A chance encounter at an airport, a heated exchange of words and hastily issued challenge… and the cycling world may never be the same.
UCI president Hein Verbruggen on Friday announced plans to resign his post at the end of June – on the eve of the world’s premier cycling event – and hand the reins of the organization over to his arch nemesis, World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) boss Dick Pound.
“I think it’s clear that I don’t like the man,” Verbruggen said at a press conference at UCI headquarters in Aigle, Switzerland, on Friday, “but, frankly, this is not about my liking or disliking Pound. It has everything to do with him shooting off his mouth at every opportunity, criticizing the work of this organization and implying that he could do a better job than I can… well, I say ‘Prove it, Dick,’ and remarkably, he’s taken the challenge.”
Verbruggen recounted a meeting earlier in the week at Los Angeles International Airport in which he and Pound apparently made the arrangement after what some observers characterized as vicious public spat outside of the United Airlines first-class lounge at LAX.
Pound, apparently incensed over remarks the UCI president made about him a few days earlier at the world track championships, spotted Verbruggen conducting an interview with a reporter from the French sports daily L’Equipe and began to berate the Dutchman.
The reporter, Pierre Varineau, later wrote that the two men were soon both “red-faced” and shouting.
“I was surprised,” Varineau said, “because I remember these two men working very well together at the IOC (International Olympic Committee) in the past. Something in the relationship has changed and changed for the worse.”
Pound, said Varineau, was especially angry over Verbruggen’s “half-assed” effort to rid cycling of its drug problem.
At the Friday press conference, Verbruggen said the dialogue was “much more civilized than Mr. Varineau suggests in today’s L’Equipe,” but conceded that he “no longer (has) a friendly relationship” with Pound.
“And that’s the whole point of this,” Verbruggen said. “I’ve been planning to leave in September anyway. I have other goals in the IOC and other responsibilities to meet. This is, after all, a purely volunteer position.
“So Pound has run around for years saying how little we’ve done to improve the situation and I finally grew sick of it,” Verbruggen said. “Essentially I told him that he was a windbag and that he couldn’t do better if he was in my shoes.”
Pound, contacted by VeloNews at WADA’s headquarters in Montréal, agreed with Verbruggen’s summary of the encounter.
“I laughed when he said we couldn’t do a better job,” Pound said. “Hell, all we’ve been thinking about since we started this agency is cycling and doping in cycling. Think about it. What was it that got WADA started in the first place? That Festina thing at the 1998 Tour de France… Hein has had seven years to do something and what has he done? Look at the number of doping cases in cycling just last year. It’s pathetic.
“So, yes, I told him I could do better in a heartbeat,” Pound continued. “I must have gotten under his skin, because suddenly he screams out ‘Well then prove it, you sonofabitch!’ and I suddenly realized that I had an opportunity to make big strides in the effort… in a sense, he’d backed himself into a corner and I knew he’s a stubborn enough character so he wouldn’t back down… so I took him up on it.”
Pound said he plans to on take the job only through the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
“If I can’t get this sport cleaned up by then, no one can,” said Pound . In Aigle, Verbruggen said that the move must still be ratified by the UCI management committee. He said he expected to organize an emergency conference call late Friday to recommend Pound’s “elevation” to UCI President, effective June 30. Approval is expected to be a formality, given Pound’s stature and standing within international sport. While it might seem strange that the leadership succession plans of an elite international sports federation could be altered by a fight in an airport, observers were quick to point out that Verbruggen’s own plans for succession at the UCI were getting murky.
Quietly anointed Verbruggen’s successor two years ago, Irishman and fellow management committee member Pat McQuaid had been facing increasing obstacles internally to getting the top job, particularly from Eastern European governing bodies.
The reaction to Pound’s appointment has been mixed.
Contacted at home, Tour de France director Jean-Marie Leblanc, actually welcomed the news, saying Pound’s integrity and business savvy “might be just we need to rescue the sport.”
“I shouldn’t be saying this because we could become competitors, but Pound may be the only person who can save this silly ProTour thing,” Leblanc said “The UCI has increased costs and regulations for the 20 teams but not given them anything tangible in return, like a real TV package. That is what Pound excelled at before he went off to head WADA.”
Indeed, earlier in the week, Pound had taken up an old post at the IOC’s marketing committee for precisely that reason. Pound is largely credited with negotiating record Olympic television revenues with NBC and other broadcasters.
The reaction from rider’s union head Francesco Moser was less enthused.
“You’re kidding, right?” Moser said when told of the deal. “He’s a racer’s nightmare; The devil himself come to life to make misery for cyclists. This is worse than the Spanish Inquisition with regard to our membership. He takes a ‘guilty until proven innocent’ approach that will ruin the sport. To be honest, my first thought is that the racers ought to break away from the UCI and set up their own federation and rules.”
That option, however, would mean that cycling has little future as an Olympic sport and one that Pound, therefore, dismisses.
“They’ll be on board and they’ll eventually be clean,” Pound said.
Pound noted that he has no plans to step down as head of WADA, “since half my time is spent chasing guys on bikes anyway.”
Verbruggen laughed off Pound’s “brash over-confidence” and said that the Canadian’s tone will change in the coming years.
“Wait until he gets a reality check,” Verbruggen said. “Lawyers, liability issues, questions of fairness… he gets to deal with all of that stuff now. I’ve grown tired of being caught in the middle and now it’s the sheriff’s turn. We’ll see how he does at this.”
Concerned about the sudden shift in direction for the UCI? Are youall for it? Voice your opinion soon by sending letters to WebLetters@InsideInc.com.