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Who are those guys?

  • By Charles Pelkey
  • Published Apr. 29, 2009
  • Updated Nov. 3, 2009 at 11:48 PM EDT

By Charles Pelkey

Who gave the UCI its authority?

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Dear Explainer,
My question is a combination of a rant and query. I just read about the UCI’s decision not to allow the Astana team to ride the Tour of the Gila and it got me wondering. Who made them the boss? Under what authority are they acting and who gave them that authority? These are the bozos who allowed Graeme Obree to ride and then declared his bike wasn’t “legal.” LEGAL?!?! I don’t remember seeing anyone make a law.

What’s more, where do WADA and USADA get the power to tell riders they can or cannot ride for “doping violations?” I’m a Tyler Hamilton fan and was disappointed when he retired, apparently because he violated some dumb-ass rule about a drug that doesn’t seem to have any benefit?

Who gave them the power to make decisions like that? I sure don’t remember voting.
Phillip Anderson
Wilmette, Illinois

Good day, Phillip,
Well it looks like someone here has a problem with authority, don’t they?

Seriously, your letter raises some very interesting questions about the history of governance in this and other sports. As you might already know, the UCI – or USA Cycling or someone else with a keen (but selective) eye on the rulebook – ruled that while Astana can’t ride at Gila, three of its riders may. But all of that maneuvering and juggling begs the next question, namely (to quote one of my favorite old movies) “who are those guys?”

Well, it’s not like the clouds parted one day and the ghost of Fausto Coppi descended from the heavens, touched Hein Verbruggen’s grandfather and endowed him with the authority to rule cycling for eternity, but it’s almost like that. Instead of God or Fausto’s ghost, there is – at least as far as the sporting world is concerned – a far more powerful entity and that is (cue heavenly choir) the International Olympic Committee.

The quest for power

As appears to be the tradition in such matters, the UCI was created, at least in part, because of a turf war with the old international governing body, the International Cycling Association. The ICA itself had emerged from a British-based governing body, the National Cyclists Union, the progeny of something else known as the Bicycle Union. So, to summarize, the Bicycle Union begat the National Cyclists Union, which begat the ICA, which sorta begat the UCI. All of that begetting began before the turn of the last century and, to make a long story short, the UCI emerged from the rubble in 1900, when the national governing bodies of Italy, Switzerland, France, Belgium and, yes, the United States, formed a group in opposition to the ICA.

The rogue breakaway group played its politics quite well and soon earned the blessings of the IOC, itself a relatively new organization that had emerged from its own rather convoluted turf wars. (Seriously, if you are at all into this stuff, the record of competing sports organizations at that time reads almost like a history of the Russian revolution, with a host of ad hoc alliances all fighting for primacy in what ultimately became a super-power in the world of sports.)

The UCI quickly set about consolidating its position, naming Belgian Emile de Beukelaer as its first president. Within three years, the British – who had allied themselves with the declining fortunes of the ICA – came to Paris on their knees, presumably kissing De Beukelaer’s ring and the UCI’s take-over of the sport was pretty much complete.

In the ensuing years, the UCI moved its headquarters to Lausanne, Switzerland, probably to be closer to the corridors of IOC power, where it solidified its role as the governing body of road and track racing, later assuming control of cyclocross, mountain bike racing, BMX and even some truly odd variants of the sport known as “cycle ball” and “artistic cycling.”

Back in 2004, the UCI left Lausanne for new – and much fancier – digs in nearby Aigle. It’s a nice place, complete with a velodrome and dormitories for riders invited to train at the UCI’s World Cycling Center. If you’re ever in the neighborhood, it really is worth checking out.

Politburo or parliament?

With the full power of the IOC behind them, the masters of the UCI can pretty much craft rules as they see fit. While the UCI management committee is a purportedly democratic organization, composed of representatives from around the world, it really is run more like a politburo than a parliament. Many of the major decisions are made behind closed doors, often well in advance of the committee meetings, and the process leaves little room for debate.

Personally, I like rules, especially when it comes to sporting events. Governing bodies, too, are a necessary evil, if for no other reason than to provide consistency. The problems arise when politics, money, egos and other factors come into play and some rules are enforced to the letter and others are not. In a lot of ways, the UCI does a pretty good job, although that whole Hein Verbruggen-created ProTour debacle was – to put it charitably – somewhat ill-conceived.

The Olympic movement is something of the 800-pound gorilla when it comes to sport. Without its blessings, governing bodies are either ignored and an IOC-sanctioned counterpart runs the show, or the sport is simply excluded from the Games. Of course, in the case of some sports, they do just fine without the IOC. The United States’ National Football League, Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association operate independently – and quite profitably – outside the auspices of the Olympic movement.

Lest you think I’ve overstated the Machiavellian character of the IOC, I would recommend a very interesting look at the politics of the organization, in Andrew Jennings’ and Vyv Simpson’s book “The Lords of the Rings: Power, Money and Drugs in the Modern Olympics.” Indeed, I believe there is now a sequel to that 1992 edition, but I haven’t read it.

Here in the U.S., the organization which – via the UCI – has been blessed by the IOC, is that happy-go-lucky bunch in Colorado Springs we all know and love as “USA Cycling.” Actually, the history of that august body rivals that of the UCI. For an admittedly biased – but intelligent and fascinating – perspective on some of those battles, visit Les Earnest’s archive of his old Cyclops USA newsletter. It makes for interesting reading.

The dope cops

Now, to your final question, Phillip. How did WADA get its authority? Well, where else? From the IOC, of course.

Remarkably, however, the World Anti-Doping Agency was created when the IOC admitted that it was incapable of handling both sports governance and the conflicting responsibility of anti-doping enforcement.

As you might recall, the whole thing was caused by the revelation that cycling had a drug problem. I know, we were shocked, too. Back in 1998, when the French police stopped the Tour de France-issued Fiat wagon driven by Festina soigneur Willy Voet and found it to be loaded with enough medical supplies to stock a small hospital, we saw the beginning of what came to be known as L’Affaire Festina, the scandal that nearly stopped the Tour in its tracks.

The following February, after then IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch made some really boneheaded statements about what does and does not constitute doping, the organization held what appeared to be a PR-driven conference on the subject. This time, possibly due to some heavy behind-the-scenes politicking, the IOC admitted the error of its ways and handed all of its anti-doping duties off to an independent organization, the newly created World Anti-Doping Agency.

Indeed, a lot of us who were at that first conference greeted the move with skepticism. It was, after all, to be headed by an IOC vice president, Dick Pound from Canada. What we didn’t really consider was the fact that Pound, once regarded as Samaranch’s heir-apparent, had been passed over for consideration as IOC president. No matter what you think of the guy, Pound did succeed in drawing a bright line of separation from the IOC. He has managed to anger many – if not most – of the above-mentioned “Lords of the Rings,” most notably former UCI president Hein Verbruggen (which, to be completely honest, provided many of us with a great deal of entertainment).

WADA – and its national counterparts, like the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency – operate quite separately from the Olympic movement. I personally think that Pound deserves a lot of the credit for that. The post-Festina world really did require someone to make it clear that that the two functions – governance and anti-doping regulation – were distinctly separate. While Pound’s approach of speaking loudly and carrying a big stick may have rubbed many the wrong way, I don’t think you can accuse the guy of being an IOC puppet during his tenure.

While independent, the agencies do still manage to wield the power of the IOC, in that they get much of their authority from the fact that the governing bodies have been forced to sign on to the World Anti-Doping Code and governments around the world – under threat of never being able to host an Olympic or world championship event – have signed on to an international treaty known as the “International Convention Against Doping in Sport.”

As for the list of drugs on the banned list, the selection is governed by WADA, with input from WADA-funded research into performance-enhancement. While Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) itself may be of dubious performance-enhancing value, it is among a list of substances that qualify as testosterone precursors. The rules clearly state that any of those are banned if they are found to have come from exogenous sources. In Hamilton’s case, the test showed that he tested positive “for testosterone or its precursors,” a point he conceded when he announced his retirement.

So there you have it, Phillip, a thumbnail sketch of where these guys get their authority. They have that authority … well, because the IOC said so.


Email Charles Pelkey


“The Explainer” is a regular feature on VeloNews.com. If you have a question related to the sport of cycling that our editors might be able to answer, feel free to send your query to WebLetters@CompetitorGroup.com and we’ll take a stab at answering. Not all letters will be published and some questions may be combined with those of other readers. Please include your full name and hometown.

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