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The UCI Report: The new dawn of professional cycling?

The world of professional cycling and doping have been closely intertwined for many years. Cycling’s International governing Body, Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), is currently trying to clean up the image of the sport and strengthen its credibility. In order to achieve this goal, in January 2014 the UCI established the Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC) “to conduct a wide ranging independent investigation into the causes of the pattern of doping that developed within cycling and allegations which implicate the UCI and other governing bodies and officials over ineffective investigation of such doping practices.”[1] The final report was submitted to the UCI President on 26 February 2015 and published on the UCI website on 9 March 2015. The report outlines the history of the relationship between cycling and doping throughout the years. Furthermore, it scrutinizes the role of the UCI during the years in which doping usage was at its maximum and addresses the allegations made against the UCI, including allegations of corruption, bad governance, as well as failure to apply or enforce its own anti-doping rules. Finally, the report turns to the state of doping in cycling today, before listing some of the key practical recommendations.[2]

Since the day of publication, articles and commentaries (here and here) on the report have been burgeoning and many of the stakeholders have expressed their views (here and here). However, given the fact that the report is over 200 pages long, commentators could only focus on a limited number of aspects of the report, or only take into account the position of a few stakeholders. In the following two blogs we will try to give a comprehensive overview of the report in a synthetic fashion.

This first blogpost will focus on the relevant findings and recommendations of the report. In continuation, a second blogpost will address the reforms engaged by the UCI and other long and short term consequences the report could have on professional cycling. Will the recommendations lead to a different governing structure within the UCI, or will the report fundamentally change the way the UCI and other sport governing bodies deal with the doping problem? 

Relevant findings

Different forms of doping have been around since the earliest days of cycling (1890’s), but it was the introduction of Erythropoietin, or EPO, in the professional peloton that brought the problem of doping to new levels. Taking it enabled an athlete to gain a significant competitive advantage that could range between 10 and 15%.By using EPO, a rider is able to increase the blood’s oxygen carrying capacity, to stimulate muscle growth and aid muscle recovery.[3] However, the use of EPO thickens the blood, and race dehydration concentrates the blood further, which can cause clotting, stroke or heart failure.[4] In fact, there is widespread suspicion that EPO caused the deaths of up to 20 cyclists between 1987 and 1990. Even though cyclists started using forms of EPO as far back as the 1980’s, it was not until 2001 that a reliable detection test for EPO was developed. This meant that professional cyclists were able to use EPO for over a decade with very little chance of getting caught. The exact percentage of professional cyclist using EPO remains unknown, but it is very likely that this figure was well above 50%. “Doping became the norm in the peloton, not only to increase performance but also just to keep up with the rest of the peloton”.[5]

One of the main findings of the report is the revelation that the UCI’s past policy regarding anti-doping was primarily aimed at protecting the health and safety of the riders and not trying to curtail the use of doping all together from (professional) cycling. This is especially evident from the way it chose to combat EPO. In 1997, UCI introduced the “No Start Rule”. Under the rule, the UCI carried out blood tests before and during competition and any rider with a haematocrit reading higher than 50% (when natural levels are normally between 40 and 45%) was deemed unfit for competition and prevented from competing for 15 days from the date of the test.[6] The UCI stated that the purpose of this rule was to protect riders’ health and safety and to prevent further deaths from EPO. It was not an anti-doping rule, but a health and safety measure. However, the problem with this measure is that it allowed the use of EPO, and therefore doping, to a certain extent. Furthermore, given that the advantage gained from EPO was so significant, the riders were in fact obliged to use EPO simply to keep up, let alone to win.

In order to understand the UCI’s position in this matter, the report explains in full detail the facts that led up to this situation. In doing so, it also addressed the questions whether UCI officials directly contributed to the development of a culture of doping in cycling.[7] It has to be borne in mind that as an umbrella sporting organisation, the UCI was for many years an institution with a minimal structure and no real power. When Hein Verbruggen became president of the UCI in 1991, the UCI had less than 15 employees and very little revenue. The UCI itself does not organise the major cycling event such as the Tour de France. In fact, the organisation that organises the Tour (Amaury Sport Organization) enjoys a dominant position and is economically much more powerful than UCI.[8]

With the inclusion of professional cycling in the Olympic games of 1996, revenue redistributed by the IOC became substantial, while the proceeds derived from TV rights increased dramatically for the UCI. To further boost its revenues, the UCI needed a “big star” to attract broadcasters and sponsors.[9] Lance Armstrong, being outspoken, charismatic and, above all, a cancer survivor, was exactly the type of “big star” it was looking for. The timing of Armstrong’s comeback in professional cycling (1998/99) could not have been better, since the image of cycling and its main event, the Tour de France, were at an all-time low after the “Festina affair” of 1998.[10]

The report shows well the UCI’s conflict of interest during the Tour de France of 1999: On the one hand, it wanted to eliminate doping from the sport, especially after the “Festina affair” a year earlier; on the other hand, it wanted to make the sport more appealing to the public and for that it required the presence and victory of a hero: Lance Armstrong. The practical meaning of this conflict of interest became apparent during that same Tour. Armstrong was tested positive four times for corticosteroids that was forbidden under the UCI Anti-Doping Rules.[11] Armstrong justified the positive tests by submitting a medical certificate that was provided after the tests. According to the UCI’s own rules, the medical certificates should have been handed in prior to the tests. Had the UCI applied its rules, Armstrong would have received a sanction for violating anti-doping rules, which would have resulted in him not being allowed to win the Tour of 1999, the first of his seven Tour victories. [12]  

Apart from UCI decisions concerning Armstrong, it becomes evident from the report that the UCI took a number of controversial decisions regarding doping violations which, in hindsight, should have been dealt with differently. However, to answer the question why the UCI made these decisions, it is necessary to understand how the UCI made these decisions. As mentioned above, it is clear that the conflict of interest regarding the UCI’s objectives was a prime factor in the choices made. However, it was also the UCI’s governing structure that allowed for such decisions, especially the way the UCI dealt with its anti-doping policy.

In 1992, the UCI set up an Anti-Doping Commission (ADC). The ADC was headed originally by a lawyer, Werner Goehner. He was succeeded by the ADC’s first Vice-president, Lon Schattenberg, an occupational therapist, in 2003. It has been reported that Schattenberg de facto ran the ADC from the start. Furthermore, even though the ADC was composed of three members in total, it was Schattenberg who effectively ran the whole Commission. The conflict of interest is further substantiated in the report when it stresses that the focus of Schattenberg’s work was on health concerns rather than on disciplinary aspects of doping. His view was that trying to catch the doped cyclists amounted to a witch hunt.[13] In other words, between 1992 and 2006, most, if not all, of the Anti-Doping Commission’s decisions were taken by one man whose primary aim was to protect the riders’ health rather than catching and sanctioning the doped cyclists.

Similarly, the report emphasised the prime role of the UCI President Hein Verbruggen (1991-2005) as regards the UCI’s governance structure. Due to the passive nature of the large majority of the UCI’s governing bodies, the president had a wide range of executive powers. In the CIRC’s view this led to serious problems of governance and deficiencies in internal control processes. By way of example, Verbruggen, with the agreement of the majority of his colleagues on the Management Committee, chose his successor (Pat McQuaid) and managed to secure his election.[14] Moreover, even though Schattenberg’s ADC was formally considered independent, Hein Verbruggen was not only informed of all relevant anti-doping matters, he also interfered in the decision-making of the anti-doping Commission. As is stated in the KPMG report on UCI Governance and Independence Assessment (2013), “(t)he President has taken many decisions alone or based on external advice during critical times…Critically important matters…are taken solely by the President.”[15] 

The report further notes that Mr. Verbruggen was constantly in conflict with WADA and its leadership. The importance of these conflicts when answering the question how the UCI made its decisions should not be underestimated. The first WADA Code, implemented in 2004, included the standard sanction of two years of ineligibility in case of a first Anti-Doping violation. Nonetheless, the UCI (read: Verbruggen) opposed the standard sanction and lobbied for much lower sanctions. It should be noted that, as the “new kid on the block”, the role and power of WADA in relation to sports federations in general and the UCI in particular was unclear. According to the UCI, WADA’s function was to assist sports federations, but not to interfere with internal matters or criticise their governance or anti-doping policy. Any interference or criticism by WADA in relation to UCI’s anti-doping policy was perceived by the UCI leadership as completely unacceptable and seemed to have been interpreted as a personal attack.[16]  


The goal of this report was to investigate the causes of the pattern of doping that developed within professional cycling over the last decades, especially taking into account the role of the UCI, and to recommend better ways of tackling doping problems in the future.

According to the report, the UCI’s role in the widespread use of doping in cycling was fundamental in several ways. Firstly, during the heydays of EPO the UCI was primarily focused on protecting the health and safety of the riders, rather than trying to eliminate the use EPO in the peloton. Secondly, the UCI’s objective of forming professional cycling into a global money-making sport had an impact on enforcing anti-doping rules. This became especially evident after Lance Armstrong’s comeback. Even though Armstrong took forbidden substances during the Tour de France of 1999, the UCI decided not to sanction him. Armstrong was the “big star” the UCI needed to further increase revenues, and a sanction would have been counterproductive in this regard. A third major element that allowed for doping to flourish was the UCI’s governing structure. The executive dominance of the UCI President Hein Verbruggen caused great deficiencies in the UCI’s internal control process. Moreover, the lack of collaboration with WADA was instrumental in delaying the full implementation of the WADA Code. 

The Report is in interesting plunge in the world of cycling at the turn of the century. It highlights the systematic failure of sports organisation to truly engage in the fight against doping. Indeed, both the fundamental objectives and the basic governance structure of the UCI seem to have run counter any attempt to deal efficiently with the recourse to doping of the cycling stars. This is a potent lesson, for doping seems to be as much a product of the institutional and economical system in place in a particular sport as of the malign intentions of the athletes. 

Having deciphered the main reasons that caused the pattern of doping, the report consequently outlined a set of recommendations. An analysis of these recommendation as well as the reforms the UCI has already undertaken shall be discussed in a second blog.

[1] CIRC Report to the President of the UCI, page 6

[2] Ibid

[3] CIRC Report to the President of the UCI, page 57

[4] Ibid, page 33

[5] Ibid, page 41

[6] Ibid, page 35-36, a haematocrit reading measures the percentage of red blood cells in blood. As EPO stimulates the production of red blood cells, an elevated haematocrit reading above 50% is “a strong indication of EPO use”.

[7] Ibid, page 90

[8] Ibid, page 91

[9] Ibid, page 91-92

[10] The affair concerned a large haul of doping products found in a car of the Festina cycling team just before the start of the Tour de France of 1998. The investigation revealed systematic doping, and suspicion was raised that there may have been a widespread network of doping involving many teams of the Tour de France.

[11] These rules state that “the use of corticosteroids is prohibited, except when used for topical application (auricular, opthmalogical or dermatological) inhalations (asthma and allergic rhinitis) and local or intra-articular injections. Such forms of utilisations can be proved with a medical prescription”.

[12] CIRC Report to the President of the UCI, page 171-173

[13] Ibid, pages 98-100

[14] Ibid, page 97

[15] Ibid, pages 104-105

[16] Ibid, page 108

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