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Hoberman Q&A: Outlining corruption, doping collusion at the IOC, UCI

  • By Mark Johnson
  • Published Jan. 4, 2013
  • Updated Oct. 30, 2014 at 1:34 PM EST
Dr. John Hoberman sees a long, sordid history limiting current efforts to clean up cycling and world sport. Photo: Gerry McManus | Change Cycling Now


VN: As a historian, what do you think the Independent Commission should know to make sense of the UCI’s relationship, if there is one, to systematic doping?
JH: First, the three commission members must understand that the world’s most powerful sports bureaucrats have facilitated or accommodated doping for decades. When the IOC reported no positive drug tests from the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games, this nonsensical claim was greeted with the ridicule it deserved. Unofficial screening by the IOC doping expert Manfred Donike indicated testosterone doping by 20 percent of all athletes tested — male and female — at the Moscow Games. But when FIFA reported in 2010 not a single positive test over four consecutive World Cup competitions (1998-2010), not one protest was heard. The fact that FIFA chief medical officer Jiri Dvorak sits on WADA’s Health, Medical & Research Committee is only a detail in the context of the WADA-FIFA relationship. (The chair of this committee is the ubiquitous Arne Ljungqvist.) Far more significant is the anti-doping kabuki WADA’s top officials have consented to perform in public with the hustler-apparatchik Sepp Blatter. For what all the little emperors — Samaranch, Nebiolo, Blatter, and others — have understood is that doping can be managed as a public-relations problem. Going through the motions of drug testing can be enough.

This is the most important type of evidence the UCI Independent Commission should consider as it tries to make sense of the conduct of the UCI in relation to the systematic doping of professional cyclists.

Finally, there is one more international-federation autocrat to deal with, and that is Hein Verbruggen (IOC 1996), currently the honorary president of the UCI. Verbruggen’s attitude toward doping was forcefully conveyed to a shocked Richard Pound (IOC 1978) in 1999: “Hein Verbruggen said to me: ‘If people were satisfied with the Tour de France being ridden at 25km/h, there wouldn’t be a doping problem. But if you want them to ride 42km/h, there’s only one way to do it: by doping.’ The president of the UCI actually said that to me.” (Here, Verbruggen is repeating the words of the five-time Tour de France champion Jacques Anquetil, who made this public statement in 1967.)

Verbruggen’s contempt for anti-doping initiatives and his claims of ignorance have also been stated publicly. When the Tour de France came under attack during the 1998 doping scandal, its organizers, team managers, and athletes reacted to this political and media assault as a community that was bent on defending its autonomy, its values and, not least, its survival as a profitable business operation. The president of the UCI, Hein Verbruggen, expressed his amazement at these events along with an evident resentment directed at certain members of his community who were speaking out about the doping subculture of professional cycling: “I was very shocked when I discovered what Festina was doing,” he said. “If that sort of thing were the rule, I would resign immediately. But I don’t trust these pseudo-doctors and frustrated former riders, who claim that the whole team is ‘involved’.”

Three years later, following a massive Italian police raid on riders’ hotel rooms during the 2001 Giro d’Italia, Verbruggen adopted the same position in defense of the cycling community and its doping practices. Just as in 1998, he expressed his understanding of the riders’ protest action against the enforcers of the law who, once again, had found substantial quantities of illegal performance enhancing drugs. “I can understand why the riders feel insulted,” he said. Defying the world’s disapproval, the UCI leader and his rank and file declared that the forces of law and order had invaded and defamed an honorable brotherhood.

In January 2000, in the wake of doping confessions by three Dutch riders: Steven Rooks, Maarten Ducrot and Peter Winnen, Verbruggen abruptly dismissed their claim that they had been prompted by ethical considerations: “With their confession, they have created an impression that doping was endemic inside their teams and that they had no other option. That is complete nonsense. A rider always bears the primary responsibility for doping. They could have said: ‘We’re not going to do it’. I have no respect for them.”

Verbruggen’s disdain is unconvincing because it ignores the economic facts of life he has acknowledged on other occasions, namely, the fact that that riders are workers who do not want to lose their jobs and who may well sue their federation to keep them. That is why the UCI opposed the two-year doping ban proposed by the IOC at its World Anti-Doping Conference in February 1999. The job security of professional athletes, according to this view, should not be contingent on their demonstrated abstinence from work-related drug use. At the same time, this sort of pragmatism does not accommodate ethical objections to doping, which are regarded as a gratuitous kind of nest-fouling that endangers the community as a whole.

The conflict between employment-related doping and official demands for drug-free sport has put cycling officials in a difficult position. On the one hand, UCI president Verbruggen found himself under pressure from the International Olympic Committee to adopt strict anti-doping penalties that would mean long periods of unemployment for riders who were caught doping — an initiative he helped to defeat at the World Anti-Doping Conference in 1999. It is also worth noting that he refused to accept any responsibility for the 1998 Tour scandal that occurred on his watch, despite the fact that UCI doping control had shown itself to be wholly ineffective. A year later, Verbruggen made it clear that the entire concept of doping control would have to adapt to the continuing medicalization of high-performance sport: “Society and sport are becoming increasingly adjusted to high-tech medical methods,” he said. “It’s an irreversible reality. The fight against doping has to adjust to that reality.”

The UCI regulations adopted in 1999 include a provision that would seem to invite the abuse of hormone therapy by the sort of physician who favors the doping of elite athletes: “Hormone supplementation is acceptable only if it is established that there has occurred an abnormal drop in the hormone level which modern medical knowledge regards as a continuing threat to the health of the athlete.” Such rationalizations are yet another expression of the informal but effective arrangement that sanitizes doping practices as medical routine.

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Mark Johnson

Mark Johnson

Writer-photographer Mark Johnson's work has been published in titles including VeloNews in the United States, Cycling Weekly in the UK, Vélo in France, and Ride Cycling Review in Australia as well as general-interest publications including The Wall Street Journal and the San Diego Union-Tribune. His book on the Garmin pro team, Argyle Armada, was published by VeloPress in 2012. A Cat. 2 road cyclist, Mark has bicycled across the United States twice and completed an Ironman triathlon. He graduated from UC San Diego and has a Ph.D. in English literature from Boston University. His other passion is surfing, which he does frequently from his home in Del Mar, California. Follow him on Twitter @ironstringmark.

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