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From the pages of Velo: Is amnesty the answer?

  • By Mark Johnson
  • Published Oct. 22, 2012
Velo November 2012

The challenges ahead

In some respects, the UCI has slowed progress in pro cycling. Focusing on niggling issues like seat angles, accepting $125,000 gifts from the very Armstrong they are supposed to be governing, and demonizing partner agencies like WADA and USADA for doing their part to rid the sport of its scourge of needles, the Swiss-based UCI could, from certain perspectives, be seen as an impediment to the sport.

So, could the UCI, like Armstrong, have a place in a truth and reconciliation process? Looking to Mandela for guidance, the answer is yes. The UCI could reveal its own past just as President F.W. De Klerk and his apartheid government did by participating in the truth and reconciliation process.

Speaking of De Klerk, Mandela said, “He had the courage to admit that a terrible wrong had been done. He had the foresight to understand and accept that all the people of South Africa must, through negotiations and as equal participants in the process, together determine what they want to make of their future.”

The TRC is a good model for cycling to follow for several reasons. First, it had the powers of subpoena, search, and seizure. This allowed the commission to directly question witnesses who did not apply for amnesty or otherwise agree to testify before the commission.

Judging from his history of shouting “witch hunt” when anyone pointed to an alternate explanation of the clean history he claims, it seems unlikely Armstrong would want to participate in a truth and reconciliation commission. But a commission with the muscle of subpoena power could compel the truth out of the erstwhile-Tour winner.

For those who would plead the Fifth, or refuse to testify, Tutu notes that “Many of them carry a burden of a guilt which would have been assuaged had they actively embraced the opportunities offered by the Commission; those who do not consciously acknowledge any sense of guilt are in a sense worse off than those who do.”

South Africa’s commission was also unique in that it held its hearings in public, often to a nation gripped by the images, words, and emotion flowing from their televisions.

As more people testified and witnessed others speaking the truth, the floodgates opened. Fear of retribution receded, a self-perpetuating cathartic effect took hold, and more than 22,000 people ultimately told their stories and some 6,000 applied for amnesty. This kind of public catharsis would have a powerful effect on the world of cycling.

Today in cycling, the truth is beginning to emerge; Museeuw, Jonathan Vaughters’ recent confessions, and Tyler Hamilton’s book The Secret Race come to mind. Yet, the great mass of pros that raced in the 1990s and 2000s still cower in silence. They are fearful of losing their jobs or coming under the crushing assault of attorneys — or going to jail in nations such as France or Italy, where doping is a felony.

To allay such fears, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission created a witness protection program. Knowing many pros are mindful of the dangers of testifying, a similar program could help ensure that pros are not intimidated into silence before they appear in front of a commission.

WADA director general David Howman said that while the WADA code does not cover amnesty, that fact did not preclude the agency from considering it. He noted, “You’re entering into uncharted territory, but we wouldn’t have found the rest of the world if we didn’t bother going into uncharted territory.”

One thing that South Africa had that cycling lacks, however, is revered leaders to run the commission. Tutu had won the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to create a democratic South Africa. And throughout his nearly three decades in a political prison, Mandela earned the respect of South Africans, both black and white. As president, Mandela gave the Truth and Reconciliation Commission a foundation of credibility and gravitas by personally endorsing and announcing its creation.

Pro cycling certainly has no Mandela, or Tutu.

Who might lead such a commission? Museeuw? Greg LeMond? Jonathan Vaughters? Sylvia Schenk? The important thing is that, whoever he or she is, they not live in a state of denial regarding cycling’s past, and that they show an unvarnished interest in guiding the sport out of the dark and into the light.

The potential for healing

Perhaps the greatest outcome of a TRC would be the adoption of a new frame of mind. De Klerk discussed this shift in his Nobel lecture: “It was not a sudden change, but a process — a process of introspection, of soul searching, of repentance… of acknowledgement of failed policies and the injustice it brought with it.” He continued, “This process brought us to the negotiating table where we could begin to develop the frame of mind and frameworks for peace.”

Exposing cycling’s nasty truths through a commission could bring about a similar change. A process of introspection and a wholesale public acknowledgment of the failed policies of pro cycling’s riders, governing bodies, and team managers could help end conventionalized drug use.

Today, pro cycling is at a pivotal point. Will it choose unvarnished truth, amnesty, and fence-mending, or continue a death spiral of recriminations, denials, and civil war between an old guard stuck in a defensive crouch and a new generation of riders and directors who believe the sport can succeed on a foundation of honesty?

South African Minister of Justice Dullah Omar wrote in 1995 that the commission would provide “a pathway, a stepping stone” that would help South Africa leave its conflicted past and progress toward a better future. A truth and reconciliation committee for pro cycling would not so much represent a goal in itself, but rather the starting point for a process that leads cycling to a future based on truth and transparency.

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