Brian Cookson interview – part 02
On 26 August, Brian Cookson spoke with Rob Arnold from RIDE about his take on the cycling world – politics, doping, administration of sport and his bid for the presidency of the UCI. Here is part two of that conversation which you can find on Soundcloud or as a transcript…
Brian Cookson: “What I really want to get away from is something like we saw in the Tour [de France]. I was at the top of the Ventoux in the guest area there [at the end of stage 15 in the 2013 race] and we saw on the big screen, Chris Froome attacks and there were people booing and whistling in the crowd. You know, I feel that Dave Brailsford shouldn’t have to say to the assembled media, ‘What have we got to do to convince you guys?’ That’s the UCI’s job.
“The UCI should have put in place sufficiently credible and transparent processes that people do actually believe that what they’re seeing is genuine performances now. But we haven’t done that, the UCI hasn’t done that, and so people have the we-won’t-get-fooled-again attitude.
“You know? You’ve seen exceptional performances in the past and those have proved to be drug-fuelled and therefore [if we see] an exceptional now, let’s assume that that’s drug-fuelled as well. Well, that’s a terrible situation for anybody – an athlete like Chris Froome… or Sky, you can take as one example and there are lots of other examples around as well. And I just think that’s a failure of the organisation at the head of the sport that has really bad, negative impact on the whole way in which the sport is viewed and interpreted by the people who are watching it.”
RIDE Cycling Review: If we start backtracking through cycling, we basically have to stop at 1967, the 13th of July… Tom Simpson changed things and they put in place protocols to at least address doping after that.
Perhaps it was really just after your arrival as president [of British cycling] – with the Festina Affair [and] everything that happened after that was, in my opinion, too much… We understand that things happened, we don’t have to like it or we don’t have to accept it…
You say there are errors that have happened. What would you have done, for example, in this halcyon concept of you being president after ‘Festina’. How could you have managed that so that Armstrong, for example, never got traction?
Cookson: “Let’s just go right back. I’m really glad that you mention Tom Simpson. I was a 16-year-old school kid at that point, having just taken up cycling a couple of years before when Simpson won the world road champs and obviously, being British, he was my hero – my role model. Of course, at that age, I thought it was only a matter of time before I was going to become good enough to go to France and become his next young team-mate and help him, you know… win the Tour in the fullness of time. How deluded I was.
“A month before [Simpson’s death on 13 July during the 1967 Tour de France] he had ridden a criterium near Liverpool and I’d been down to see him. We all got in a little Mini and went down… and I actually got his signature on his autobiography, I’ve still got it at home.
“So, for him then to die on Ventoux a month later, it was devastating to me. And that’s informed my attitude to the doping issue all along.”
RIDE: Does that mean you were jeering in 1988 when [Pedro] Delgado had his probenicide incident?
Cookson: “I wouldn’t use the word ‘jeering’ but I think a massive amount of scepticism was always in my mind about what went on in pro bike riding.
“Like everybody else, you want to believe – don’t you? You want to believe there are good guys and bad guys and that it isn’t absolutely necessary to be a bad guy to win in cycling. But you then begin to see warning signs and you think, ‘Hang on, that doesn’t add up…’ so your probenicide and all these other things – substances that are on one list and not on another list – okay… that’s one interpretation or another.
“To me, the critical thing is that if you look back at the old days when the UCI was in two halves – the FICP and FIAC, amateur and pro – the penalties for doping in pro cycling were derisory, it was just like one month for first offense, suspended until your second offense and then it was three months… and so on.
“It was a fact that doping was perhaps not tolerated but there was an undercurrent that doping was necessary to be a pro cyclist. We hoped that it wasn’t true and then numerous examples came to light that would cause you to think, ‘Actually it probably is true but let’s still keep hoping it isn’t.’ And then you find out more and more. Then you get someone like Paul Kimmage writing his book and you read it and think, ‘Well, that has a ring of truth about it – that sounds pretty horrendous and wow, the UCI needs to do something about this…’ so what does the UCI do? Does the UCI call Paul Kimmage in and say, ‘Thank you very much for revealing this, we need to do something can you help us?’ No, the UCI says, ‘This is just a bitter rider who wasn’t good enough and he’s deluded and slagging off the rest of the world, and he’s bitter and he’s got a chip on his shoulder…’ and so on.
“Well, perhaps he was bitter. Perhaps he has got a chip on his shoulder. But actually he was telling the truth and nothing much was done about it. It was just business as usual and it got worse in that era because that was the EPO era and people started thinking if they took one shot it was good, so if you took two shots it was twice as good – and they started dying in the middle of the night. So something had to be done about it and all the tests and so on… so, what should we do about it? Bring in the 50 per cent hematocrit limit and hope that nobody abuses it. What then happened? People took that as meaning, ‘Oh, it’s okay – we can all get up to 49.9 per cent… no worries.’ And that got worse and worse and worse. And we got into the Festina situation where, to me, again that was an opportunity for the UCI to grab the nettle, to do something, to say, ‘We’ve got a real serious problem in our sport – we need to lance this boil once and for all.’ Lance is probably an inappropriate word to use there but… you know, to grasp the nettle at that point. It was another opportunity to have done something.
“So there was 1967 as a chance to do something. There was 1990 with Paul Kimmage’s book and there are other examples but each time the UCI failed to do very much about it.
“To me, 1998 was absolutely the watershed moment. That would have been the time to have a truth and reconciliation process. What happened was far, far less than that. There was some outrage expressed and some people tried to do the right thing after that; some teams tried to do the right things, some of the federations tried to do the right thing – others didn’t. Others went the other way and as we now know went to higher and higher levels of conspiracy, cheating and money laundering and god knows what to pursue those aspects.”
RIDE: So a simple penalty would have altered it, do you think? It’s a cultural change that’s…
Cookson: “I think a cultural change – and the signals that the organisation gave out were not strong enough, they were still along the lines of business as usual, keep quiet, and don’t make too much of a fuss. There’s not much we can do here because we can’t test for this substance – but we’ll do health checks.
“Okay, the health checks worked – they stopped people dying in the middle of the night and that was a good thing in terms of damage limitations but it still meant that people were cheating and to become a professional cyclist, in effect – unless you were very exceptional – you had to do that. There is still more to come out from that era, I’m sure. And the partial confessions that we’ve now heard are just that, aren’t they? Partial.”
* * * * *
RIDE Media publishes both the Official Tour de France Guide (Australian Edition) as well as RIDE Cycling Review, a quarterly magazine all about cycling.
RIDE Cycling Review is now available in a digital format via Zinio.