As someone who had his own share of battles with the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) Graeme Obree is well-placed to judge the effectiveness of an organisation currently defending themselves against accusations of at best incompetence, and at worst being complicit in systemic doping in professional cycling.
Obree, a former world hour record holder and 4000m pursuit world champion, broke the hour record on self-designed and self-built bikes. The bikes, Old Faithful and Superman, were controversially banned by the UCI. Speaking to We Are Free Agents after his presentation at the launch of Glasgow University’s Sport and Wellbeing Week, Obree said the current doping scandal proves the UCI aren’t fit for purpose:
“I don’t think the UCI are a fit body to be running the sport. The UCI is an autocratic, old boys’ network all the way through the levels of the pyramid. I think there’s no way of repairing that organisation.”
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) this week said it was “dismayed” by the UCI’s handling of the Lance Armstrong scandal, and branded the governing body “deceitful” and “arrogant.” The UCI had previously disbanded its own independent commission set up to investigate any alleged UCI involvement in widespread doping in professional cycling.
And Obree says the sport’s governing body knew about the widespread doping well before the U.S Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) published their body of evidence against Armstong in October 2012: “Oh yeah, of course the UCI knew about doping, everybody knew, from national coaches right up.”
He added that although much has come to light since the publication of the USADA’s evidence, cycling as a sport is still trying to protect its own interests instead of fully confronting the issue of doping: “Cycling did the minimum that it could to deal with this issue, and they’ve been forced into the situation because of Lance. Even Lance is saying the minimum. So cycling is just enduring the process.”
It seems the possibility of a truth and reconciliation process is now even less likely, after the UCI made claims it would be joint-funded between themselves and WADA, to which WADA responded by accusing the UCI of misrepresenting the two organisations’ exchanges.
But Obree thinks the prospect of a truth and reconciliation process is too little too late: “I don’t think it would make any difference at all. From my personal point of view I was so angry and resentful, because I lost my career and income, and was depressed. People were in denial about the drug taking, and it’s taken this long for people to go: ‘oh my goodness, it was like Graeme said it was.’ So now I’m kind of indifferent, because who did what doesn’t matter anymore.”
Part of the reason Obree thinks “who did what doesn’t matter anymore” is because doping was so widespread and systemic that young riders were forced into it to demonstrate their commitment to the sport:
“I can see the pressures on the riders. Before you even get to the Tour de France, several layers down, in top amateur clubs in France, Italy and everywhere, riders get groomed from a young age that drugs is what everyone does, and that it isn’t cheating it’s part of the sport. So what happens is people who won’t do it don’t even get to the Tour de France. I wouldn’t describe them as amoral people, because they’re groomed into that. I understand the pressures on riders, when they’re thinking ‘I’ve got to do this, everyone else is doing it, and it’s part of my job. I put ten years of my life into this; I’ve got to do drugs.”
Obree was ostracised from professional cycling for his commitment to riding clean. He tells a story from the 1996 Olympics, when a competitor came to him to apologise before the 4,000 metres because it was generally acknowledged that Obree, world champion in 1993 and 1995, had no chance in the event because everyone else was doping.
He points to being kicked out of professional French team Le Groupement as one of the key moments in his psychological demise in 1995: “I was told by that French team that every single rider in the Tour de France was doing it, and that you can’t have a loose cannon. You know what the most depressing thing about it is? They genuinely believed you were being unprofessional. These folk that walked off in disgust thought I wasn’t taking my job seriously. They thought I was a slob for not taking drugs.”
According to Obree cycling is far from the only sport plagued by use of performance enhancing drugs: “I got invited on a drugs camp with track and field athletes. I think if there’s money in sport, and there’s money for winning, and it’s a sport where not tiring out makes a big difference, then you’re talking about a business, and if an undetectable substance is going to get you that money, why would every single human being turn away from it?
“Operation Puerto just happened to stop three weeks before the soccer World Cup. There were footballers involved in that [Operation Puerto]. So this isn’t just a thing in cycling. Cycling has now been exposed, and I’ve got a feeling this is now going to spread. There’s other folk in other sports who are hoping it doesn’t spread to them. Because where there’s big money, and not tiring makes a big difference, then why wouldn’t there be doping?”
There’s been some nervousness amongst British sports fans as the Armstrong saga has unfolded, what with several of the UKs most celebrated current athletes being successful cyclists. But Obree is confident that the present generation are committed to riding on ‘pan y agua’: “Certainly I’d be shocked to the core if Chris Hoy or Nicole Cooke or anyone like that was taking drugs. There’s been a huge pegging back of performance.
“Here’s a stat for you: In Lance’s era riders were producing 6.7 watts of power per kilogram of body weight, now the average is 5.7 watts per kilogram, so you’re talking about 15 percent less power. So there is evidence the riders are producing a whole lot less power.”
Although he doesn’t think the sport is completely clean, Obree has hope for the cycling’s future: “I know for a fact that riders are still doping, because somebody told me. But here’s the big difference: 20 years ago you were thought of as a rank amateur who wasn’t taking his job seriously if you weren’t doping. The average rider now isn’t going to accept someone in their peer group doing that.
“Taking drugs is now a behaviour pattern that is not acceptable to the average rider, even the very, very top riders. Doping is only going to be eliminated by attitude, and that attitude is pretty well there.”