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Does cycling have a cultural problem? Can a clean future for the sport and its murky past coexist? In this opinion piece from freelance writer Craig Fry, the integrity of cycling is examined and found wanting.
Disclaimer: while CyclingTips strongly believes in clean sport, the opinions in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of CyclingTips.
The sport of cycling has an integrity problem. And it goes far beyond the obvious thing that first springs to mind.
Doping is not the main integrity issue for cycling today. The real problem is weak culture, and the examples of it are plentiful.
Consider the following.
Lance Armstrong reportedly made more money from the Tour de France this year than the actual race winner. The haul from his cycling podcast related advertising, merchandise, and subscription revenues has been estimated at more than one million dollars.
Many of Armstrong’s fellow dopers from the EPO era are doing well too. Pretty much the entire roster from Armstrong’s tainted US Postal Service team (Hincapie, Leipheimer, Livingston, Hamilton, Andreu, Vande Velde, Danielson, Zabriskie, Landis) is still working in or profiting from cycling in some way. Admittedly, most of them are outside the official structures of the sport, but the point remains – if you’re podcasting, coaching, commentating, publishing books, selling bike kit and running events, you still have a platform of influence.
But it’s not just the old ‘Blue Train’ firm who are still benefiting from the sport’s tainted past. The current generation of pro riders are also being exposed to it. A review of the team management lists for the 18 current UCI World Tour teams reveals they all employ staff who have either doped or been implicated in doping.
Every UCI World Tour team contains at least one person who has cheated cycling at some point. Not exactly the right look for a sport supposed to be 100% committed to doping prevention.
Doping as a non-issue
Cycling clearly has a way to go on the ‘optics’ around doping when the current message from the highest levels is one of tacit approval. But perhaps the bigger issue is whether anyone in and around this sport cares about the ‘problem’ of doping anymore.
Official anti-doping rules and related systems of testing and sanctions exist. As does the formal rhetoric about doping prevention, clean cycling, and the ‘new era’. But cycling still looks like a sport that is giving up on doping prevention. The current team management lists and ‘where are they now?’ results show that.
Of course, one of the main drivers of this growing silence on doping is money. Sport governing bodies, officials at every level, and cycling media outlets are increasingly beholden to financial bottom lines today over the deeper issues of ethics and integrity – especially in a sport where winning by all available means is a virtue, and few appear overly concerned with the consequences.
Many cycling journalists and commentators are also sidestepping the doping topic now. Access to the pro teams and riders depends on not rocking the boat, avoiding difficult questions, and not mentioning the obvious. Think about it – when was the last time your favourite race commentator or cycling journalist spoke about doping with any conviction?
One example that surprised me while watching this year’s Tour de France broadcast was when the highly regarded Australian SBS commentators Matt Keenan and Robbie McEwen spoke about the Tour wins and career of Erik Zabel with no mention at all of his doping record – as if it didn’t happen, or somehow didn’t matter.
Something similar looks to be happening in the ranks of cycling fans too, if the social media barometer is anything to go by. Fed up with yet another transgression, another fallen hero, another suspected conspiracy … you get the sense that more and more fans would now rather focus on the escapism and entertainment this beautiful sport can deliver, and forget the problems.
Unfortunately, the truth of cycling today is that dopers and cheats from the past are still occupying significant roles, and still having an influence. And yet, it seems like hardly anyone cares because fewer and fewer people are talking about it.
The concern here is that a problem unspoken too easily becomes a non-problem or non-issue for officials, journalists, and clean riders who could be doing so much more. Instead of making the doping problem disappear, the real impact of this ‘see no, speak no, hear no’ stance is that it undermines the chances of successful prevention.
The weak culture of cycling is about ignoring the whole truth of the past, not speaking about doping, and avoiding difficult questions. And it is on repeat.
Origins of weak culture
This cycle of weak culture in competitive cycling began with the first European amateurs and professionals who resorted to alcohol and stimulants to battle the brutalism of 19th and early 20th century bike racing.
Back then, the endless miles on unmade roads, impossible summits, and ‘colourful characters’ running the sport required an approach to racing that went far beyond the limits of mere human exertion. The era also meant that winning (or sharing) prize money was a necessity, because for many riders it was the difference between feeding yourself and your family, or not.
From those earliest working class decades where the traditions and culture of racing were born, drug taking and doping sat easily with other forms of rule breaking that emerged (e.g. bike sabotage, drafting or holding onto vehicles, buying and selling races, stand over tactics, race fixing for gambling). Breaking the rules in cycling was so widespread it became normal and accepted – as much a part of the history and culture of this sport as the actual bicycles, jerseys, and race numbers.
The normalisation of ‘cheating’ happened in cycling for two reasons. First, it worked for the riders – it helped them to survive the demands of racing (doping), and enabled sharing of the spoils of ‘victory’ beyond just the best riders and teams (‘the chop’, ‘the joke’ etc).
Second, cheating has persisted in cycling because it became entwined with two of the most powerful story lines of this sport – the glory of hardship and suffering, and the unyielding spirit of everyman racers who would do anything to win.
Therein lies the difficulty of doping as an integrity challenge for cycling. It is simultaneously an example of weak culture (a breach of official rules tacitly approved by insiders), and also fundamental to the most celebrated legends and narratives of this sport.
How weak culture is perpetuated
While cycling has long since evolved from working class origins, its story today is still very much about the ideals of struggle, suffering, and prevailing through extraordinary effort.
Indeed, the ‘glory of suffering’ narrative has been fetishised in cycling. Big commercial brands, professional team sponsors, and media organisations have all played a role in exaggerating and selling that idea to advance and profit from the sport.
Many of us cycling fans identify with the professional riders precisely because they suffer, struggle, and prevail against incredible hardship. It’s romantic, inspiring, and beautiful.
It is also the reason why some dopers who win and look good are fêted, while those who don’t fit that mould are usually ostracised.
Part of what’s happening here is because many fans are also cyclists and/or amateur racers themselves. So strong is the imagery and surrounding narratives that we want to be like the pros that suffer and win with panache. We want to mimic their experiences, dress like them, ride like them; use the same tech, same products, and same bikes.
The key point is, this idolatry and desire to be part of the ‘struggle-suffer-persist-prevail’ narrative also goes to the heart of why many cycling fans want to forgive dopers (even in the absence of any real restitution), or – worse still – ignore the issue altogether.
This is the crux of the weak culture problem in cycling today. And it is reinforced and replicated, because the sport governing bodies, brands and sponsors, and most cycling media organisations are all selling us the same narrative.
Both easy forgiveness in the absence of penalties, and silence on doping, help to preserve and legitimise it as a part of the story of cycling. In turn, this further normalises doping choices, and allows the riders who take that path to continue unsanctioned and unhindered (as competitors, team directors and staff, media commentators, and so on).
Will cycling ever be different?
To shift the entrenched nature of the weak culture problem in cycling, the positions, beliefs, and behaviours that exist at the core of it must be challenged. The weak culture problem in cycling requires a cultural intervention that is implemented across individual, social, club, team, training, competition, national, and international governance levels.
Cycling’s peak governing organisations have a key role to play here. But, they will need to do more than strive for mere adherence to the current anti-doping system. The status quo will not deliver the changes needed for cycling integrity.
One option here would be for cycling officials, and the cycling media, to stop providing opportunities and promotional platforms for people who have cheated the sport. Clearer messages must be sent to the future participants and fans of this sport to confirm that cycling’s governing bodies and officials see doping as a serious integrity issue they’re prepared to act on.
An opportunity for creating change also sits with the athletes themselves. As key players within their own sporting culture, cycling needs courageous clean riders (or preferably a strong and independent representative body or union) to lead and advocate for change. Imagine the progress that could follow if the leading World Tour riders spoke out on doping in the same way as we’re seeing in international swimming. This would ensure doping does not fade as a non-issue.
Beyond the possibility of individual protests, however, even greater gains could be achieved through legally-binding ‘no doping declarations’ that are enforced to prevent past dopers from occupying official roles in the sport. The riders and their representatives could also lobby for real consequences for those who cheat cycling, via a system of financial restitution to those competitors whose careers and prize money have been impacted.
And what of the ex-cyclists who doped but didn’t get caught or confess? A Truth and Reconciliation process with amnesty for confessions of past undetected doping may work for some individuals with troubled consciences. But to have widespread impact such an approach would need to be part of an overall intervention on weak culture, and a larger renewal plan that all levels of cycling commit to. Otherwise, the flaws and limits of human behaviour will mean past truths will go to the grave with most.
Finally, we the fans of cycling who attend the races, consume cycling media, and spend our money participating in the sport also have a role to play in breaking the weak culture cycle. We can do that by reflecting on the choices we make about which cycling media we support, or the minimum integrity standards we expect in cycling and what we might be prepared to do to get there.
Ultimately, the question of whether cycling is able to effectively address the significant integrity issue of weak culture, will depend on what various stakeholder groups within the sport itself want to do about it.
It is clear that business as usual here will continue to perpetuate the integrity problem in this sport. Cycling needs a cultural intervention now.