not only learn the full lessons of its past but also the prospect of recovering its reputation as a sport of integrity and fair play.

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