Cookson: Verbruggen and McQuaid actions unforgivable

Following the release of the Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC) report, UCI president Brian Cookson spoke to Cyclingnews about the findings in the 228-page document. Cookson was elected UCI president on September 27, 2013 and quickly moved to set up a "truth and reconciliation" process, which became CIRC in January 2014, to investigate the role of the UCI in the doping practices of the sport that took place between 1998 to 2013.

"This Commission will investigate the problems cycling has faced in recent years, especially the allegations that the UCI has been involved in wrongdoing in the past – allegations which have done so much to hurt the credibility of the UCI and our sport," Cookson said in a UCI press release following the announcement.

Cyclingnews: Before the report came out you said that it would be uncomfortable reading. Have you found that to be the case?

Brian Cookson: Yes I think there are elements that are uncomfortable, as I expected. There are other elements that are quite encouraging. It’s a pretty accurate picture but I welcome the report and the sport should as well.

CN: What elements are uncomfortable reading for you?

BC: I’m not personally uncomfortable. There are bits that make difficult reading for the UCI as an institution. There are criticisms over how the UCI handled things in the past and I’m worried by the extent of the continuing doping that the commission felt was still going on. That means we have to pay attention to the problems. It’s also uncomfortable reading for people previously involved with the UCI.

CN: Do you think that the report was balanced because as well as the details on the UCI’s past governance there parts of CIRC that showed cycling had made steps forward?

BC: I think the report is what it is. It fulfills the terms of reference and they done their job with integrity and commitment. There are one or two elements that, I don’t want to be too critical at all, but there are some elements that have allowed the media to pick up and emphasis more than they deserve. For instance one rider suggesting that up to 90 per cent of the peloton are still doping. Others have said it’s much else but no surprise that the media picked up on the 90 per cent figure more than the 20 per cent. Those are the things that are going to cause concerns.

It will cause concern to riders in the current peloton who think that the percentage is lower rather than higher and I’m absolutely convinced that that’s the case. I want to support the riders and the teams in the current peloton who are determined to compete clean. They’re in the majority now but I’m not complacent because we need to continue our efforts because there are still those tying to cheat.

CN: What did you make of that claim, that up to 90 per cent of the peloton are doping?

BC: I would hope it’s nearer to 20 than 90. It might even be less than that. Unfortunately some of the media focused on the 90 rather than the 20, which I think is misleading. What is clear is that there are a lot riders competing clean and I want to try and support them. The UCI, our responsibility is to do that, and to challenge and catch those that are not competing cleanly.

CN: What’s your opinion on the number of active riders two talked to CIRC? [only one, Chris Froome, was named].

BC: It might be that a number of active riders were on the anonymous list. I’m a little disappointed today to hear that some riders say they weren’t asked or consulted. It was an open invitation and CIRC was in existence for 13 months. It was willing to go and meet people, it did go and meet people but that said I want to try and support the current riders in the peloton.

CN: Although the UCI leadership wasn't found to be corrupt there were serious elements of poor leadership and inappropriate governance. In your opinion why was this allowed to take place?

BC: Absolutely, standards of governance were very poor and there were leadership issues that showed poor judgment. There were areas of conflict of interest and actions that were taken that compounded themselves and them left us with longer term problems. So for instance, the UCI’s attitude to doping was one of containment and education rather than trying to stop cheats and protect clean athletes. The image of the sport in PR terms was prioritized over the integrity of the sport and the protection of riders who didn’t want to cheat.

That lead to what you would describe as, if you were being generous, errors of judgment. For instance when Lance Armstrong had a positive test in the 1999 Tour. He was assisted by the backdated TUE. When you think about it, that was a pivotal moment for our sport. If that hadn’t happened and instead they found him guilty, sent him home from the Tour de France and sanctioned, then we’d be looking at a much different landscape. But that episode gave the signal to Armstrong and his team that the UCI would assist them in covering up these kind of problems. It gave a signal to other teams and other riders that they could expect the same treatment.

CN: The report stopped short of calling Verbruggen and McQuaid corrupt. According to evidence gathered that charge wasn’t warranted but in your eyes how close were they to that term or charge?

BC: There were very serious errors in judgment. I’m happy to leave the rest of the world to read the report and make their own minds up.

CN: One might argue that the report merely scratches the surfaces of doping in the sport. If given more time do you think would have found more instances of poor governance and by that I mean looking at the rest of the UCI management committee.

BC: Perhaps with more time but I think that it was important that we had timescale. We couldn’t let this dangle indefinitely in an important step in improving the credibility of the sport. There may be other transgressions from over the years, I don’t know, but I’ve got a complete commitment not to cover up any transgressions. And I guarantee we’ll do that.

CN: From the leadership of Verbruggen and McQuaid what for you was the most flagrant abuse of power and position?

BC: If I can pick one then the thing that caused me the most concern was over the revelations surrounding the Vrijman report – the well-evidenced information that not only was the report not independent it was never intended to be so. It was presented to the public and media as one thing when in fact it was something completely different and large parts of it were written by Lance Armstrong’s lawyers. That’s absolutely disgraceful and beyond just an error in judgment. That’s complicity and something that’s very serious.

CN: How much of this information were you aware of before the report came out?

BC: I like everyone else had my suspicions. I read things on the internet and I read allegations. With CIRC we were determined to have genuinely independent people with integrity looking at these allegations. We captured the IT, gave them a brief and we let them get on with it. Their report was well evidenced.

CN: When you joined the management committee were you really not aware of how the Vrijman report was conducted or how Armstrong was allowed into the Tour Down Under and the Tour of Ireland link?

BC: Absolutely not. I joined the committee in 2009 by which point most of the issues were past. When you join something like that you’re the new boy. You listen, you learn and you keep your ears and your eyes open. You gradually work out who are your allies and who might be behaving in a way that causes you concern. I came to the conclusion that change was needed and that was brought to a head with the Armstrong affair in 2012 and into 2013 with how the UCI’s previously president dealt with that. I said, you know what, someone else has to bring about change here an if no one else is going to do it then I’m going to put my name forward.

CN: So on the election, when you told the media in January 2013 that you were 100 per cent behind Pat McQuaid, was it only later month did you realize that there were elements with the UCI that had systematic problems?

BC: At the UCI management committee meeting in Louisville, at which point it appeared that the independent commission that McQuaid had tried to put together had been badly put together, had cost an enormous amount of money and was completely incapable of doing anything because it was supported by WADA or USADA.

I was very anxious at that time to help the UCI stabalise itself so as a member of the management committee you have some corporate responsibilities for keeping things stable and that’s what I did. But the first opportunity I had, and I found more and more about the allegations I realized that things had to change. It was between that management committee meeting and the one in June where there was another one when the so called “dossier” was discussed. By that time I decided I would stand as a candidate for the presidency.

CN: So between that period in 2009 when you weren’t that aware of the allegations and 2013 when you became anxious of the governance, what would you class that period of time for you, given that we still had the USADA report and the Contador affair?

BC: I became increasingly concerned that the UCI was not being lead appropriately. When you join something like that you can’t go in all guns blazing without learning how things work, who is doing what and who is taking what decision. I became increasingly concerned with how the UCI was handling the Lance Armstrong and USADA situation that things were not being led in the right way.

Let me give you an example. During the 2012 Games I came across an informal discussion in one of the venues in a coffee room with McQuaid and a number of his staff. They were talking about the USADA situation and jurisdiction. I couldn’t understand why were talking about that rather than making sure how we caught a cheat. That made me think that something wasn’t right. When I said that there was a look of “oh my god, don’t say that”. That’s indicative and underlined in the CIRC report that the Verbruggen and McQuaid report was so polluted by their desire to fight with WADA and USADA with their personal battles, and prioritize that over the good of the sport. They allowed their judgment to be clouded and for me that’s unforgivable.

CN: In terms of your support during the election what role did Makarov play in your candidacy because that’s something CIRC picked up on?

BC: Igor Makarov is the sponsor of a team. He’s the president of a national federation, he has supplied funding for continental federations and I have to say that he’s always been direct and honest in his dealings with me. I have no reasons to suspect that he’s behaved in an inappropriate way in his dealing in cycling. I know that the European Cycling Union was concerned to establish a mechanism in how that sponsorship was allocated with national federations. So there’s absolutely no connection between the funding provided by him to the votes and the allegations of vote buying. Absolutely none at all.

CN: Did he help to fund your candidacy at all?

BC: Absolutely not. I had a campaign with absolute transparency on a manifesto that we’re implementing. I needed support from people around the world, clearly. And I talked to people around the world. I didn’t ask for funding, just support for my manifesto and I said that I was determined to run the sport with integrity and if people wanted that they could support me. I’m happy to say that many did support me.

CN: Did you ask Makarov to talk to CIRC?

BC: I did ask him to talk to CIRC. I know that he made a lot of information available to them. I know that he asked a number of his colleagues to speak to them. I know that he also had bereavement in his family, which on one occasion meant he couldn’t speak to him but I do accept that they were disappointed that he wasn’t able to attend personally.

CN: CIRC found that it was unethical that Makarov had put together his dossier on McQuaid. Do you agree with that?

BC: I must admit that I was puzzled by that. If someone believes that something is corrupt then it’s the right thing to do to investigate. Mr Makarov made that information available to the commission. All of that period was very uncomfortable for all of us on the UCI Management Committee. We had some difficult meetings but if that had not been pursued maybe I wouldn’t be sat here talking to you because we wouldn’t have realized the scale of the problems that were out there. Frankly I don’t think that this is over. I think that there might be further evidence that comes to light as a result of that investigation.

CN: Finally, on the recommendations: what did you make of them, what can be put into practice with the next 12 months?

BC: They’re all very interesting. What we need to do now is establish a working group of senior staff here at the UCI to analyse the recommendations and see what we can do quickly. We’ll make recommendations to the UCI management committee that will next be meeting in June. We will then see if we need to make any rule changes.

I like the idea of establishing a better, stronger whistleblower system. We need to make sure that it works so that it’s not an empty office with a telephone ringing unanswered. We need to hear the voices of our teams and riders and we need their support. All of these things aren’t just recommendations for the UCI. They’re recommendations for the sport. Our sport can have a bright future but we all have to take our responsibility for helping it in that respect.

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