Tuesday, 5 July 2016


In collaboration with David Warriner (@DrDavidWarriner)

Cycling is a global sport and as such it needs money, lots of it. For a team to succeed, it requires expensive equipment, a hefty budget to attract the best riders and to be able to run a smooth operation. Inevitably, where there are financial gains and marketing exposure, there are matters of ethical nature. Over the years, many morally questionable characters have come and gone, but doping has continued to mar this tough sport, creating doubts on the behaviour of riders, managers, race organisers and institutions, as fans still yearn to believe in their idols. However, once those problems appeared to be superficially under control, globalisation, or rather commercialisation, took precedence and with it the search for big bucks and ever more lucrative contracts.

Professional cycling is financially unstable: careers, contracts, sponsors and teams are all too often short lived. As a result, team managers have to pursue a three-way fight with governing bodies and race organisers to secure themselves a share of the profits coming from TV rights, which would help secure the future of teams, from one season to the next. In the meantime, cycling as a whole continues to chase the money while completely bypassing the raison d’etre of cycling: passion. Without passion, this sport cannot exist. Without passion, hurting legs that are screaming with pain, won’t take you up a climb, kids won’t emulate their favourite rouleur, grimpeur or sprinter and fans won’t brave the weather for hours, only for their heroes to ride past in a flash of blood, sweat and gears. 

Love for the sport is what is lacking in this pursuit of the purse. As a result, we have endless and forgettable stage races in Oman, Qatar, Dubai, Beijing (now defunct), with kilometre after kilometre of empty roads and bleak landscapes, like a Cormac McCarthy novel (but without the literary flair). Small numbers of spectators by the roadside are matched by poor viewing figures and more importantly, no significant uptake in cycling in those countries due to any “legacy”. This failure, more than anything else, neglects the UCI's (Union Cycliste Internationale) purpose of promoting cycling, to encourage more of us to ride bikes and ultimately, compete. Such an objective has also come at a cost to races with both heritage and prestige, like the GP Zurich, Trofeo Luis Puig, Vuelta Murcia, GP Midi Libre, Giro del Lazio or the Deutschland Tour... all cancelled or reduced. 

Kazakhstan, a de facto dictatorship state, sponsors a professional team in the World Tour, Astana. That team is run by an infamous and unrepentant former doper Alexandre Vinokourov, also charged with corruption in 2014. Allegations of systematic doping have consistently dogged this team. It’s not the only one. Most teams have been involved in some scandal and have ambiguous people in their ranks. The UCI has also been accused of corruption for their part in the doping fiascos. After all, money talks and rules are bent in the face of financial or legal challenges, termed “reasoned decisions”. There are also multi-millionaire self-styled entrepreneurs like Oleg Tinkov, who owns professional team Tinkoff Cycling, whose racist and misogynistic comments over the years have hindered the cleaning up of cycling's image and have frankly no place in a professional sport. After everything that has happened in cycling, if there is any hope for the future, it must be about credibility, not vanity. 

Other teams have been metaphorically slapped because of unethical practices. Team Katusha, for example, temporarily lost their licence on the grounds of unethical conduct, due to four positive drugs tests from 2009-2012, among other issues. But, despite protestations from fans, riders, the press and most importantly the Movement For Credible Cycling (MPCC), it was finally allowed back in by the UCI. Indeed, this happened following a lengthy and expensive hearing at the Court for Arbitration (CAS), where the UCI lost. Only to repay that faith with further positive tests this year and then leaving the MPCC. Team Type 1, sponsored by Novo Nordisk, a Danish pharmaceutical multinational, with the laudable aim of increasing global awareness of diabetes and demonstrating athletes with type 1 diabetes can compete at the highest level, is in reality, a thinly veiled marketing campaign for their products. Novo Nordisk has repeatedly been in trouble for off-licence promotion of products, misleading claims, paying kickbacks, among other allegations and have been fined millions of dollars. Ditto for Amgen, sponsors of the Tour of California: ironically they manufacture Erythropoietin (EPO), a drug used by doctors and dopers alike to increase the number of red blood cells (to speed recovery from cancer for the former, to enhance performance in the latter). Britain’s own Team Sky is not beyond reproach, the headline sponsor BSkyB having being involved in the harrowing hacking allegations and having had members of the team, including doctors, coaches and riders sacked due to breaching their zero-tolerance policy to doping. 

Riders will argue they are just “doing a job” and will thus serve any master, be that a fast food chain, an electronics manufacturer, “Big Pharma”, oligarch, human rights abuser or dictatorship and are just happy to be paid to do what they love. It’s worth noting of course, that the average annual salary of a professional World Tour cyclist is around £200,000 ( - April 16, 2014; although the amount is skewed by the high earners whose salaries are in the millions, therefore the average for most riders is half that), compared to over £2 million ( - November 14, 2014) for a Premier League footballer. Sadly there isn’t the depth in sponsors for most riders to pick and choose, but without ethics, cycling runs the risk of being in a financial arms race, with riders simply going to the highest bidder, irrespective of that bidder's background.

Sigmund Freud pointed out that:
“just as a planet revolves around a central body as well as rotating on its own axis, so the human individual takes part in the course of development of mankind at the same time as he pursues his own path in life.”

... Enter Nibali.

Bahrain, another nation with no real history in this sport (or any realistic possibility of a cycling future), will soon be funding a professional World Tour team for 2017, although unlikely with many, if any, Bahraini riders. Its owner will be one Prince Nasser Bin Ahmad Al Khalifa. Nasser, a keen cyclist, has been accused of rape and torture. The 2011 uprisings were quashed with disregard for human rights, and Prince Nasser himself has been alleged to taking part in the torture of dissidents, amongst other things. None of this seems to matter. The Bahrain Cycling Team will appeal to riders like Nibali, whose demand for high salaries and rosters moulded around them, leaves very few teams available to hire them. Acquiring an established champion would ensure a fan base for the new venture and the halo effect would mask a lot of the problems associated with it.

Riders like the Italian champion pose a big challenge for the ethical nature of cycling. He has been more than happy to take Astana’s money in a very Machiavellian fashion, no doubt justifying it (like so many athletes do) with the fact that their careers are short, peaking in their late twenties and then typically retiring in their early-mid thirties. That line of thought is faulty and downright egotistical: many riders continue in the sport in different guises. Also, riders like him earn many times over what an average worker makes in a lifetime. At the black heart of it is greed and maintaining a certain standard of living. The same choice that is taken when doping is concerned. Ultimately some athletes want to stay with the elite, earn more and more money and keep winning, whatever it takes. It’s the same for contracts, with ethical concerns by agents, officials and sponsors a side issue and all able to justify their actions with pro re nata injections (pun intended) of money.

So what is right and what is wrong? Does ethical behaviour have a place in commercial sport? So far the house of cards of the mass-EPO era has been brought down, the outcry was too loud to be ignored. But doping is still rife even after the infamous OperaciĆ³n Puerto. Suspicious activities are still reputedly widespread in this professional sport. 

The Ethics Commission within the UCI states:
“As a governing body, the UCI bears a special responsibility to safeguard the integrity and reputation of cycling worldwide. The UCI Ethics Commission has the task of ensuring that the UCI Code of Ethics as well as the principles laid down in the UCI Rules of Good Governance are complied with at all times. The members of the Ethics Commission are appointed by the UCI Congress and its administration is managed by a secretariat which is external to the UCI.”
" safeguard the integrity and reputation of cycling worldwide"... that should give this self-regulating body enough ammunition in the control of its ethos. Officials should be able to decide, as they did in the past albeit so lamely if there’s enough ground for not welcoming unethical institutions, sponsors or entrepreneurs.

Choosing the right path is complex and problematic, especially when teams fold and change as often as they do in professional cycling. The business models used to run these teams are old and ineffective. The UCI should help in attracting sponsors that fans would be proud to embrace rather than constantly having to put up with those teams only because their heroes are in, or built around them.   

In Plato’s Republic, Thrasymachus tell Socrates:
“...morality is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger party…”
to which Socrates later replies:
“ branch of knowledge considers or enjoys the advantage of the stronger party, but the advantage of the weaker party, which is subject to it.”
The message: while the rich and the powerful minority, such as sponsors, race organisers, and team owners dictate the terms, it is the fans who ultimately have the power to dismiss and change such terms. In the long run, they need the fan base to be able to enjoy their riches. No fans, no professional cycling. Taking part in this sport should also be to enrich it to pass a legacy to the younger generations. Ethics cannot be discounted.

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