The media's role in the clean-up and reform of the UCI

News & Results

12/17/2012| 0 comments
by Mark Watson
Is the media letting Pat McQuaid and the UCI frame public opinion to their advantage?

The media's role in the clean-up and reform of the UCI

A look at how the media coverage of the current crisis in cycling may intentionally or unintentionally be contributing to preserving a status quo, which will lead to the UCI organization failing to undergo needed reforms in the wake of the Lance Armstrong doping scandal (4 pages)

Following the publication of the US Anti-Doping Agency report on Lance Armstrong and doping in cycling the International Cycling Union (UCI) has been subjected to significant pressure from stakeholders ranging from major parts of the general public, over cycling fans worldwide, to leading politicians. The stakeholders have voiced their distrust in the organization and questioned how what USADA Chief Executive Travis Tygart has called “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen” has been possible during Hein Verbruggen’s and Pat McQuaid’s Presidencies of the UCI.

Ranging back to the Festina doping scandal in 1998, the UCI has vowed to strike down on doping and to combat it at all means possible. Yet evidence shows that Lance Armstrong, teammates and associates have been able to carry out a massively successful doping program for at least seven years.

Former Armstrong teammates Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis have both witnessed under oath that Armstrong told them how the UCI helped cover up a positive doping test he gave during the 2001 Tour de Suisse. Former Team US Postal Service support staff member Emma O’Reilly alleged that the team’s staff produced a backdated medical prescription to excuse a positive cortisone test at the 1999 Tour de France. Officials from the UCI announced that Armstrong had used a corticosteroid for his skin and his positive result was excused, thereby violating its protocol requiring a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) for use of such a drug. The UCI denies these claims.

Doping is still a major part of professional cycling today. Alberto Contador was banned for ingesting the illegal performance enhancing substance Clenbuterol during the 2010 Tour de France and Frank Schleck tested positive for the banned diuretic Xipamide during the 2012 Tour de France. Recently three-time Italian cycling champion Giovanni Visconti and former Giro d’Italia winner Michele Scarponi have been banned for three months for seeing the banned physician Michele Ferrari who is said to have been involved in the Armstrong / US Postal Team doping program.

In response to the negative publicity, the UCI has recently promised to launch what it calls an independent investigation of the organization’s role in the Armstrong/US Postal doping affair – including corruption claims and has also ordered what it calls an independent audit of the organization.

However, President of the World Anti-Doping Agency WADA has expressed significant concern over the independence of the UCI's review commission.

“WADA has some significant concerns about the commission’s terms of reference and has alerted the lawyers representing the commission of its concerns,” read a release from WADA president John Fahey.

“If WADA’s concerns cannot be resolved as a result of this meeting, WADA will consider seriously whether it can take part in the commission’s process,” Fahey added.

Following the publication of the USADA report on organized doping in professional cycling, as well as taking the current state of cycling into account, one might expect the media to be extremely careful in its coverage of the UCI. The sport's governing body has promised a thorough internal investigation.

A high level of fact checking and source criticism is obviously expected when journalists publish statements and information stemming from the UCI. These statements can be used to manipulate and shape public opinion for the UCI's own benefit. A sound skepticism or possibly a proper level of neutrality is obviously needed when journalists prepare articles on the UCI’s role in the Lance Armstrong affair to avoid assisting in the forming of a biased public opinion. Journalists continuously need to ask themselves, “Is this source reliable?”.

In its press releases and interviews with the press the UCI, headed by Pat McQuaid, is continuously referring to an independent commission investigating the organization’s role in the Armstrong doping affair. Media covering the situation might report that, “a commission, said to be independent has been formed”, “a commission, which the UCI says is independent”, or “a commission, claimed by the UCI as independent,” in order to avoid the public opinion that the commission is truly independent from the UCI.

However, a search on Google News for “independent commission” and UCI on Friday, December 14, 2012 returned 498 news articles which refer to an independent commission having been launched by the UCI.

Such uncritical repeated reproduction of the term “independent commission” in news articles is likely to nudge public opinion in the direction of believing that the commission launched to investigate the UCI’s role in the Armstrong doping affair is actually of an independent nature. Yet, as previously discussed, many critics, including WADA President Fahey, are questioning the commission’s level of independence.

In their quest aimed at being first to publish the latest news many media have also happily published quotes from UCI President McQuaid which were possibly designed for the purpose of framing public opinion. Influential media entity Cyclingnews published the following statement from McQuaid.

“I am grateful to John Coates, President of the International Council of Arbitration for Sport, for assembling such a high calibre and truly Independent Commission. The wide ranging terms of reference demonstrate the Commission’s determination to review fully the issues contained in the USADA report and I welcome that.”

“Some of our critics have suggested that this Commission would not be fully independent. They were wrong. The UCI had no influence on the selection of the Commission members."

The same quotes were also published in stories on BBC Sport, Velonation and BusinessWire. also published the same quotes and the following statement was added “The appointment of these three eminent figures [as members of the commission] demonstrates clearly that the UCI wants to get to the bottom of the Lance Armstrong affair and put cycling back on the right track.”

By implanting a belief in peoples’ minds of the commission being of independent nature ahead of the commission announcing the results of its investigation – and of the UCI wanting to get to the bottom of the Armstrong scandal, the media are contributing to the public being less skeptical of the commission’s findings when they are announced by the commission. The audience already knows the commission was independent. Or they think they know. So why think their findings are biased or swayed?

It is obviously beyond the scope of this article to determine whether the commission is independent or not and this question is best left with the individual reader, or on a broader scale with each person showing an interest in the UCI’s role in the Armstrong affair.

However, it appears obvious the coverage published by many a media worldwide, including many major cycling media, is - intentionally or unintentionally - contributing to preserving a status quo, which will likely lead to current UCI leaders McQuaid and Verbruggen staying in power and the organization failing to carry through reforms which, in the wake of the Lance Armstrong doping scandal, to many appear highly needed.

Let’s have a look at the media’s role in the coverage of an additional UCI-related news item.

On December 13 the UCI issued a statement announcing that it has engaged one of the world’s top four auditors, Dutch KPMG, to review its governance, look into its role in the Armstrong doping scandal and investigate accusations related to fraud and the use of bribes.

Covering the news, Cyclingnews published a story titled “UCI announces independent audit of federation.” wrote “Fans will get to have their say too, through Twitter and Facebook, says the UCI, which has also revealed that auditors KPMG have been instructed to carry out an independent review of the organisation's own governance,” published a story titled “UCI announces independent audit of federation.”

The public is told that KPMG is carrying out an independent audit of the UCI and this belief is instilled in the minds of many a reader. However, the media fail to question whether KPMG will be able to carry out a truly independent audit of the UCI.

The media fail to report that the UCI has an existing relationship with KPMG. The auditing company has already been hired as the regular auditor of the UCI.

”Appointment of the auditor. The [UCI] Congress decided to appoint KPMG SA as the auditor of the UCI for the period between 1 January 2012 and 31 December 2015. The Congress approved the contract between KPMG and the UCI.”

Can a company which has already been hired by the UCI to do their regular audits also conduct a completely independent audit of the same company – an audit set up to investigate accusations related to fraud, bribe and cover-ups?

If KPMG identifies any misconduct, they will reveal problems within the UCI, but at the same time such revelations would lead to a finger being pointed at KPMG for not having noticed any such issues during the time period in which they were already hired to audit the UCI and, therefore, responsible for detecting any irregularities.

Additionally, can any auditing company hired to audit the UCI conduct a completely independent audit in spite of being paid by the UCI to conduct the audit? Like with any other company working for another company – why cause problems for a company which is a source of revenues for you? A conflict of interest may arise.

On December 13 media entities were again used by UCI President McQuaid to sway public opinion about the current state of professional cycling. An interview on ESPN stated

Citing the London Olympics and the 100th Tour de France next year, McQuaid said professional cycling was in good condition. "Take away the Armstrong affair, and this has been a wonderful year," he said.

It appears that McQuaid is completely dismissing the importance of other happenings in the world of cycling in 2012 – including Schleck’s positive doping test, Visconti’s and Scarponi’s insignificant three month off-season bans for seeing a banned doping doctor and the man who supplied the clenbuterol-teinted meat to Contador being elected president of the Spanish cycling federation.

Cynics might compare McQuaid’s statement to a situation where Japan’s Prime Minister would have said "Take away the Fukushima tragedy, and this has been a wonderful year," when asked to evaluate 2011 and the state of the nation at the end of last year. A statement he would naturally never make.

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