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USADA’s Tygart: UCI playing ‘stall game’ in cleaning up cycling

  • By Mark Johnson
  • Published Jun. 7, 2013
UCI President Pat McQuaid has not been transparent in an effort to clean up cycling's doping culture, said USADA CEO Travis Tygart. Photo: Wil Matthews | VeloNews.com

SAN DIEGO (VN) — Eight months after the release of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s Reasoned Decision that led to the downfall of Lance Armstrong, USADA CEO Travis Tygart is concerned that no larger truth-telling process has begun as a result of that report.

In July 2012, the USADA sent UCI president Pat McQuaid a letter supporting the notion of a truth and reconciliation commission for pro cycling. In December, the USADA delivered the UCI a draft framework for that commission. No UCI action followed.

Today, nearly a year after USADA first encouraged the UCI to take the lead on creating a TRC — a process the UCI itself also endorsed — VeloNews spoke with Tygart to find out why no progress has been made.

“We’ve been pushing since day one of this investigation for a broad solution, a process, to fully unshackle the sport from its dirty past and drug-infested, corrupt culture and put it on a new foundation to move it forward,” Tygart said.

Tygart said a period of truth and reconciliation would draw a hard line between dirty cycling times — which recent Giro d’Italia busts show are still with us — and an era of fair sport. Given a clean footing, “we build the safety guards around it to ensure that the culture never succumbs to that level of corrupt drug use again,” Tygart said.

In theory, a truth and reconciliation process sounds promising: create a theater where the pro cyclists and their enablers can unburden themselves of their cheating past without fear of retribution, and move on to a more ethically-sound future.

However, Tygart said, “At the end of the day, we don’t have the authority to do it. It’s a UCI decision that has to be made and we hope the leadership will fulfill the promise it gave to the world eight months ago to take decisive action. And to date, they have done nothing. So we will continue both publicly and privately to push them.”

Of the UCI’s lack of action on the process they at first championed, Tygart said “It’s the stall game: Let’s delay. Let’s let the season start. Let the Tour happen. Memories will fade and pretty soon it will be business as usual. And that will be a real tragedy and we [USADA] are not doing our job if we let that happen.”

In spite of the UCI’s passiveness toward the truth commission it originally embraced, Tygart remains guardedly optimistic that a truth commission will take place.

“You could find a hundred reasons why it could be difficult or impossible to do,” he said. “But it’s too important to have any one of those excuses prevent the sport from doing it.”

Tygart said that from the day USADA began its investigation into Armstrong and the U.S. Postal team in 2010, their objectives were larger than unveiling one rider and his team. And that is why USADA strongly backs an opportunity for riders outside the Armstrong force field to spill the beans under the protection of amnesty. Tygart said that in the process of completing the Reasoned Decision, it became evident to USADA that Armstrong was representative, a symptom, of larger sport-wide ills. Knowing the problems of fair play in cycling went beyond one American team, Tygart said that illustrating one man’s deceptions was not USADA’s end game.

“The goal was to dismantle the system that allowed this corrupt drug use to flourish, and we are still heading toward that goal,” Tygart said.

When VeloNews asked if USADA has been applying regular pressure on the UCI to act, Tygart responded, “Yes, absolutely. Every chance we get.”

Tygart said over a month ago, the McQuaid invited USADA to sit down with the UCI and map out a framework for a TRC. Since then, Tygart said, “We’ve responded to him three times. We are ready and willing at any moment. Let us know and we’ll be there. And we’ve got no response.

“We are chompin’ at the bit. We’ll see. We are hopeful, but it’s ultimately in their hands.”

Tygart said one reason USADA can’t just pick up the TRC reins itself is that it does not have the authority to convene a commission that affects riders from foreign countries. Nonetheless, he said, “We are going to push for it as hard as we possibly can. We hope that at some point in the near future, before memories fade, that the UCI and its leadership will take action.”

USADA code does not have a provision for amnesty, but Tygart said the code does have a substantial witness provision meant to give eyewitnesses incentive to speak up. By offering more lenient penalties in exchange for witness cooperation, Tygart said USADA was able to get 11 of Armstrong’s Postal teammates to talk about their doping experiences. Citing their key testimony in the Reasoned Decision, Tygart suggested that amnesty on a large TRC scale could be an even more powerful incentive than the short off-season suspensions riders like Christian Vande Velde, Dave Zabriskie, and Tom Danielson received in exchange for speaking truth about cycling’s doping systems.

Of using the South African TRC as a model for cycling, Tygart said what is notable about the South African experience is that its TRC was intended to liberate people from the moral traumas of their past.

“The notion of redemption is critically important for the athletes,” Tygart said.

When riders like Armstrong and his teammates doped, Tygart said their personal decisions were easily justified “because the culture and the system that surrounded them allowed for those to be easily made.” Redemption means to save from a fallen state, to restore honor and worth. As Tygart sees it, a TRC would provide that reconstitution of honor to both athletes who participated in that system and the entire corrupted cycling enterprise.

While the world’s attention has been focused on Tygart’s ability to round up Armstrong, he does not dwell on the Texan. It is clear that Armstrong and the Reasoned Decision were, for Tygart, only initial steps in a process he feels must lead to a more-important mass truth-telling and ground-clearing event. “It wasn’t just an American problem. We know it wasn’t just Lance Armstrong that participated,” Tygart said.

Tygart said a TRC is critical now because it would introduce an era where USADA is not “just continuing for the next 20 years to punish individual athletes who get caught — but that we actually make some system change. That’s the only way you are going to have a cultural change where the overwhelming majority of the athletes are not using these dangerous performance enhancing drugs.”

Tygart added while some athletes are always going to cheat, “That has to be the abnormality. What we’ve seen through our investigation is that that was common, and the abnormality was that those that didn’t do it, or those that didn’t left the sport because they were unwilling to do it. And that’s the tragedy, and those are the victims that we have to protect going forward.”

One complication in using amnesty as a tool to make dope-free cycling the new normal is that in some countries, PED use is a federal crime. While a Spanish or French cyclist may want to participate in a TRC, telling the truth about their doping activities opens them up to prosecution at home.

Tygart said the USADA has considered this complication along with another: sponsor contracts that include punitive financial penalties for doping. While truth and reconciliation are nice in theory, losing one’s life savings due to claw-back contract provisions or going to federal prison are strong reasons to keep one’s mouth shut.

“You could come up with a whole host of those types of legal constraints that could arguably minimize the impact of a truth and reconciliation-type process,” Tygart said. “You can’t let those obstacles or things that might minimize its overall effectiveness prevent you from going down the path to give it your best shot.”

Tygart argued that the complexities of the modern world are not excuses to abandon a truth-telling process. He directed the USADA’s investigation into the BALCO drugs scandal that implicated pro baseball and football players, and he has served in World Anti-Doping Agency roles. By working together with international doping bodies like WADA, he feels solutions can be found that will allow the commission to proceed in spite of these business and legal tangles. After all, the punishments the riders fear from employers and the law at home were designed to halt the very behaviors a TRC is also meant to end.

“Going through that process, even though it is ultimately less than full, and perfect truth and justice is still way better than doing nothing,” Tygart said.

Should the UCI eventually make a TRC happen, another question that arises is why the public or the presiding commissioners should believe the athletes’ testimony. As the Reasoned Decision showed, pro cycling has been built on a tissue of lies — why should the public trust words today that were hollow yesterday?

Tygart said this is where dogged investigators and commissioners come in to play.

Referring to the claims witnesses made during the Armstrong investigation, Tygart pointed out that their testimony was not initially taken at face value. “Certainly when the first witness came forward to us we listened, but we didn’t say, ‘Oh, that’s the truth,’” he said. We went and followed up and proved it by confirming evidence.”

For truth and reconciliation testimony to cement a more honest future, the commissioners must verify. “It’s all based on the evidence and the proof, not just one person’s word — particularly after those people have lived a life of lies,” Tygart said.

Tygart told VeloNews that using a commissioner’s authority plus sound evidence is important for the confidence of the fans, the sponsors, and for the riders.

Whatever framework a truth and reconciliation commissioner ends up working with will be a compromise devised through negotiations among WADA, the UCI, and other national cycling and police governing bodies. Even within this negotiated structure, Tygart is optimistic that a TRC will “put a stake in the ground and once and for all say we did everything we could to clean up this corrupt system and put it on a foundation going forward and give the confidence to the fans as well as sponsors, but most importantly the athletes of today and those coming up tomorrow.”

Tygart said ultimately it is those athletes who protect and maintain the culture that defines the norms of their sport. And so far, closing in on a year after the USADA’s Reasoned Decision, cycling’s larger culture of doping has not been exposed and ripped out at a fundamental level; that has only happened in the spot where USADA shined its light.

Tygart said that because Armstrong’s capture is still an outlier, the majority of his generation and the ones before him see no advantage in come clean about PEDs. As a result, he said young riders remain skeptical about both pro cycling’s leaders and the system itself. In Tygart’s opinion, a truth and reconciliation commission is the next step to ending those corrosive doubts.

“If you give them that hope that it is a clean culture, then they are going to be just that much more empowered to maintain it,” he said.

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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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