With yesterday’s decision by cycling’s federation to bow to USADA’s comprehensive report of massive doping violations and conspiracy, UCI has stripped American cyclist Lance Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles (1999-2005). Now USADA is calling for an amnesty program similar to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in post-apartheid South Africa which would allow any cyclist to come clean about his use of performance enhancing drugs so that the sport might somehow pull out of its current death spiral.
“It is important to remember that while today is a historic day for clean sport, it does not mean clean sport is guaranteed for tomorrow,” read part of a USADA-released statement.
The South African TRC was a court-like body where victims of human rights violations came to give witness about their experiences, while perpetrators of violence and rights violators could also give testimony and request amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution. The TRC was credited, along with president and former political prisoner Nelson Mandela, for helping South Africa make the political and social transition beyond apartheid peaceful.
The cynic in me senses that the impetus for instituting a cycling amnesty program will likely be based less on USADA’s findings enumerating Armstrong’s guilt, or cycling’s refusal to self-correct, but in reaction to the Dutch company Rabobank’s decision to end its 17-year sponsorship of professional cycling. As Watergate so truly reminded us nearly 40 years ago, follow the money.
“We are no longer convinced that the international professional world of cycling can make this a clean and fair sport,” said Rabobank board member Bert Bruggink in a statement. “We are not confident that this will change for the better in the foreseeable future.
“The USADA report was the final straw,” he added later in a press conference televised live in the Netherlands. “The international sport of cycling is not only sick, the sickness goes up to the highest levels.”
Rabobank had been committed to the sport of cycling to the tune of €15 million a year in sponsorship. And that’s just one of 22 teams which participated in the 2012 Tour. Compare that level of sponsorship with Virgin’s reported commitment of £17 million to the London Marathon between 2010 and 2014 – that’s £17 million total for five years, not £17 million per year. Or, Samsung’s reported $2 million yearly investment in the Diamond League, the premier athletics tour in the world. Samsung signed a new three-year extension this past January.
The sport of athletics battled internally for years before stepping gingerly out of its amateur past into a quasi-professional status in the 1980s. But like Catholic girls of old, they never went all the way, and the sport has been on the margins of professionalism ever since. The sport was further compromised after Canada’s Ben Johnson was stripped of his 1988 Olympic 100-meter gold medal in Seoul, Korea after failing a drug test.
With its constant drip, drip, drip of drug violations becoming the headline story for the sport rather than competition, one could say that athletics has never truly reached the heights achieved in the Cold War era when the sport sublimated the binary Free World and Communist World antipathy.
Even today with Jamaica’s Usain Bolt as its headliner, athletics is not viewed as truly professional by the general public, nor seen as worthy of financial backing on par with other world sports. Bolt is, by far, the highest paid track athlete in the world, yet comes in as only the 63rd highest paid athlete on the globe. No other track athlete even nibbles at the edges of the list.
These are the long-term consequences of an ostrich-like stance. One wonders if cycling will ever fully pull its head free in time to recover.