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Cookson: Zero-tolerance is impossible

Are there individuals who, due to prior involvement in doping, should be prevented from working in pro cycling?

Creating a definition of “fit and proper” within the context of cycling’s sordid past has long been debated as a way to prevent doping in the future. Remove people with doping knowledge or a questionable history, the argument goes, and you’re removing potential enablers. It would show the current generation that there is no post-retirement director’s seat waiting if they stray down the wrong path, too.

But could such a policy ever be implemented across the entire sport, or even within the UCI itself? Is it even a good idea? Legal issues abound, and a strong counter-argument exists: Zero tolerance merely supports the decades-old omerta, encouraging silence. The riders of the 1990s and 2000s are now deeply enmeshed in the management side of the sport, perhaps irreversibly so.

“I think if we’re 100 percent honest about it, I don’t think we could run men’s pro road racing without some people who at some stage in their career had some contact with doping,” said UCI president Brian Cookson, speaking with VeloNews in his office in Aigle, Switzerland. “To pretend that we can is a delusion, really.”

Beyond the moral questions, there are both pragmatic and legal issues. How many pro team sport directors or members of team management would survive such a purge? How is fit-and-proper even defined, if we were to extend it beyond those with WADA lifetime bans? Would such a definition hold up in court?

As major organizations like USA Cycling trend toward zero tolerance policies, following in the footsteps of teams like Sky, what to do with the sport’s tainted human capital is a fundamental debate.

“This is a very complex issue,” Cookson said. “People would just think you say, ‘Get him or her out of the sport because they did X, Y, or Z.’ It isn’t that simple.”

He’s absolutely right.

Toughening up the definition of who can work in cycling, beyond what is currently in place, sits on tenuous legal ground — WADA and the UCI already bar individuals serving lifetime bans.

“Let’s take Bjarne Riis. Anti-Doping Denmark performed a long-term investigation into him and have not been able to take any action against him,” Cookson said. “All his admitted offenses are outside the statute of limitations. It’s very difficult to penalize or sanction somebody for something that is outside of that period because then inevitably that person challenges it. We have to take action that is legally defensible.”

A second penalization for the same offense runs contrary to the concept of double jeopardy, present in most legal systems throughout the world. If an individual has served his or her ban for a given offense, they cannot be penalized again for the same offense.

If all doping offenses resulted in lifetime bans, keeping former dopers out of cycling would not be an issue. But that’s not the case, and since it’s now clear that most former dopers and enablers were never caught or sanctioned at all, the law gets in the way of pushing such individuals out.

That may not be a bad thing, according to Cookson.

“There are a lot of people who made bad decisions and bad judgments, and I don’t defend them, but I think you have to allow them the possibility of redemption, as well,” Cookson said. “I almost hate hearing myself say those words, because I would love to say, ‘You know what? If you’re a doper, you’re out,’ but actually implementing that is very, very difficult. To be realistic about it, and I think we haven’t got the right answer yet, we have to find ways of making assessments about people’s genuine contrition and their … Whether they are deserving of redemption or not.”

The Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC) was a step in that direction, according to Cookson. It wasn’t the truth and reconciliation commission many hoped for (Cookson says such a commission would be impossible under EU law) but it was a document of record — if not who did what, at least of what happened.

A sport-wide zero-tolerance policy isn’t possible. But there are steps that can be made in that direction, as the law allows.

“We’re looking at all the ways that we can tighten up those things, fit in proper person tests and so on, but what we always have to do is make sure that anything we do is legally defensible,” Cookson said. “I don’t mind spending money on lawyers if we’re going to win, but I don’t want to spend money on lawyers and lose.”