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Should past cycling dopers continue to benefit from the sport they cheated?

Cyclist Stuart O'Grady in 2006. Flickr/Frank Chan, CC BY-ND

Barely two years after admitting use of erythropoietin (EPO) in his professional cycling career, Stuart O’Grady is back in favour again. He has a co-hosting gig with the new SBS Bike Lane show, which starts this Sunday 24th of May.

This is an odd decision by SBS. One wonders if SBS seniors discussed the potential downside of bringing O’Grady in for the new show. Did anyone object? Was the possibility of a backlash considered? Might this represent a conflict for SBS cycling coverage, particularly around future drugs and doping incidents?

It’s not like O’Grady has been given his own show, and he only has a three week stint at this stage. However, I still think it is worth considering what message the SBS Bike Lane line-up sends about the acceptability of doping in cycling – especially given SBS’s role as a public broadcaster with a large and growing audience of cycling fans.

But this article is not really about O’Grady, or the SBS for that matter. It’s about the broader sports ethics and integrity questions that arise around the treatment of cyclists who use banned substances.

Hearing about O’Grady’s coming SBS spot highlighted for me the question of whether or not past dopers should continue to benefit from the sport they once cheated. Here’s why I think this is a vital question for cycling to address.

Cheats prosper in cycling

By now it is common knowledge that the sport of cycling has had a long history of past dopers and other cheats who have profited both during and after their careers. Some of cycling’s most celebrated stars, both in Australia and abroad, have tested positive for banned substances or admitted to doping. And many more are suspect.

It is also easy to list names amongst the current group of pro team officials, current riders, and other cycling organisations, who have doped during their racing careers. The world of cycling still supports plenty of riders, past and present, who have cheated the sport.

In fact, by comparison the list of cyclists who have used performance-enhancing drugs and ended up worse-off because of their decision to dope is far shorter.

The clear message here is that dopers and cheats are most likely to prosper in cycling. And the real problem is this message is more powerful than the alternative narrative from organisations like the International Cycling Union, World Anti-Doping Agency (and even Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority it seems): ‘if you use banned substances we will catch and punish you’.

Like it or not, ‘cheats prosper’ remains the dominant truth in cycling, even with all the resources being invested into rider surveillance and testing, and doping education and prevention programs.

Doping prevention is being undermined

Despite the frequent criticism of the International Cycling Union’s (UCI) weakness in this area, it should be acknowledged the UCI’s recent reform agenda has been frustrated by Licence Commission and Court of Arbitration for Sport processes – as we saw with the Katusha case in 2013 and the recent Licence Commission’s reasoned decision to allow Astana to retain a World Tour licence.

But even with the cultural and procedural challenges of achieving reform in this area, since late 2013, the UCI under Brian Cookson’s Presidency appears to have made serious efforts to address the doping issue.

In March this year, the UCI released the Cycling Independent Reform Commission report on its comprehensive investigation of “the causes of the pattern of doping that developed within cycling and allegations which implicate the UCI and other governing bodies and officials over ineffective investigation of such practices”.

The UCI has also commissioned the highly regarded Institute of Sport Sciences of the University of Lausanne (ISSUL) to audit cycling World Tour team practices, and develop and trial a new Operational Guide for teams.

With a view to making it compulsory from 2017, the new Operational Guide is being tested now by ISSUL with eight volunteer teams (AG2R La Mondiale,, Team Cannondale-Garmin, IAM Cycling, Etixx-Quick Step, Orica GreenEdge, Team Giant-Alpecin and Trek Factory Racing), and the Astana team mandated to participate after recent doping incidents and the controversial licence review.

Closer to home, in 2013 Cycling Australia (CA) established an Ethics & Integrity panel following an Australian Government review of its governance. And CA appears committed to sending a strong message that past dopers are unwelcome in Australian cycling – for example, it has a no doping declaration policy that applies to “the CA Board, senior staff, high performance personnel working directly with national programs, athletes and teams, state institute coaches or personnel directly involved with cycling programs and athletes, athletes involved in national high performance programs &/or selected in national teams, and senior personnel in affiliate organisations.”

Examples like these show there are positive efforts underway in cycling to address the doping issue. Doping prevention in cycling is finally shifting to include a focus on broader cultural and environmental factors of relevance to the doping problem.

Unfortunately though, all of this energy and effort is undermined by the fact that ex-dopers remain employed and celebrated at all levels of this sport. ‘Ex-dopers’ are running teams, they’re standing on the podium, they’re selling books and cycling kit, they’re sponsoring cycling media, and they’re contributing media content and stories about cycling today.

Again, the ‘cheats prosper’ message remains the dominant truth in cycling.

Redemption, forgiveness and the difficulty of doping

People make mistakes. Tolerance of human imperfection, and forgiveness for past judgement errors are fair and reasonable responses to doping in sport.

Admittedly, there is potential for some good to come from ex-dopers staying involved in the sport. Sometimes such people can be genuine and positive advocates for doping prevention and change. They can offer the value of their riding and racing experience to newcomers, as a way of giving back to the sport.

However, if cycling is to escape its current ‘cheats prosper’ image, then we have to seriously ask ourselves if individuals with doping backgrounds (even the most likeable and successful of them) are the people this sport really needs around? ‘Ex-dopers’ are not the only people who can advocate against doping, and there are surely others more highly preferred to teach and coach the future champions of this sport.

Most fans of cycling, me included, just want to watch honest bike racing. That’s why doping is a difficult and frustrating issue to discuss. It obscures our view of the type of cycling that we want to see.

We want to see our favourite riders on the world stage, in the biggest races, giving all for their jersey and team. We want to see courage, panache, and sportsmanship. We want to see the beauty of cycling.

The doping issue is also difficult to discuss because it is hard to denounce your heroes. You feel torn. For better or worse, we tend to want to excuse the transgressions of the likeable and successful in sport, because they give us what we want.

Rider attitudes encouraging

I have often wondered what the current riders in pro teams that have ‘ex-dopers’ as team officials, or teammates, think about that situation. What about the new youngsters in their first year as professionals? Do they discuss it at training camps? Can they afford to? Or do they internalise and resign themselves to the ‘cheats prosper’ message (‘May as well dope because even if I’m caught I’ll probably be alright’)?

In the past, the code of silence that held sway in the peloton made it very difficult to get a sense of rider sentiment towards banned drug use and doping in the sport. These days, in the age of social media, it is easier to see the attitudes of at least some of the pro riders.

Consider the following.

And this just this week from the Secret Pro on the Cycling Tips website: “The whole Astana situation is something that’s been the talk of the peloton for a fair while now. I for one haven’t got a clue what the UCI were up to when they allowed Astana to keep their licence. The team and their situation pisses so many people off; they’re a joke really.”

Views such as these are encouraging if you believe doping has no place in cycling. But, as the saying goes, talk is cheap. Sadly, it seems the only time we hear from the professional riders making a serious stand and acting against doping is when they get caught for their own transgressions.

Where is the organised action from within the Peloton? Where are the protests?

If it’s too much to expect individual riders to come together to act, what are the rider representative bodies (i.e. Cyclistes Professionnels Associes, Association Internationale des Groupes Cyclistes Professionnels) and other organisations (i.e. Mouvement Pour un Cyclisme Crédible, Bike pure) doing currently to lobby against the ongoing presence and influence of dopers in the sport?

What should be done

I have argued before (here and here) that cheating and other rule breaking is a normalised part of competitive cycling culture. There is ample evidence of this at all levels of the sport.

It is also my view that anti-doping surveillance and testing, and doping education and prevention initiatives will continue to be less effective than they could be for as long as the sport of cycling continues to tolerate and support ‘ex-dopers’ and other cheats.

If cycling wants to counter the current dominant truth – that cheats can and do prosper – it must decisively distance itself from the doping past and present represented by ‘ex-dopers’ still in and around the sport, regardless of who they are.

How can this be achieved?

Some have argued for a Truth and Reconciliation process with amnesty for those who come forward and confess past undetected doping. The problem with this is past behaviour usually predicts future behaviour (especially in prohibited or disapproved areas), so you wouldn’t expect that many from a cohort of riders who chose to dope and keep it secret would suddenly flip and confess all.

A monetised T&R process that pays ‘rewards’ for confessions that can be corroborated would possibly work better, and would cost only a fraction of current surveillance and testing costs. Politically though, this would be difficult to get support for.

One good possibility would be to use a ‘no doping declaration’ process in the form of a signed statutory declaration for everyone involved in cycling (as per the approach Cycling Australia and the Australian Olympic Committee has in place). The statutory declaration has legal implications if signatories are not being truthful.

But an approach like this would have even greater symbolic weight – by sending a clear message that the particular cycling organisation, team, club etc do not welcome people who have doped in the past.

A no doping declaration process could go even further than just the obvious competitive cycling organisations and teams, to also include cycling focused media who pay for or receive content from ex-professional cyclists (newspaper, magazines, television, online, radio). Media outlets too have an important responsibility to consider the public messages they send on the drugs and doping issue.

This is the type of clear message and symbolism needed in cycling to counter the current dominant narrative of ‘cheats can and do prosper here’.

International cycling bodies and national associations, pro cycling teams, rider representative organisations, clean cycling advocacy groups, amateur cycling clubs, and cycling media – your move.

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