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Commentary: Knowledge is power and this man can fix pro cycling

  • By Mark Johnson
  • Published Jun. 4, 2013
Lance Armstrong's knowledge of the rampant doping culture gives him power to drive a truth and reconciliation process for cycling. Photo: Joel Saget | AFP

Though his reputation and titles are stripped, Lance Armstrong still possesses knowledge, and that gives him power to transform pro cycling.

Armstrong recently said he would be the first to participate in a truth and reconciliation commission to push pro cycling toward a cleaner, more stable future. While Velo magazine has explored what a truth and reconciliation commission might look like, we have not yet considered the consequences of Armstrong going full monty with the truth.

By speaking frankly about his career to a truth and reconciliation commission, Armstrong could unpack the black box of doping in cycling: the doctors, the traffickers, the coaches and managers, the collusions among corporate and government enablers, and the methods to avoid testing positive.

While a few riders and journalists have exposed bits and pieces of this system, Armstrong could detonate it.

His unguarded narrative could provide an exploded drawing of both the performance-enhancing system that has ruled the sport since the 1990s and how its components are related. We could learn about the levers of power extending from cycling’s ruling personalities and financiers, the personal and public gears they engage with, and the social and legal bolts and O-rings that keep the system sealed.

Amnesty would provide the white space that separates and suspends all the parts in an understandable view. And while some argue amnesty is too steep a price for transparency, that quarrel springs from short-term thinking — a vision that crashes a clean, stable cycling future on the whiny rocks of retribution.

University of Texas professor John Hoberman has detailed for VeloNews how corruption and collusion among Olympic organizing bodies can turn doping into a public relations problem rather than one of health and fair play.

So far, organizing a truth and reconciliation commission is not forthcoming from the leaders and enforcers who call the cycling shots — the world’s governing body, the UCI, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, the World Anti-Doping Agency, even Tour de France owner ASO. Knowing that the sport’s managers have their heads in the sand, Armstrong should spend a day in a room with Hoberman. Jonathan Vaughters should be there, too. Putting their collective insights together, this threesome could figure out how to make a TRC happen in spite of the passive resistance from the sport’s ruling bodies.

A tenured professor, Hoberman does not rely on the good graces of the cycling industry to pay his mortgage. Unfettered from the cycling establishment, he can provide perspectives on how to move forward that are not curbed by relationships with the very pro cycling power structure a TRC could shatter. Some from inside the Change Cycling Now protest group, with whom Hoberman met late in 2012, have pointed, in private, to him as one of few men without a hidden agenda beyond cleaning up Olympic sport.

“You need a zero hour where the power elite has basically imploded,” Hoberman told VeloNews. Armstrong’s hour of implosion has come and gone. But his knowledge, if unleashed, could bring about that zero hour, that deep reset, that cycling wants and needs.

The UCI’s lack of leadership on conveying a truth and reconciliation commission — and its dismantling of an independent commission it briefly convened to investigate its own role in the Armstrong doping era — suggests that its preferred path of action is to do nothing until memories of the Armstrong era fade. That strategy worked after the 1998 Festina Affaire, and the UCI’s passivity indicates it hopes it will again.

Armstrong can short-circuit this self-protective passivity by getting in front of the UCI and agitating for a TRC.

In How The Good Guys Finally Won, journalist Jimmy Breslin’s book on U.S. congressman Tip O’Neill’s leadership leading up to Richard Nixon’s 1974 presidential resignation, Breslin writes that O’Neill’s great political weapon was his understanding that “All political power is primarily an illusion. If people think you have power, then you have power.” Breslin goes on to quote English philosopher Thomas Hobbes: “The reputation of power is power.”

More than a retired athlete, Armstrong possesses knowledge that may to strip the reputations of the pro cycling overseers who have steered the sport during its most decrepit era. Tip O’Neill’s leadership exposed Nixon’s lying and that led the president to a single option: resign, because impeachment was next. Given a full view of Nixon’s public lies regarding his involvement with Watergate, the people who had reelected him in a landslide in 1972 withdrew their confidence in under two years. His power shattered with the public reputation that created it.

Triggered by Armstrong’s own truth telling, a truth and reconciliation commission would reveal which members of cycling’s leadership deserve to keep their good reputations. Though still not easy in an Olympic-governing system designed for self-preservation, it would become within the realm of plausibility to oust those who lost the illusion of power, and with them decades of toxic Omertá. Indeed, should the reputation of the UCI and its national governing bodies collapse during a truth-telling process, it becomes a reasonable proposition that pro cycling sprint ahead without them.

We have nothing to be afraid of, nothing to fear, we are not hiding anything from the work we did during that period,” UCI president Pat McQuaid said of his and Hein Verbruggen’s work at the UCI during the dirtiest decades in cycling history. The claim that the Armstrong era is a mistake-free UCI success defies logic. And the UCI’s recent rustlings about planning to make recommendations on its movements during Armstrong’s reign is like starting a bike ride with hands clenched on both brakes; a plan to recommend does not suggest much revolution ahead. Such delaying tactics in the face of cycling’s greatest scandal is a call for outside forces — beginning with Armstrong — to unveil the inner workings of cycling’s governing bodies.

Once Armstrong starts a cascade of truth, the UCI and officials at national governing bodies in dope-affected countries like the United States, France, Spain, and Italy will be forced to decide: either participate in a truth and reconciliation commission, or be reframed as stonewallers rather than leaders. It will be their Tip O’Neill moment. Either way they decide, in his knowledge, Armstrong possesses the power to help put their reputations of power up to a litmus test of truth.

By combining his first-person understanding of the doping system with Hoberman’s larger view of the global context that allows doping to thrive inside and outside of professional sports, Armstrong could create a plan of action that is not naïve to larger economic, social, and political realities — the sort of socio-political forces that, if ignored, could nullify cycling’s efforts to reform. Forces, for example, like complicating factors such as the tradition of nations (including the U.S.) doing anything it takes to win medals while paying lip service to doping laws, or the enormous marketing budgets pharmaceutical companies use to make performance-enhancing drugs — think Viagra or Botox — a natural part of our lives.

As for Vaughters, he brings an on-the-ground awareness of cycling’s current political forces and power plays along with the credibility that comes with having founded its longest-lasting dope-free team. And unlike the other pro cycling managers who cling to an unrealistic, omerta-enshrining policy that anyone ever involved with doping should self-fire themselves, Vaughters is a pragmatist. He understands that without humility and understanding of past mistakes, we will repeat them. Rather than shunning anyone who has sinned, Vaughters is a realist willing to work with those (like David Millar) who turn genuine repentance into fuel to forge a cleaner future.

The creation of a TRC could also go a long way toward moving cycling to the sort of franchise system that economically stabilizes most every other significant professional sport today. This matters because doping and economic fragility are cycling bedfellows.

If you put in two columns the stakeholders who are for a modernized cycling business and those who are against it, the list of people who enjoy the status quo is short: the Tour de France-owning ASO, which benefits from the current chaotic state of affairs because neither riders nor teams are organized enough to demand a share of the Tour revenue they create, and the UCI, whose leadership never has to answer to an accountability-demanding bloc of riders or team owners. On the other side, many riders, rider agents, team owners, progressive race organizers like Giro d’Italia head Michele Acquarone, and weary team sponsors are for eager for the economic, scandal-free stability that would emerge from truth and reconciliation.

It is reasonable to protest that Armstrong’s interest in a TRC is self-serving. It’s just a fraud’s ploy to race his bike, the argument goes — and it’s a well-founded point, considering Armstrong’s traditional, long-distance relationship with truth. And yet, veracity comes out of a TRC process precisely because amnesty is granted to those who reveal the dark deeds of their past. That’s the deal you make to build a better future built on reconciliation and understanding. Granting Armstrong amnesty and the eventual right to race again as an aging masters triathlete in trade for his transparency would also send a message to other cowering dopers — speaking honesty to a TRC is a decision worth making. In fact, it is a screaming good trade in exchange for blasting out decades of rot.

But Armstrong can’t provide a half-exploded view of the system that enabled his successes. The antiseptic light of truth must be unsparing, absolute. And whether he is candid about the actions of the medical and business partners who helped build his career would be a test of his commitment to moving cycling forward. Should he shield his closest confidants, the world will know the limits of his courage. However, the fact that Armstrong’s corporate sponsors have separated themselves affords him more freedom to speak than ever. He already lost their income; by revealing any role sponsors had in financing doping or forcing employees to shield that cheating, Armstrong stands to shed his reputation as a dissembler.

Our best teacher is our last mistake. Armstrong, like many in cycling over the last few decades, made plenty of those. Whether he learns from his errors depends on what legacy he wants to leave. If he does not use his knowledge to unpack the sport’s evil ways, 100 years from now he’ll be a footnote in history — a sepia-toned sporting fraud. Should he use his reservoir of knowledge to ignite a firestorm of truth, he could be remembered as the man who reformed himself into a force of good.

A century after his death in 1902, we don’t remember Cecil Rhodes for this unrepentant racism, his vicious use of the white man’s burden as justification for appropriating vast chunks of Africa (yes, Rhodesia), or the sleazy business betrayals he used to corner the diamond market with his De Beers empire. We think of Rhodes Scholars, those world-changing students who benefit from his legacy of full rides to Oxford University.

Likewise, most don’t picture John D. Rockefeller as the ruthless Standard Oil robber baron who monopolized energy markets. Nor do we think of Rockefeller the vicious union-buster behind 1914’s Ludlow Massacre, when he hired militia to machine-gun striking miners, wives, and children in Colorado. Instead, we know the man reincarnated by the legacy of the Rockefeller foundations, which set the standard for industrial-scale philanthropy and have improved the lives of millions through largesse to medicine and education.

Rhodes and Rockefeller emerged from dark pasts to become forces of spectacular good. So can Armstrong. Though he doesn’t always call on it when he should, his past tells us he has enough raw courage. He used it to both pull himself from a cancer grave and to forge a stunning cycling career out of hardscrabble Texas beginnings.

Today, opportunity knocks for Armstrong. He can direct that valor toward instigating and honestly participating in a cycling truth and reconciliation commission. It’s a big, hairy, audacious task that will shock and piss off a lot of people— just the type to appeal to Armstrong’s essential character.

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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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