Lance Armstrong Isn’t Cycling’s Only Villain

A demoralizing investigation on performance-enhancing substances in cycling has found that the sport’s international governing bodies have largely ignored anti-doping efforts and shielded athletes from testing positive. This may not be a huge surprise, but the breadth of the problem as disclosed is still pretty shocking.

The 227-page report by the Cycling Independent Reform Commission concludes that for years, the International Cycling Union ignored widespread doping, particularly in regard to Lance Armstrong, to protect the sport’s reputation and maintain its growth. It states:

The allegations and review of UCI’s anti-doping programme reveal that decisions taken by UCI leadership in the past have undermined anti-doping efforts: examples range from adopting an attitude that prioritised a clean image and sought to contain the doping problem, to disregarding the rules and giving preferential status to high profile athletes, to publicly criticising whistleblowers and engaging in personal disputes with other stakeholders. These actions severely undermined the credibility of UCI and therefore the reputation of the sport.

The report notes that while UCI leaders didn’t necessarily “knowingly or deliberately” allow doping and high-profile dopers to continue competing, they failed to enforce their own policies. The organization was well aware of cycling’s widespread problem, but publicly downplayed its magnitude and employed ineffective testing practices “to give the impression that UCI was tough on doping rather than actually being good at anti-doping.”

Perhaps the biggest news — and disappointment to many — is that the report dispelled accusations of corruption, finding that while Armstrong donated money to the anti-doping program, there’s no evidence it was a bribe used to cover-up reports of him testing positive.

Still, Armstrong’s case seems to be emblematic of a wider problem. His first Tour de France victory in 1999 was viewed as the best path toward increasing cycling’s popularity. Over time, the cycling union’s leadership “did not know how to differentiate between Armstrong the hero, seven-time winner of the Tour, cancer survivor, huge financial and media success and a role model for thousands of fans, from Lance Armstrong the cyclist, a member of the peloton with the same rights and obligations as any other professional cyclist.”

There are many parallels between this and baseball’s treatment of players linked to performance-enhancing drugs in the ’90s. In both cases,  leadership turned a blind eye in order to spur fan growth. Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire were viewed as baseball’s path to salvation following the 1994 strike that alienated many fans. A doping scandal was the last thing needed in trying to restore the sport’s image.

In both sports, however, shielding the most famous players from anti-doping efforts ultimately made their downfalls all the more spectacular. Nobody is more aware of this than Alex Rodriguez, once the face of his sport but now the embodiment of humiliation. As with Rodriguez, the report finds that Armstrong cheated and deserved to be punished, but noted that his doping wasn’t all that different from many of his peers’. Some observers feel that their high profiles ultimately caused their sports to disproportionately target them. (Neither athlete inspires much sympathy, as both tried to take down everyone around them on their way to the bottom.)

Ultimately, however, baseball seems to have largely recovered from its doping scandal, while cycling remains in the thick of it. According to the report, increased anti-doping efforts have made cheating less prevalent but have also made the methods of doping more sophisticated. The report notes the shift from team-organized doping to cheating on an individual level, and adds that the practice is growing in amateur cycling, with youth cycling at particular risk.

“The challenge to the UCI is huge, given that the culture of doping has not been eradicated,” the report concludes.

Kavitha A. Davidson writes about sports for Bloomberg View. She previously worked as an editor at the Huffington Post.

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