Last week two cyclists -– one a former drug cheat, the other a current day pro believed to be as clean as they come -– were speaking out for and against the idea of a Truth and Reconciliation (T&R) process for the sport of cycling. To think about it immediately you would imagine the drug cheat would be the one against it with the clean cut modern day pro desperate for the cheats that came before him to announce themselves so his generation could move on with their careers. But it isn’t so simple. Lance Armstrong is the retired/banned cheat; Mark Cavendish is the current pro.
To Cavendish it is the egos of the cheats that will ensure they don’t come clean and it’ll only open the door further on cycling’s skeletons, something that he and his fellow professionals will be left to deal with. He no doubt fears that sponsors and TV networks could walk away if more and more scandals are unveiled and further bad press heaped upon the sport. In Armstrong’s view the sport needs a T&R to move forward. He believes that to throw the door open on the said skeletons would be to clear it out once and for all and save the problems coming out in drips and drabs for the next decade, something that would be worse for cycling and its sponsors and TV networks.
I suppose it is safe to say that both have a point and the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle, as ever.
The only way I see a Truth & Reconciliation process working is if it happens quickly and at one go. Have everyone who has raced in the last twenty years meet for a private interview with the UCI and talk about what they experienced. Take those interviews and produce a complete document … a documented history of doping in cycling 1993-2013 as seen by the cyclists themselves and release it for us all to consume in one go. The bad press it would generate would be huge of course but it would be limited to the time it takes for the mainstream media to get distracted by something else allowing the sport to press on. Present it over a winter so that come the new season we’ve gotten over it and are ready to enjoy the racing rather than be distracted by it.
We could read it, digest it, learn from it, ensure the same mistakes are not repeated and then move ahead. The riders would have cleared their conscience at the same time and everyone would feel better.
Well, not so fast. How would you get everyone to willingly come forward? Is a retired professional who may have taken drugs but who never got caught taking drugs going to come forward and tell the truth? And what about active riders who tell the truth are they served with any form of punishment?
Lance thinks they should be and he thinks the punishment should be equal. Or in other words, that people like him shouldn’t be landed with life-time bans while those who testified against him get six months on the UCI naughty step. Armstrong must see the possibility of a T&R as his ticket back into competitive sport -– albeit sport that is well down the rung from the professional cycling he once competed in. He knows that if he’s offered a shorter ban -– one equal to the rest –- then he has plenty to tell them. It’s why he’s been coy on certain subjects in which he has been interviewed on. To have told it all to Oprah would have been to leave all his cards on the table and to leave him without a invite to any potential T&R party.
Lance is right though. The punishment should be equal. Where I differ on Lance is that there shouldn’t be any punishment at all. If there’s punishment to be dished out, a T&R would become impossible. Go back to the retired pro who may have cheated but was never caught. Why would he come forward if he risked getting results stripped? And what of the active pro? Would he want to open up on his transgressions only to serve a ban, receive a fine and risk unemployment for it?
Of course you could put in place some condition that if you are later found to have lied or if you didn’t tell everything (or anything) that a large penalty awaits you. But then again, the retired pro from yesteryear only has his reputation to gamble –- they can’t fine him or ban him -– so he might think it worth the risk whereas the professional of today would have more pressure on him. It only skews the playing field in similar way to which drugs did in the first place despite the illusion that it equaled it.
As someone once said, between the idea and the reality, falls the shadow. The idea of the T&R is great, but the reality of pulling it together is different altogether.
So what do they do?
Well, if they can’t pull everyone together for one big weekend of truth telling then the only thing they can do is let us make up our own minds and move on with our lives and our enjoyment of the sport.
Let me explain.
Most cycling fans by now have a fair idea as to how bad the sport got in what I now like to refer to as ‘the era’ -– that time between about 1990 and 2010 when blood doping become prevalent. In fact, we have more than ‘an idea’. I think it’s safe to say we know fine rightly that almost all of them were involved in some form of blood doping or another then -– certainly anyone with any degree of big-time success -– but that in recent years a corner has begun to be turned and steps have been taken to move things forward.
That isn’t to claim doping has been purged from cycling. Where there is money to be made and success to be gained there will always be cheating. Every sport has issues with performance enhancing drugs and probably always will to some degree or another, but should cycling continue to be singled out? Yes there will be some out there in the peloton still cheating, but you’d be deluded to think that it’s as bad as it was and that steps haven’t been taken in both testing and the culture of the peloton to change things.
And remember, this isn’t the testing of the Armstrong era when they couldn’t test for EPO and when they did little out of competition testing, but rather an anti-doping era that should be the envy of the sporting world. It’s time to accept the past is for what it was, that confirming what we know means for little and stripping results left right and centre would be to try and pretend that it never happened.
The younger generation of riders -– the vast majority at least -– are coming in with a different attitude. Even the old hands who might once have dabbled in the dirty stuff in a time when the culture of the sport left them with little choice if they wanted to make it -– like Ryder Hesjedal, Tom Danielson, David Miller, and so on –- have left it behind and turned over a new leaf. Heck even Alberto Contador looks a shadow of the former all-conquering grand tour rider we knew before he fell afoul of some bad beef at the 2011 Tour.
It all adds up to whether a T&R into the history of something we already know about is going to serve today’s peloton well if all it amounts to is another scandal and another opportunity for the mainstream media to point the finger at cycling as a joke sport despite the changes that have occurred in recent years. Can it be handled any other way? The more I think about it — the more I think of the impossibility of getting it all done in one foul swoop with everyone involved in the process — the more I doubt it.
Some people want a T&R not so much for the good of the sport but because they love a juicy scandal. Nothing would interest them more than for it to be dragged out over weeks and ideally around the same time of the Tour de France. Some people have become obsessed with the subject of drugs in cycling. Yet these self same people will watch other sports without raising so much as an eyebrow. You can see why Cavendish is also saying that other sports need to do something … why should it be cycling that is doing everything? An element exists on the likes of Twitter or comment sections of cycling related websites who care little for the sport itself but get off hardcore on the subject of doping in cycling. It’s pathetic and it’s what could ultimately drag down any potential good in a T&R session.
As a cycling fan first and foremost, the last thing I want to see is another scandal for the sake of another scandal. Not because I would prefer to ignore it, but because I don’t quite see the gain of going looking for it?
Heading into 2014 there’s so much to look forward to in the sport. It’s time to enjoy the racing like we can enjoy our other sports, to allow it to entertain us as it so often has this past season, and to let the anti-doping control worry about catching the cheats. If the last decade has taught us anything it’s that more often than not if you’re cheating, you’ll eventually get found out.
Yes, feel free to question what you see now and going forward, but don’t let it dominate your enjoyment of the sport. Truth and Reconciliation of cycling’s history is all well and good in theory if it ultimately draws a line in the sand allowing us to move on, but what it’s more likely to do is leave some with more questions unanswered and leave those seeking a cycling scandal with more wood on their bat with which to beat the sport. Cycling is a beautiful sport that brings so much more than just drug stories and scandalous speculation, and now more than ever it should be treated as such.