Commentary

UCI complies, but can't escape blame

Updated: October 23, 2012, 12:13 AM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

A lot of truth regarding the Lance Armstrong era in cycling has emerged in the past few weeks.

Reconciliation, it seems, will be far more elusive.

On Monday, U.S. Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart called for an independent commission to seek truth and reconciliation in tandem. His statement came after the International Cycling Union, cycling's international governing body, officially ratified the sanctions USADA wanted imposed on Armstrong: A lifetime ban from the sport and loss of prize money and results, including his seven Tour de France titles.

The voluminous, damning USADA files released earlier this month truly gave the UCI no wiggle room, although such are the federation's credibility problems these days that plenty of people openly wondered if it would act otherwise. The UCI could have elected to contest Armstrong's penalties -- or the reduced six-month suspensions handed to active riders who admitted their own doping and described Armstrong's in sworn testimony to USADA -- before the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

[+] EnlargeLance Armstrong
FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty ImagesOn Monday, the UCI accepted sanctions from USADA, stripping Lance Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles and instituting a lifetime ban from the sport of cycling.

But the UCI declined to appeal. In a verbal nod to the USADA witnesses, its president, Pat McQuaid, said he was "sickened" by their accounts and singled out that of the emotionally conflicted Dave Zabriskie as particularly disturbing.

There was no suggestion the UCI might have done better and no admission that the administrators running the asylum at the time (from 1991-2005 under the loudly unapologetic, still-influential honorary president Hein Verbruggen) bore any responsibility for what the inmates were doing.

Most of us closely following the developments didn't expect a mea culpa. The UCI's reaction to the allegations made about those years has been consistent: Denial, the place occupied by all but a few in the sport until Armstrong's former teammates finally unburdened themselves. McQuaid insisted that positive tests were not covered up. In a hair-raising bit of rationalization, he said he wouldn't rule out the concept of the federation accepting monetary "donations" from riders, as it did from Armstrong in his heyday.

Until reasonably refuted -- and don't hold your breath -- the perception will linger that Armstrong was an overly cozy hotline call away from bringing the UCI down on his rivals, as he did when he dropped a dime on Tyler Hamilton in 2004, according to Hamilton's testimony. Mind you, inside information is necessary in anti-doping enforcement, but only if it can be provided by or used to investigate anyone.

It's still hard to digest that so many people had a slice of knowledge about the organized doping on those old U.S. Postal Service and Discovery teams, yet the critical mass of truth-telling didn't begin to build until Floyd Landis confessed and drew a road map of the bigger picture in 2010. What's equally notable is the UCI apparently made no attempt to investigate the claims that did surface, whether they were in newspaper accounts or the books written by tenacious Irish journalist David Walsh.

Despite the many names cited in the USADA findings and the resulting fallout, there are numerous figures still holding positions of authority in cycling who have not been made to answer for what they did, what they knew, and when they knew and did it. That inquiry needs to start now, or the sport will risk a repeat of the situation in which Zabriskie, among many others, found himself -- essentially, a workplace that was hostile unless riders caved to its twisted ethic.

Critics are focused at the moment on regime change at the UCI's helm. It's essential to have leadership whose first reaction to charges such as the USADA's isn't a knee-jerk attempt to wrestle away jurisdiction. The UCI's blatant conflict of interest in promoting and policing its sport is shared by other international sports federations, but the scale of its public failure is unique.

If anyone is still wondering why USADA posted 1,000 pages of evidence online, it's because anything the agency kept sealed in the file it forwarded to the UCI may stay that way forever. It's certainly fair to speculate how eager McQuaid would have been to cite the affidavits of Landis and Hamilton, whom he called "scumbags'' in comments to reporters Monday.

However, there should be just as much scrutiny aimed at the bottom of the pyramid. Testing conducted by a federation is only as good as its weakest link. There is no doubt that process is more comprehensive, fair and effective than it was 10 years ago.

But, just asking: Are there still doping control officers who telegraph their arrival? Are their ranks being monitored to try to ensure there are no more "protected" teams and riders? USADA documented instances in which Astana, the team Armstrong rode for in his comeback 2009 season, received preferential treatment from testers during that year's Tour, with no consequences. This isn't all ancient history.

Perhaps the most striking phrase McQuaid uttered Monday -- one he likely meant as an expression of strength -- was the idea that Armstrong "deserves to be forgotten" even as the figurative statues to him are hauled away and the delete key applied to his titles in the history books. That is the worst thing cycling could do. The sport should remember him at every switchback.

For many years, "the next Lance Armstrong" was used in the form of a question, as in, "is Rider X the next Lance Armstrong?" It was a competitive mantle some aspired to and some yearned to confer, especially in the United States. Now, that turn of speech needs to be placed in a different context. It should be used to refer to something that must never be allowed to happen again.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com.

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