Sources from within the highest levels of cycling and the Olympic movement are suggesting that British Cycling president, Brian Cookson could be the next president of the UCI. Meanwhile, Cookson has written a detailed letter to British Cycling members giving his reaction to Lance Armstrong’s confession to doping.
One person described as a “senior IOC [International Olympic Committee] figure” said of Cookson to the Press Association: “His name is already well-known within the IOC and he would be trusted by the Olympic Movement, given that some people are questioning cycling's future in the Olympics.”
Cookson though has moved to dampen such speculation pointing out that there is no vacancy for the position and re-iterating his support for current UCI preisdent, Pat McQuaid.
On the issue of cycling's possible ejection from the Olympics, Cookson told British Cycling members in his letter dated yesterday: “Calls for the sport to be removed from the Olympics are, at best, unhelpful and have the potential to unfairly harm the careers of thousands of BMXers, mountain bikers, track and road cyclists around the world.
“However, I have been reassured that such calls are unlikely to be heeded – cycling is of course not the only sport to have been disfigured by doping.”
Cookson's denial of any interest in the top job at the UCI is unlikely to stop speculation abut him being favourite to get were a vacancy to occur. Indeed many UCI watchers will point out that Cookson's denial of interest is a canny move - the best way to ensure you don't get the top job, they will argue, is to emerge as the early favourite. Any potential successor's chances of the top job are unlikely to be enhanced by being viewed as a rival by the current incumbent and it will also be pointed out that McQuaid was more or less apppointed by his predecessor, Hein Verbruggen a decision then dutifully ratified by the rest of the UCI's management committee.
Since the UCI ratified Armstrong’s life ban and disqualification from results including the seven Tour de France titles he won between 1999 and 2005, Cookson has been urging for a close examination of the sport and for reform to be introduced if necessary.
That’s not unusual coming from the president of a national federation, but Cookson also sits on the UCI’s management committee, and from statements he made at the time is likely to have been one of those pushing from within for the governing body to set up an Independent Commission to investigate its role in the Armstrong affair.
In yesterday’s letter, he said: “If there are flaws in the administration and procedures of cycling, or indeed of the anti-doping authorities, which enabled doping to flourish, these must be identified and corrected.”
The Commission had been due to hold a public meeting in London today, ostensibly as a result of the weather; however, stalemate has developed between the UCI and the World Anti-Doping Agency regarding whether a truth and reconciliation process should be incorporated within the Commission’s terms of reference.
According to Cookson: “Much work still needs to be done, in particular cycling and the anti-doping authorities have to find a way to move forward together. I hope that a way can be found for all of those bodies to participate in the Independent Commission that the UCI has established.”
For its part, the UCI hasn’t rejected a truth and reconciliation process out of hand, but it says it should apply to all sports, or at least endurance ones, that the World Anti Doping Code needs to be reviewed to ensure that it allows for any potential amnesty to be offered.
It has also underlined that the Commission was appointed specifically to address the UCI’s role in the Armstrong affair, and not the wider issues attached to doping.
Cookson made passing reference to comments the former US Postal rider made to Oprah Winfrey that he might be prepared to take part in a truth and reconciliation process, with the British Cycling president saying: “Armstrong can still do the sport he professes to love a service by providing the appropriate authorities with real detail on the years he spent cheating.
“To properly deal with the legacy created by Armstrong and his peers, we need to know more about the support structure for their doping – the managers, the doctors, the coaches, the suppliers, the funders, all of whom facilitated their deception,” he added.
So what are the prospects of Cookson becoming president of the UCI?
If it’s going to happen sooner rather than later, there needs to be a vacancy, and McQuaid has so far resisted all calls for him to resign.
And if a week is a long time in politics, that applies equally to those of the sporting variety – McQuaid’s position looks more secure now than it did this time last week, as rumours circulated that Armstrong was going to implicate the UCI in helping cover up his doping.
In the end, he denied that the UCI had helped make his suspect test for EPO on the 2001 Tour de Suisse disappear, and that it had arranged for him to visit the anti-doping lab concerned.
Regarding his controversial $150,000 donation to the UCI, he insisted that was made at the governing body’s request – something even its strongest critics had never accused it of. The UCI has yet to respond to that allegation.
A couple of things in particular may count against Cookson should he decide to offer his candidacy for the top UCI post, whether that be as a result of McQuaid resigning at some point or as a direct challenge to the current holder.
First, with an English-speaker currently at the head of the UCI and the sport’s current crisis brought about by the doping carried out by its highest profile rider ever from an English-speaking country, some countries may be reluctant to put another figure from the Anglophone world at the top of the sport.
Secondly, sports politics being what they are, some nations both from Europe and beyond that have invested in track cycling as their route to success may be reluctant to endorse as a candidate the man under whose leadership Great Britain has come to dominate the velodrome at the last two Olympic Games, thereby thwarting their own medal prospects. It should also not be forgotten that in some parts of the world British Cycling's success on the track is viewed with suspicion.
On the other hand, British success on the road now as well as on the track could prove an asset to Cookson in the governance of a sport that after all is made up of a number of disciplines, while his role in helping pushing forward British Cycling’s educational programme for younger riders against the dangers of doping is bound to be a plus in the current environment.
Most important, of course, is his track record at British Cycling where he took on the presidency of a governing body on the verge of bankruptcy and riven by factions, which on his watch chief executive Peter King then transformed, first pulling the organisation back from the brink and then taking it forward with lottery money into what is now Britain’s most successful sport internationally.
Change at sporting governing bodies doesn’t happen overnight – FIFA being the prime example – and it typically takes a cataclysmic series of events, or proof of actual wrongdoing, for those at the top to go.
To date, McQuaid has ridden out the storm, and short of the Independent Commission ultimately finding that there was serious misconduct at the heart of the UCI – assuming that it does not become a victim of a political turf war and is allowed to complete its inquiries and publish its report – he seems secure for now.
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.