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Cookson Q&A: UCI chief says independent commission will be ready in early 2014

  • By Andrew Hood
  • Published Dec. 24, 2013
Brian Cookson tells VeloNews a three-member independent commission will examine cycling's doping past. Photo: Graham Watson | www.grahamwatson.com

MADRID (VN) — Efforts to create an independent commission that will X-ray cycling’s dirty past are coming closer to fruition.

New UCI president Brian Cookson told VeloNews that the three-member panel should be ready to begin its work in early 2014.

Working closely with the World Anti-Doping Agency, Cookson envisions a commission that will have a free hand to explore a variety of issues, including alleged wrongdoing within cycling’s governing body as well as tricky questions of how to deal with past doping indiscretions.

Despite the complicated issues surrounding the inquiry, Cookson expressed optimism that an independent and credible review is essential to help restore cycling’s tattered reputation and move into the future with a clean slate.

VeloNews sat down with Cookson in Madrid last week during his visit to the Spanish capital to discuss the independent commission, its scope, and just what he hopes it will accomplish. Here are excerpts from the interview:

VeloNews: Central to your ‘manifesto’ was regaining credibility for cycling and calls for an independent commission. How soon can people expect something?
Brian Cookson: I am hopeful we can make an announcement very soon. I was hoping before Christmas, but now it looks to be by New Year’s. We are working on the independent commission to make sure that it is truly independent, that the people who lead it are recognized as the right people for the job, and that we establish it on terms and conditions that it will not be challenged by agencies like WADA in the future. We have a couple of sticking points with details. We are very close to appointing the three members of the commission. I don’t want to say it too soon, not to break anyone’s confidence. We want to do it the right way, with the right people, who are comfortable with the task, and who understand it. I am hopeful the world will like what it sees when we reveal it.

VN: What are the central issues that the commission will investigate?
BC: We want it to explore the situation over the past 10, 15 years, or however long they want to explore, about the damage done to cycling. In particular, to look at the allegations that the UCI was complicit, that the UCI didn’t do enough to stop some of the problems that came up. I am not pre-judging any of that, but the Armstrong case is one of several, and the allegations that have come out of that are very worrying ones. They have to be investigated properly. Obviously, the people implicated in those allegations deserve a truly independent, objective investigation. If they are exonerated, then that’s great, and I would welcome that, but if they’re not, then we need to draw lessons from it.

VN: One of the first things you did within hours of becoming UCI president was to quarantine the computer of your predecessor. Why did you do that?
BC: There is a little bit of misunderstanding of what happened. What we did is have a company ready to go into UCI offices to secure the backup tapes, the hard drives. We didn’t go and take people’s personal laptops from their homes. They went into the offices, back to the beginning of computerization of the UCI, and backed up that data. We locked it in a safe under lock and key, and it will only be released on my say so, and I will release it to the president of the independent commission when they ask for it. And they can use it as they see fit.

VN: That was obviously planned ahead, as there was a team waiting in Switzerland to move in the case you were elected. Why did you view that as necessary?
BC: It was a premeditated step and a precaution. We were not after personal computers and personal e-mails. We are not the police, but we have responsibilities for our own hardware, software, and information that have passed through our system. Mr. McQuaid didn’t get a knock on his door. It was nothing personal; it was a precaution. And it was essential. If we hadn’t done that, we would have been criticized about letting some critical information slip away. And that’s not to pre-judge any of this, and it’s not about any one person. The independent commission will be able to use that information any way they see fit.

VN: Former UCI president Hein Verbruggen was quoted last week saying allegations made by Armstrong were false; have you spoken personally to Verbruggen?
BC: I’ve not had any personal contact, just a few e-mails to congratulate me. I feel it’s important that I do not have any personal contact or get involved in any way with anyone who was involved in any of this. I have not spoken to Hein or to Lance Armstrong. It’s important that they speak to the commission, and tell the truth, and I am sure they would want to do so.

VN: The independent commission will consider both the allegations about the UCI as well as look at the doping scandals in cycling?
BC: It’s one inquiry, with a broad focus. One of the specific things is the particular allegation of UCI collusion. I am very anxious that it does not go on and on for months and months. I would like to conclude it within a reasonable amount of time. I don’t think we can afford that. I think we need to do it as quickly as we can without rushing it. It’s a delicate balance. We will give them a budget from the UCI, because no one else will pay for it, so we have to give them some flexibility to fulfill their task, and let them get on with it. We will give it some ability to modify things as it sees fit, so they are genuinely independent. We won’t interfere. We certainly will not be manipulating it behind the scenes. They will have genuine independence and credibility.

VN: How far back will it go?
BC: We cannot go back to 1902. There has been historically doping in cycling, but what I don’t want to do is pre-judge what the commission wants. I see going back to 1998 as a breaking point. It’s a useful time frame, but we cannot rule out going back further than that.

VN: Another aspect will be examining doping practices in the sport. What can the UCI do to encourage people to come forward?
BC: This is the whole problem with this. There is no judiciary power, they will not be able to call people to testify, they will not be able to charge people with perjury, nor will it be able to protect people from libel or slander charges. It has to be done by consent and trust. Perhaps these are concepts that have been missing in our sport in many years. There is a process, if people come along and tell lies, they will not be lying to a court, but they will be lying in the court of public opinion, and I think that’s very powerful. Perhaps I am a bit naive, I think people will want to come forward and tell the truth. To encourage that, we will be working with WADA to assure that there is a degree of flexibility and remission and reductions about admissions. We will discuss those details in the coming weeks, but it has to be within the WADA code, and it has to be done right if people genuinely want to participate.

VN: Will there be some sort of amnesty or reduction of possible bans if people confess to past doping indiscretions?
BC: I don’t like that phrase. It has too much connotations. We will be giving the commission a new name. We’re not using the word amnesty. WADA will not accept the word amnesty, but the WADA code and new provisions do allow reductions for sentences for substantial assistance. We will be discussing it when we have the agreement hammered out with WADA.

VN: Do you expect the independent commission to get to the bottom of what happened, to answer the doubts, and to allow the sport to move forward?
BC: That is the intention, but nothing is perfect. There will be some people who will not accept that, but until we have this process, to give people an opportunity to come forward in a structured manner, we’re still going to have this drip, drip, and drip of revelations, of people writing books. If we had a proper process, if we put something in place that allows people to come forward and give evidence, then we have a chance to move forward. That doesn’t mean everyone will come forward. It won’t be a perfect mechanism, but it will be the best mechanism, and it will allow us to start the process of healing the damage that’s been done to cycling.

VN: Will people be able to testify anonymously? Will it remain confidential or will the witness testimony be revealed?
BC: I think we have to offer a degree of anonymity, but I hate to limit the commission. They will explain how those issues will work. It’s obvious this is not that simple. There are people who have come forward, and who have lost their jobs, and some of those guys are good guys, who are doing the right thing now. We have to have a process that all the teams can use. Of course, teams will want a degree of independence, but we should provide them guidelines about who they can and cannot employ, and why. And set it out clearly.

VN: In many ways, there’s been a sort of marketplace justice meted out by different teams, with some people keeping their jobs, and others losing their jobs, so the UCI hopes to have bring some guidelines on who is fit to work in the sport?
BC: There are different ways to approach it, from Garmin to Sky, and shades in between. We’ve got to get out [these] processes about who can and cannot be involved in the sport, in the entourage of the teams, be it doctors, soigneurs, directors. We have a rule, but it’s difficult to enforce retrospectively. We have to have a process about who is a fit and proper person to be involved in the team, just as we do for riders. We need a process by which we can make clear and objective judgments about who can and cannot be involved in a team. That’s one of the things the commission will consider, how do we make a judgment of who is a good guy and perhaps not such a good guy? Who can we trust to run a team properly, and who we cannot.

VN: The end game is to help the sport turn the page?
BC: Let’s get this era behind us, let’s learn the lessons, and let’s put in the procedures that will prevent us from repeating the same mistakes. There will always be people who try to cheat, what’s important to us is that we do not collude or be somehow complicit to the cheating. Ethically and morally, our job is very simple. We have to have a sport where a parent can bring their child, and know that that kid can go all the way to the top of the sport if they have the ability and dedication, without having to lie, without having to cheat, without having to do things that will risk their health, without having to spend the rest of their lives looking over their shoulder. If we cannot do that as a governing body, then we have failed our members and our sport. And we are not going to fail. We are going to succeed.

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Andrew Hood

Andrew Hood

Andrew Hood cut his journalistic teeth at Colorado dailies before the web boom opened the door to European cycling in the mid-1990s. Hood has covered every Tour de France since 1996 and has been VeloNews' European correspondent since 2002.

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