Cycling’s drug amnesty worth considering
This July 7, 2005 file photo shows Lance Armstrong of the US during the sixth stage of the 92nd Tour de France cycling race between Troyes and Nancy. AFP PHOTO / Files / JOEL SAGET
The possibility of introducing a ‘drug amnesty’ for cycling’s cheating underbelly is set for discussion at a meeting of the UCI’s management committee later this week.
While details of the proposal are yet to be fully aired, it is one that WADA director general David Howman seems willing to explore further, despite pardons or plea bargaining not being a part of the WADA code.
While we are still in the dark as to how the amnesty period might work, one suspects that those who confess to their sins would be given the opportunity to continue their cycling careers either unpunished or with minimal consequence. In essence, they would be given a clean slate.
While this seems ludicrous on the surface, it could work – but only with the severest of sanctions for further transgressions. If the UCI goes down the amnesty path, then it must bring in lifetime bans for all breaches of its drug code thereafter. No more chances.
At the risk of being ridiculed, I do believe that we are on the verge of entering one of the sport’s cleanest eras. Lifetime bans for the stragglers still doping will accelerate its arrival.
Now, for those about to flame me, stop and think.
Doping goes further back than the Armstrong era. It goes further back than Tom Simpson. Much further back. While widespread public awareness stemmed from the Festina Affair in 1998 and Operation Puerto in 2006, cyclists began enhancing their performances almost from the time that bike riding progressed from being a pastime to a competitive sport.
The cheats have always been there. Early races were inhumanly long and riders were not adverse to hitching the odd ride in a car (or train) to lessen their load. Some are rumoured to have been towed behind vehicles using piano wire. Others took cocaine just to stay awake.
With early Tour stages often well over 400 kilometres long, and riders spending upward of 16 hours per day in the saddle, who can blame them? Henri Desgrange, who founded the Tour after latching onto the idea from his assistant Geo Lefevre, was not called an assassin in jest!
Riders from all eras, almost without exception, have been involved with, or witnessed, acts of cheating, including doping – even if it may not have been thought of as such at the time.
Ausralia’s Russell Mockridge raced in Europe throughout the 1950s, including the 1955 Tour de France. In his book My World on Wheels (published posthumously after his tragic death during the 1958 Tour of Gippsland), Mockridge devotes an entire chapter to the topic of drugs. What he describes is little more than systematic doping.
French national hero and three-time Tour winner Louison Bobet (1953-54-55) would speak of a ‘dividing line’ between dope and stimulants, while his brother Jean, an accomplished cyclist in his own right, gave the sport away in 1958 after continually being beaten by riders he knew were ranked below him.
There might not have been any EPO, but substances such as methedrine (an amphetamine which was used by RAF pilots during the Battle of Britain to ‘sharpen’ their senses) were easily obtained.
In his fascinating book Tomorrow, We Ride, Jean Bobet hints at the extent to which doping had already entrenched itself within the sport. Having won the 1949 World University Games road race in Budapest by over five minutes, the then 19 year old was accosted by several sceptical observers.
“First one, then another, then ten old hands asked me the same question, in a malicious tone that I could not miss, but whose meaning I did not grasp (at the time): ‘How many chemists were there in your student team?’”
That such strong suspicion already existed in the 1940s (and at what was a relatively minor race contested mainly by juniors) indicates that dopers were already running rampant, and must have been for quite some time.
The point is, we have to go a long way back to find an era untarnished by drugs. Whether we like it or not, cycling and doping have gone hand in hand for generations. Doping became so entrenched that it was near impossible to rein in.
While I honestly believe that cycling is finally headed down the right track, there is obviously still a long way to go. What was built up over generations could take equally long to dismantle. Perhaps the proposed amnesty, coupled with stringent policing and meaningful suspensions, will allow the sport the fresh start that it craves.
Not all cyclists doped, many raced clean for their entire careers. They are the real victims here. The UCI owes it to the clean cyclists of today, and those of the future, to take the next step. If that means an amnesty followed by life bans, then so be it.
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