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Can ex-doper Matt White lead a clean pro-cycling team?

Confessed doper Matt White (second from right) has been reinstated as sports director of cycling ‘clean team’ Orica-GreenEdge. But is this a conflict of interest? AAP

Can ex-doper Matt White lead a clean pro-cycling team?

Confessed doper Matt White (second from right) has been reinstated as sports director of cycling ‘clean team’ Orica-GreenEdge. But is this a conflict of interest? AAP

The official reinstatement of confessed doper Matt White as sports director of Australian World Tour pro-cycling team Orica-GreenEdge passed with surprisingly little media or public scrutiny last week.

But while many fans may feel justified in switching off the drugs in sport saga, this latest development in Australian cycling deserves much closer focus than it is presently attracting.

White’s return to Orica-GreenEdge comes eight months after his October 2012 admission to doping as a professional cyclist with Lance Armstrong’s US Postal Service team. He has since revealed that he doped for most of his professional career.

White’s reinstatement was largely facilitated by the review of Orica-GreenEdge anti-doping policy and practices by expert Nicki Vance. Her May 2013 report recommended the White reappointment after his backdated Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) ban of six months was complete.

Stuart O'Grady welcomes Matt White back into the team.

The conspicuous lack of public reaction to this news may be a sign that many have reached saturation with the drugs in sport issue. It has certainly been a busy year in elite sport as far as the misuse of drugs and other substances goes.

This issue has touched cycling, the AFL and NRL, swimming, and also cricket if you include alcohol in the mix. It is a complex and wide reaching issue with no quick and easy fix.

Conflicts of interest

The Matt White case raises a series of very important questions that matter for the Orica-GreenEdge team, Australian cycling, and sports anti-doping policy generally. The first set of questions arises around the conflicts of interest and other pressures likely to emerge when past “dopers” are appointed to leadership roles in elite sport.

A significant query here is how White’s reinstatement could possibly be reconciled with the Orica-GreenEdge zero-tolerance doping stance, and much-publicised “clean team” image.

Matt White relaxing with wife Jane Saville before the 2005 Jacobs Creek Tour Down Under. AAP

White’s past doping behaviour creates the very real potential for major dilemmas in his sports director role in relation to his views and decisions about team culture, and his perceived capacity to be objective in the face of any future breaches and indeed even minor transgressions by people he is responsible for.

Add to this the interests of the Orica-GreenEdge Executive and other stakeholders and their expectations about White’s future words and deeds. Again, his past behaviour is sure to have significantly raised the weight of these expectations already.

White’s history means we must ask and receive an answer to the question of what he will do in the anti-doping space now.

What do other cyclists think?

A second set of questions arises in relation to the public credibility of appointments like that of Matt White’s, and by association the anti-doping policies that facilitate such decisions.

What is the view of cycling fans and the general public? We have to also wonder what the current cohort of Orica-GreenEdge riders and personnel thinks about the Matt White case.

To inform her review, Nicki Vance spoke with some 59 riders and staff at Orica-GreenEdge in wide-ranging interviews. Did she seek their views about the possibility of a White reinstatement? If not, why not?

Orica-GreenEdge at the Giro d'Italia, 2012. DancingOnThePedals.net

Given most professional cyclists these days publicly support anti-doping policy and measures, at least some of the new guard of young riders must be unhappy with the White reinstatement. If not, what does this suggest about the post-Armstrong culture of professional cycling, or the efficacy of current cycling governance and anti-doping education measures?

And what about the Australian professionals in other cycling teams, or the younger up-and-coming future stars? How has the White decision impacted the image of Orica-GreenEdge? Is it still a desirable team for aspirational young riders? How would parents react to the news of their teenager being selected to this team now?

Stimulating discussion by asking more questions

Such questions seem particularly relevant given the Vance report highlights the importance of

ethics and values discussion to encourage the maintenance of a non-doping approach.

Matt White in 2012. AAP

But we have to wonder what this discussion would look like, and how it would even be possible in the absence of any public debate on the issues and questions identified above.

Let me be clear that none of this is intended to question Matt White’s character or intentions. He appears to be well liked in the professional cycling world, and is obviously a highly regarded sports director in Australia and abroad. He gets results.

White deserves some credit for the admissions he has made, and he has arguably already received that. We should also remember that even though he stood to gain from his confessions, White spoke up in an environment where other past and present cyclists with alleged cases to answer have said nothing.

This demonstrates yet again that increasingly hard-line anti-doping policies do little to reveal the full truth of doping in sport, and they lack the sophistication and reach required of effective policies and programs here.

To its credit the Orica-GreenEdge Australian pro-cycling team has publicly promised to implement all of the Vance review recommendations which cover past breaches, recruitment, adherence to current protocols, education, and the team’s external anti-doping promotion activity.

One hopes that Matt White himself comes to play an active role in the Orica-GreenEdge response to the Vance recommendations. He has returned to his sports director role on a 12-month probation.

Petit Brun

This will be an important period for White, and he could prove to be an effective public voice against doping in Australian cycling and beyond if he chooses to do so and the audience is receptive.

Unfortunately, after an eventful past two or so years with the drugs in sport issue in Australia, there are growing signs that the public shock and indignation about the cases before us is giving way to frustration and disinterest.

The Matt White case is important because it helps to highlight the contradictions and weaknesses of current anti-doping policy in Australia. It also gives us a useful new set of questions that should be asked about the real consequences of such policies for individuals and other stakeholders.

Let’s hope there are enough people still listening for the answers.