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There is little to be gained by investigating the past . . . cycling needs a clean slate

IT is exactly a year ago to the day that Lance Armstrong shook the sporting world to its core by answering in the affirmative to Oprah Winfrey's questions enquiring if he had doped during his seven Tour de France victories.

The UCI's investigation should not simply focus on Lance Armstrong. Picture: Reuters
The UCI's investigation should not simply focus on Lance Armstrong. Picture: Reuters

In some ways, much has changed within cycling in the past 12 months. There is no question that the sport is cleaner than it has ever been, with no hint of the systematic doping of riders which was so damaging during Armstrong's era.

The steady drip of riders confessing to past doping misdemeanours has slowed to a trickle. There has been a complete overhaul at the top of the sport's governing body, the International Cycling Union (UCI), which was widely considered necessary in order for the sport to move forward. Brian Cookson has taken over from Pat McQuaid as president of the UCI to almost universal approval within the cycling community.

In other areas though, progress has been almost non-existent.

No-one is any clearer over allegations that the UCI was complicit in wrong-doing in the past and whether or not they turned a blind eye to the doping epidemic in their sport. It also remains unclear if the governing body was complicit in Armstrong covering up his doping offences on the grounds that the damage which would have resulted from cycling's biggest star testing positive would have been cataclysmic for the sport.

In an attempt to clear up some, or possibly all, of these unanswered questions, Cookson announced that an independent commission had been formed, with the aim of investigating the problems that cycling has faced in recent years. The commission - independent of, but funded by, the UCI - will make recommendations for new procedures to prevent cycling from ever going down those routes again.

While the details of the process are still vague, Cookson has said that he feels the investigation should look back as far as 1998, when the Festina affair exposed the endemic levels of doping in cycling.

Despite a lack of details, it has been made clear that riders who confess to previous doping indiscretions will not be granted amnesty. Rumours had surfaced that in order to ensure all information was disclosed to the commission, riders would be protected from any subsequent punishment, but this will not be the case.

The World Anti-Doping Authority's code states that sanctions cannot be waived entirely under any circumstances, so that option is off-limits. This is the commission's first challenge. It will have no judiciary power so cannot subpoena anyone to testify, nor will it have the power to charge anyone with perjury. There is no legal weight behind the investigation yet individuals will be punished for any admissions, so persuading people to come forward, particularly if they are still active within the sport, will prove difficult to say the least.

The WADA code allows reduced sentences for anyone who co-operates and provides information, but even this may not be enough.

Cookson is banking on the commission uncovering the facts of this murky period solely on the basis of each cyclist's desire to come clean. For the president to pin his hopes on the entire truth emerging as a result of little more than each individual's moral compass is dubious, to say the least.

These are individuals who have either doped themselves or helped others with a doping programme, so it seems unlikely that they will all be willing to confess now, with the very real threat of punishment and few tangible incentives to encourage any disclosures.

Another danger the investigation faces is if it transpires that the committee focuses too heavily on Armstrong. The American was the most successful rider of the doping era but he was a symptom, not the cause. There would be a lot of very relieved individuals if Armstrong was to be the primary focus of the investigation and remain the whipping boy for cycling's entire doping era, as he has been to date.

The commission must have a wide remit for the investigation if they are to have any hope at all of uncovering the truth.

The investigation is scheduled to conclude by the end of the year and, while it is encouraging to think that all of the wrong-doing by riders, support staff and the UCI will be exposed, the feeling remains that, in the end, little will be gained.

The benefits of raking over ground as far back as 16 years ago, appear limited. There is little doubt that the sport must have greater transparency in order to regain the trust of the fans but I fail to see how unveiling corrupt behaviour from more than a decade ago is the best way to do this.

It is, as yet, too early to predict if this year will end with a clean slate for cycling and enable everyone to look forward. A clean slate is what is needed, though.

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