Graeme Obree: UCI beyond repair, but doping far less prevalent nowadays
Scottish legend gives his take on the fallout from the Lance Armstrong scandal
Graeme Obree insists the UCI is beyond repair and it is too late to be considering holding a truth and reconciliation process. However, he believes there has been a shift in attitudes towards doping in the peloton, leading to drug use being far less prevalent now than when he made his own brief, ill-fated move into the sport in the 1990s.
The former individual pursuit world champion and Hour record holder, now training for an attempt on the human powered vehicle world record, was talking to the Scottish website We Are Free Agents after giving a talk at Glasgow University on Monday evening to open its Sport and Wellbeing Week.
No stranger to run-ins with the UCI – famously, he sawed off handlebar extensions while officials watched after a new rule had been introduced that rendered his bike temporarily illegal – Obree says that the fallout from the Lance Armstrong scandal highlights that the governing body is failing to move the sport on.
“I don’t think the UCI are a fit body to be running the sport,” he maintained. “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.”
He also believes the governing body’s belated acceptance that Arsmtrong doped his way to seven Tour de France wins after the United States Anti Doping Agency published its Reasoned Decision in the case does not reflect the reality of the situation, saying: “Oh yeah, of course the UCI knew about doping, everybody knew, from national coaches right up.”
Obree’s view is that the UCI is still attempting to safeguard itself rather than address the wider issues raised by USADA’s report.
“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.”
He also asserts that setting up a truth and reconciliation process, as the UCI now says it wants to do, has come far too late in the day.
“I don’t think it would make any difference at all,” he explained. “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.”
He backs up that opinion by pointing out that doping had become so endemic within the sport that aspiring youngsters were in effect forced into it in order to progress.
“I can see the pressures on the riders,” he said. “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 related his experience at the French team Le Groupement, where his outspoken anti-doping stance and refusal to contemplate taking drugs saw his road career extinguished almost as soon as it had begun.
“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.”
While it is cycling that most regularly hits the headlines when it comes to doping scandals, Obree asserts that other sports aren’t immune and that where money is involved, some people will be tempted to cheat.
“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,” he went on. “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?”
He does believe, however, that cycling itself has moved on from his days, when he was very much the exception as not only a rider who refused to dope, but one who spoke out against it.
“Certainly I’d be shocked to the core if Chris Hoy or Nicole Cooke or anyone like that was taking drugs,” he stated. “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 per cent less power. So there is evidence the riders are producing a whole lot less power.”
He doesn’t think for a moment that the sport is completely drugs-free, though. “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.”