The evidence that Lance Armstrong was a doper has been available for years, yet the people who controlled, operated and promoted competitive cycling – racing officials, team management, sponsors and media – turned a blind eye.
Despite the existence of damning documents, leaked tests, eye-witness sworn testimony, and performance records that matched too-good-to-be-true section timings directly to doping evidence, no-one in a position of responsibility stepped up to call the fraud.
Yes, a few courageous individuals spoke the truth, and eventually, years later, Armstrong was nailed.
By then it was too late.
The result has been the trashing of the cycling brand. The sport so many of us have followed and supported over the years has had its reputation ruined. The trust between the sport and the public has suffered grievous harm.
The reason was money.
Armstrong was a cash and publicity generating monster.
And cycling officials the world over wanted a share of the gold generated by his presence at an event.
The Tour Down Under was a major beneficiary of this promotional mechanism.
Extravagant sums of money were paid to the Armstrong corporate machine for the gilded prince to grace us with his presence. Publicity went into overdrive. Huge attendances for the event resulted.
Now the South Australian Government, keeping a straight face, is demanding its money back.
There are plenty of people pointing fingers at the riders who doped. To their great credit Stephen Hodge and Matt White – two of the the most prominent people in the field in Australia – owned up and accepted the consequences.
But who is going to accept responsibility for the reputational damage to the sport?
In all the hub-bub about the Armstrong affair and the impact of doping on performance, one critical factor has been overlooked: the people who manage competitive cycling are responsible not only for performance – medals and government funding – but also for cycling’s reputation and its relationship with the public.
Bringing Armstrong to the Tour Down Under, and promoting him to Australians as the cycling ideal, was a massive reputational risk.
Cycling officials the world over, knowing what was already on the public record about Lance’s doping, must surely have assessed the possible consequences of his continued participation in elite and highly publicised events.
Did they caution the South Australian Government and other backers of tour events, sponsors and other stakeholders that extremely negative outcomes were likely when the Armstrong defence edifice crumbled? Did they sit around the meeting table at the UCI one day and say, “This could blow up in our face.” Did someone in national cycling administration around the world say, “Maybe we should have a plan to protect the reputation of local cycling in case this goes pear-shaped.” Or maybe someone said, “Let’s call the whole Lance publicity thing off; it’s just too risky.”
No, nothing was called off. Instead, the blind eye was turned.
Armstrong’s public downfall was inevitable and foreseeable. Incredibly, the people who ran cycling around the world acted totally surprised at the development, not knowing which way to look.
Here in Australia, cycling needs to get its foresight and confidence back in a hurry. Reputation needs to be repaired.
The decades-long doping scandal didn’t just taint racing. In Australia far more bike riders participate in non-competitive recreational and transport cycling than are involved in competition. They are represented by organisations such as Bicycle Network (the nation’s biggest), dedicated to lifting the status of cycling in society and getting a fair deal for people who ride.
This requires winning the goodwill of the public and convincing them to support pro-bike initiatives. Thanks to Lance and those that hawked him to the then-innocent public, this is now more difficult.
A new culture and a new vision will be critical to the rebuilding of cycling’s reputation. New models of governance; new, higher ethical standards; a careful regeneration of trust with the fans and public – these are all essential.
But most of all there is the need for scrutiny. Where there is unease, doubt, uncertainty, or suspicion, it is the duty of those with leadership responsibility to probe, investigate and interrogate with a clear, sceptical, questioning eye. That’s how truth and respect is won.
Yes, competitive cycling is a tough game. There are gold medals at stake and as a consequence millions in government Olympic sports funding is continuously at risk. But win-at-all-cost is a toxic game plan.
You might be first across the line, but if you burn the reputation of the sport in the process, you have lost. We have all lost.
We deserve something better, more sustainable, more in line with the values of the millions who ride a bike for the love of it.
There is now a once-in-a-generation opportunity to refresh the culture of competitive cycling. The riders have faced up to it and have committed to a clean future.
Let’s see whether the administrators are up to the job and can regain our trust in the sport.
General Manager, Government & External Relations