Don’t amputate your fist – what the UCI need to learn about culture change

This is the second post I have dedicated to the UCI in light of the Lance Armostrong affair. In terms of an organization and a total culture needing change, I’m not sure there is a better example right now – and certainly not one getting the press scrutiny of the UCI. It’s a fascinating case to look at.

Pat McQuaid

On Monday, the UCI accepted the USADA’s case against Lance Armstrong and stripped him of his seven Tour de France titles. This might be seen as a big positive in the fight against doping in cycling, and a sign that Pat McQuaid, the organisation’s embattled President is moving in the right direction. And yet, that is far from the case. It has been easy to “throw Lance Armstrong under a bus” in the current climate. What is far harder to do, and where McQuaid has been totally unconvincing is in taking accountability for the UCI’s own role in the fiasco.

In January of this year, Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen (former President of the UCI) announced their intention to sue Paul Kimmage – a well known cycling journalist and anti-doping campaigner. Kimmage famously opened Pandora’s box on the Lance Armstrong affair when he completed a seven hour interview with Floyd Landis, a former team mate of Armstrong who made a number of direct allegations about doping. McQuaid and Verbruggen are suing Kimmage claiming their “reputations have been seriously damaged” by the article and citing their “annoyance”. Interestingly, they chose to sue Kimmage (currently unemployed) personally, rather than the publications that ran the interview, (L’Equipe and The Sunday Times). Kimmage has explained his thinking for why they have done this:

“Clearly they don’t want this addressed properly in court, because if they did, they would have addressed their letter to L’Equipe… L’Equipe would have sent along their finest barristers and presented a defence of this. They would also have brought all of the witnesses that you would need to defend it.

“Clearly they [McQuaid and Verbruggen] don’t want that to happen, which is why they have targeted me rather than the newspapers. That would be my reading of it.”

Why is this relevant? Because this type of reaction has typified McQuaid’s handling of the entire Lance Armstrong affair: Bullish and defensive when challenged personally. And because the UCI has enabled the culture of doping and secrecy that has brought professional cycling to this juncture. The point is presciently made by Landis in his interview with Kimmage:

Kimmage:              How many of the decisions you made after that (Landis’ assertion that the UCI covered up Armstrong’s positive doping result) were coloured by this experience you’ve had with the UCI and their relationship with Lance? How big a factor was that in the decision you made to dope?

Landis:                   That’s all of it. If I had any reason to believe that the people running the sport really want to fix it, I may have actually said ‘If I wait long enough I’ll have the chance to win without doing this (doping) but there was no scenario in my mind where in my lifetime I was going to get a chance to race the Tour and win clean. So, all of it had that as a backdrop.

 

Talking about organizational change, Martin Bauer of LSE argues that resistance is very much like pain in the body; uncomfortable to deal with, but a valuable signaling mechanism. We may not enjoy it, but pain is essential for our survival, and its value to us should not be underrated. Kimmage’s criticism is a vital part of the cycling community. Rather than trying to understand what actions the UCI have taken that have caused this criticism and doing something about it, McQuaid is trying to ostracise and silence him; a bit like amputating your fist because you hurt it punching a wall.

Kimmage continues to act as a thorn in the side of the cycling hierarchy, giving this stinging radio interview on Monday. More to the point, he has recently asked difficult questions of this year’s Tour winner, Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky. While some would argue he is sucking the joy out of British cycling at its finest hour, if the last few weeks have shown us anything, it is that organized cycling needs the cynical eye and honest questioning of Kimmage and others like never before.

And this is the key point. Cycling needs a massive culture change and core to this is cultivating a new set of behaviours – discipline, measured cynicism and brutal transparency. In vilifying the type of behavior that cycling desperately needs to catalyse, McQuaid is choking this change to death before it has a chance to take root. Kimmage himself sums up the cultural implications best:

“We talk about omerta all the time in the sport. This is how they enforce it. Is this what they would say is part of the fight against doping? I don’t think so. This is all about the omerta, and enforcing the omerta.”

It is a leader’s job to manage meaning, to put words to a new positive vision of the future and to demonstrate integrity by following these words with meaningful action. Only one of these two men is acting as a leader for cycling at the moment, and it’s not Pat McQuaid.

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Crisis and the UCI’s Road to Redemption

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It has been a bittersweet week for cycling. I will say up front, it is my opinion that Lance Armstrong doped. Having followed the case with a mild obsession for the last five years, it is very hard to come to any other conclusion. In that sense, it has been a good week. The cycling world has obtained some closure on one of the most controversial and painful chapters of its history. And yet, a good week is not the same as a happy week. I still remember the awe with which I watched Armstrong destroy Marco Pantani and the entire peleton at Lourdes Hautacam in 2000. It is hard
for anyone who had a similar experience to feel happiness about the confirmation of a former idol’s fall from grace.

Armstrong apart, there are plenty of interesting insights on governance and change that arise from the case. It has been a massively difficult experience for the UCI (cycling’s governing body) and they have some way to go yet to rebuild. While the Armstrong case may never see the light of day, the air is thick with accusations of cover ups and complicity. Pat McQuaid’s posturing over who has jurisdiction to charge Armstrong is factually fair, but politically pathetic. The UCI is heavily implicated in the case, and their impartiality in prosecuting it could not be trusted. They should welcome the USADA’s offer to handle it.

While the last thing McQuaid and the UCI will want is for the case to drag out, any accusations of a cover up need to be fully investigated. If ever an organisation needed to demonstrate a resolve and capability to ask difficult questions of itself, then this is it. Cycling’s credibility is shot in the eyes of many fans. While a full investigation would undoubtedly be painful, it is absolutely essential to rebuild the reputation of the UCI.

That’s the great thing about a crisis: It offers an opportunity for a complete change of direction. Outcomes become possible in a crisis that were unthinkable in happier times. And people are very forgiving of individuals and organisations that acknowledge their mistakes and demonstrate sincere effort to change their ways. The UCI need look no further than David Millar. A former disgraced drug cheat, Millar is now one of the most widely respected riders in the peleton thanks to honesty with which he dealt with his mistakes, and the firm anti-doping stance he has taken since his return. So well has he re-established his reputation that the British Olympic Association, an organisation renowned for their anti-doping stance, welcomed him back for London 2012.

There is hope for the UCI, but they must act quickly and courageously. While this case must feel like the worst thing that could have happened, it is in fact a lifeline for an organisation that lost the public’s trust a long time ago.