In the third part of RIDE’s interview with the president of British Cycling, Brian Cookson from 26 August, he explains the hopes he and his federation had for Team Sky when it was set up – and the reasons why an approach such as the one made by Sir David Brailsford was necessary, what a ‘truth and reconciliation’ commission needs to achieve, and other aspects of the quandaries raised by the culture of doping in cycling.
Brian Cookson: “When team Sky was being set up there were some difficult decisions that had to be made that we – and I’ll say ‘we’ because it was something that we did in Britain – really wanted.
“We wanted to have a team of our own, a British based team, because what we were finding was that we were developing riders 90 per cent of the way along the talent pathway and for that last 10 per cent we had to put them in an environment that we had no control over. No control over the ethics, the medical control, the coaching, the finances and so on… and a number of teams, maybe even the majority of teams, were very dubious. And, by the nature of which teams were set up, there was very little control over those processes. So we certainly wanted to have a team that we felt we could trust – the people involved in it – and put our riders in that environment and not have them exposed to that risk.
“I am reasonably confident that that was the right thing to do. I think some issues arose about the way [the zero tolerance policy] was implemented; some mistakes were made in terms of individuals who kept on lying and finally some of them have done the right thing and I respect them for that. If others have not done, then it’s regrettable and hopefully things will come out eventually…
“If you look at the Garmin [Slipstream] situation, it’s slightly different. They set off on the basis of, ‘Well, we will employ ex-dopers providing they are suitably penitent and have served their bans and so on…’ whereas Sky started out on the basis of ‘We won’t employ anybody who’s had any involvement in doping…’ and that was a tough ask, I think.”
RIDE: Yes, almost impossible.
You then start to get concerns that there are people who are trading off the fact that they are completely transparent and yet they’re so clouded because they don’t want to know the truth. Even with the solution, there are problems…
Cookson: “Oh, yeah. Let’s be clear, there’s no easy answer to any of this here because there are lots of people with lots of conflicts and it’s difficult for me as well, in an interview like this, to name names. I don’t want to do that because I don’t want to prejudice what might happen in the future. But clearly a large number of professional road cyclists – particularly male – have conflicted histories in that respect. And the more that comes out and the sooner it comes out, the better. But where will it end and how do we make that end? I’m not entirely sure, I have to admit.
“There’s a lot of talk about a truth and reconciliation commission but what do we actually mean by that? I’m going to bring proposals forward in the next couple of weeks about how I see that working but I think the important thing is having some input from other people as well – how they see it working…”
RIDE: It has to be people from outside the sport…
Cookson: “I think you do. I like the model of the Mitchell Report into baseball in the US that was very highly respected. It doesn’t mean that baseball still doesn’t have problems – it does – but a genuinely independent review of those…
“Well, the first thing we have to do is put to be those allegations of the Armstrong era and so on, of collusions and cover-ups in the UCI. If there’s been anything about that, it needs to be resolved and it needs to be investigated properly and thoroughly and published.
“The UCI has got to be clean in that respect. And until we have that done – that investigation – then we won’t got that confidence back.
“But in terms of how the rest of it needs to operate, this investigation – however we’re going to call it, a commission… whatever it’s going to be – it needs to have some sort of agreement with [the] WADA, the IOC and others that there can be a degree of amnesty in it. Whether people like it or not, there’s got to be some incentive for people to come forward.
“I still think we’ve got to resolve how far back we go with that. I mean do we go as far back as 1998?”
RIDE: 1967… really…
Cookson: “If you go back to the very beginnings of the sport and you see horrendous stories of people taking strychnine and god knows what else and so on… so where do you stop?
“At the moment what’s stopping people from the past saying what they did? It’s their reputation, basically. The top riders of the past were they all entirely doing it off bread and water? Seems doubtful.”
RIDE: But you don’t go to a businessman and say, ‘Okay, where did you save on your tax?’ for example. And it’s exactly the same thing that you’re asking athletes to do: how did you cheat to gain?
Cookson: “There needs to be a degree of amnesty. That was how [the] USADA operated with the Lance Armstrong affair; they offered amnesties to the people who were willing to tell the truth and compiled a case and so on…
“I think you’ve to do something like that but you’ve got difficulties there now because doping in sport, for instance, is a criminal offense in some countries. You could give a sporting amnesty and people could fly home after ‘This Enquiry’ and be arrested at the airport by their local law enforcement agencies. So it’s not that simple really.”
RIDE: That’s why I’m saying to you as the potential president of the UCI, what is the solution? There are problems and everyone is aware of these problems…
Cookson: “The solution, I think, is to have a genuinely independent inquiry to which people are invited to tell the truth with a degree of amnesty built into that. And you can’t get there until you’ve got bodies like WADA in agreement with that.”
RIDE: Because the premise of that would be to suggest that if you’ve lied this well up until now, then your gain is an amnesty – you still win…
Cookson: “Well, you do still win because you’re not going to be forced to pay back the prize money and all the rest of it. So you’ve got the riders who testified against Lance Armstrong still living in their expensive properties and benefitting from the image that they’ve had. Others might suffer more.
“I think Stuart O’Grady has already found that there’s a pretty big downside to what he’s confessed to so far.
“It is difficult because you’re not going to have an answer that is going to make everybody happy.
“The last time I did an interview on this I said, ‘Well, we could probably go back as far as 1998…’ and they said, ‘Ah, so all the Brits who are implicated before 1998 get a free pass! That’s why Cookson is saying this.’
“You can’t win that. It’s a zero sum gain.
“The issue goes right back to the credibility of the body that is handling how that issue is dealt with. And because people don’t have any belief in the impartiality, transparency, and the trustworthiness of the UCI, then you have to have some sort of separate body dealing with it in the future. And you have to have some sort of independent inquiries into what went on in the past. And you have to have that forensic detailed investigation of the allegations of conspiracy and collusion and so on.”
RIDE: None of that is cheap and the UCI, for all of its power in cycling, hasn’t got a massive budget in sporting terms, has it?
Cookson: “Well, it’s not got a huge budget, but it managed to find 2,250,000 Swiss francs to fund an independent commission that never took place.
“I think it’s important that we use the resources that we’ve got as efficiently and effectively as is possible to establish a genuinely proper and trustworthy reputation so how we handle those issues… it’s of critical importance that the outcome of whatever money we do spend does deliver a credible result and a credible reputation for the body, the UCI, going forward. And that’s quite a difficult thing to ask because the reputation is at such a terrible low point at the moment. There’s a lot of work needing to be done on all of that at the moment and I don’t pretend there’s an easy answer. And I don’t pretend that one man can make the difference. It has to be a lot of people contributing over, I hope, quite a short time but it needs to be quite an intense period of time. That’s going to, obviously, be a major priority if I’m elected president.”
– Interview by Rob Arnold
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