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A New Dawn In The War On Doping

Nov 6, 2012  - Craig Lord

The fallout from the Lance Armstrong doping scandal is striking at the very heart of international sport: the International Cycling Union (UCI) is being sued by an Australian-owned outfit for US$2 million and the Danish Cycling Union (DCU) is demanding that the UCI's Honorary President Hein Verbruggen, a member of the International Olympic Committee.

The latest twist is one that all sports will doubtless wish to sit up and heed.

Tom Lund, the President of the DCU, can count on widespread support if his claim is justified: Verbruggen, says the Danish boss, accepted US$100,000 from Armstrong, supposedly to help educate young cyclists about the dangers of drugs in August 2002.

If correct, the timing looks extremely damaging for Verbruggen. If it is true that the head of a sport accepted a huge payment, charitable or not, from an athlete who was the subject of anti-doping tests at the time, there is a serious conflict-of-interest case to answer. 

Beyond that, even murkier waters lie. Former Armstrong teammates, Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton, have both alleged under oath that in 2001 a positive drugs test involving Armstrong was covered up. The question hanging this side of proper inquiry and in light of what we now know about the American cyclists ring of deception, is: was a deal done between any athlete and any official at the helm of an IOC-affiliated federation?

Verbruggen was President of the UCI between 1991 and 2005. As an IOC member, an "honorary" at the UCI, a member of the current UCI Management Committee and a close associate of Pat McQuaid, the current UCI boss, the Dutchman remains highly influential.

"We think that Verbruggen must resign because as President he received a large amount of money from Lance Armstrong," Lund told the Deadline programme on DR2 television in Denmark. "We do not think it is correct that he hides a large money transfer from a racer who subsequently is investigated about meeting the rules of the sport."

The legal action hailing from Skins, an Australian-owned and Swiss-based sports kit company, claims that McQuaid and Verbruggen are responsible for a "total loss of confidence in professional cycling by the public". As such, the firm is taking legal action against the UCI.

Jaimie Fuller, chairman of Skins, says that the UCI - with a finger pointing very much at those in charge - "failed to eradicate cheating". 

Fullers says: "The events of the last several months have made it abundantly clear that world cycling has not been the sport the general public and the corporate partners thought it was.

"Consequently, as chairman of a company that has made a significant financial and emotional investment, I am acting in order to send a message to the UCI and its senior office bearers that gross mismanagement and betrayal of trust is completely unacceptable.

"The recent report from the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) which blew the lid off Lance Armstrong's systematic control of widespread doping, proved that the UCI its two leading figures, Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen, have failed to eradicate cheating within the sport.

"In fact, Mr McQuaid and Mr Verbruggen refused to even acknowledge that the problem was so entrenched until USADA forced them into submission. In short, we say that the UCI, Mr McQuaid and Mr Verbruggen have failed us, the sport and the public who love cycling."

Skins are using the same law firm, Cedric Aguet, as Paul Kimmage, the former cyclist and writer who was being sued by McQuaid and Verbruggen but is now suing back. You can read more from Fuller over at insidethegames.

A shift in culture is on the wind, whether through genuine desire, legal necessity or a combination of both. 

The latest twist in the legal wrangles in the world of cycling is one of a number of developments set to change the direction of the fight against doping. This past week, the Australian Olympic Committee moved closer to making all Australian Olympic team members sign a legal document stating they have no doping history, to prevent the AOC from ever having "egg on its face like cycling has", in the words of Aussie Olympic boss John Coates. 

A long time coming, notes one newspaper column Down Under. In an article that retraces the source of doping and official acceptance of cheating as a way forward, the research of Francesco Conconi is recalled. He focused on tracing techniques for doping substances but was ultimately better known for his doping record: he is said to have introduced Erythropoietin (EPO, the blood booster) to cycling and led an official campaign to have Italy follow the GDR model of cheating to achieve international success in a number of sports, including swimming.

You can read more on Conconi and the woeful tale of how Italy considered how it might fight GDR fire with fire or its own in several places, Wikipedia's version providing links to others sources.

The Olympic committee in Italy (CONI) back then is said to have accepted an offer from Conconi to develop his work as part of a plan to fuel Italian sports success with banned methods and substances across a number of sports, swimming included. 

Timing and culture are important issues here: around the same time, Christiane Knacke, the first woman ever to break the minute over 100m butterfly and a medallist at the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games, was preparing to quit the sport and did so knowing that she had refused to continue to take the substances that had helped get her below the minute. She was, for want of better words, black-balled from the system in the GDR, the truth rendering her persona non grata.

Some ten years on, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, she took her medals and tried to return them to the IOC, telling then IOC president Juan Samaranch that she no longer wanted to keep her prizes because she and the world now knew how they had been won. Knacke (long since married and living life under another name) claims that the IOC president pushed the medals back to her across a desk and told her to keep them because, as the IOC realised, many had doped at the time. 

If that was the case, the head of the IOC would have not only have been resigned to doping in sport but at the same time would have clearly accused many athletes and medallists who we assume achieved what they achieved clean of getting to where they got by ill means. An interesting thought given that there is a total lack of evidence that that was the case, the oft-used justification used by the IOC and other federations for remaining silent in the face of dubious performance.

Back in Italy in the 1980s, according to Sandro Donati, a coach of the middle distance running team from 1981 onwards, "blood doping" was in,  Conconi's research was financed by his nation's Olympic Committee, the dark side of that work put dozens upon dozens of cyclists through a doping programme, one that included several Conconi assistants such as Michele Ferrari, the Italian doctor and coach issued in July this year with a USADA lifetime sports ban for numerous anti-doping violations including possession, trafficking, administration and assisting doping.

In Italian law, it all led to this: in 2004, an Italian judge found Conconi "morally guilty" for events that took place before the mid-1990s. The cyclists concerned were let off because of the applicable statute of limitations.

Much water under the bridge in the world of sport since, including the fall of the GDR, the rise and shaming of China in the 1990s in swimming and track and field, among other sports. Lawyers have seen a new opportunity of late: now, they can make big cases not only from defending athletes accused of doping but representing those who found something rotten in the State of Denmark, as the bard put it so well.

As the UCI is learning right now, a new era is dawning: one in which federations and any others deemed to have protected cheats will face multi-million-dollar claims. At the heart of the arguments, we find a simple thought and a contradiction that those in charge of world sport need to throw into the bin of dubious historic results and outcomes: sport does not need doping to be spectacular; sport officially states "you shall not cheat with X, Y and Z", so any who step back from that position, turn a blind eye or put their own hand in the cookie jar are clearly in default of their own rules and should step down without hesitation.