Cycling Australia, the self-described “principal body for the competitive sport cycling in Australia”, yesterday issued a statement “on behalf of the board to all members and supporters”. In times of institutional crisis this is what we expect of our peak bodies — a settling statement that will calm the nervous, give hope to the doubtful and answers to the querulous.

Sadly, this one does none of that. We might expect better of an association that receives millions of taxpayer dollars a year to manage the various sports and programs associated with cycling in this country. Its statement is part call to bloody arms, part slanging match at other professional cycling bodies, part sheer bloody-mindedness and part eating itself alive.

CA’s statement doesn’t offer much hope from the start — “It has been a difficult week, to say the least, for those who love the sport of cycling” — and doesn’t get any more positive (excuse the pun) from there. It offers a few paragraphs of self-justifying guff about how CA is “committed to the fight against doping in sport and in cycling in particular” and has a “zero-tolerance approach to any athlete found guilty of cheating through the use of performance enhancing drugs and to any other person who aids and abets that process”. So far so very bloody ordinary.

The statement then raises the “key issue” of Matt White, who earlier this week issued a media release revealing that while a member of the US Postal Service cycling team, of which Lance Armstrong was the leader, he “was part of a team where doping formed part of the team’s strategy, and I too was involved in that strategy”.

CA says White’s admissions placed him in breach of its anti-doping policy and code of conduct and that this justified him being sacked as the elite men’s road national co-ordinator, where he had made a “significant contribution to our men’s national teams”.

Others say that targeting individual cyclists — whether in positions of power or influence or not — is wrong-headed and that a better approach would be to address the systemic and administrative failings of a system they were inducted into that gave them career and health choices they never wanted to make.

But as Australian legal academic Martin Hardie told me, “Matt White is not the problem here”.

“The administration of CA have buried their head in the sand for far too long,” Hardie said. “I have spoken to Matt about cycling and doping for many years. He is a person I have always admired and he deserves better treatment than this. Matt White has done his best for cycling throughout his life and has worked hard to make sure younger riders do not face the same unfortunate decisions he faced.”

Hardie says White’s inability to go public since Floyd Landis first made his allegations that mentioned him in the same terms as the recent USADA report into Armstrong were greatly influenced by the culture and advice of both CA and the International Cycling Union. White was also subject to intense pressure from the Armstrong camp, Hardie says, which itself had jumped into the hip pocket of the UCI and many cycling federations around the world.

Mike Ashenden, a freelance anti-doping researcher specialising in blood doping, agrees. In an opinion piece published in Fairfax papers earlier this week he was scathing of the performance of CA and it’s treatment of White and a denial of its own role in these affairs:

“Not surprisingly, Australian cycling is in turmoil following Matt White’s admission that he doped. However, we are missing the point if we bring only the riders to account … It’s time the organisations who oversee cycling are held accountable for what has transpired, and nowhere is that more evident than here in Australia. I am in no doubt that Cycling Australia is part of the problem. For too long, it has been long on talk, but short on walk. They hired White when they knew he’d been sacked for sending a young rider to a notorious doping doctor. They knew he’d ridden on Armstrong’s teams during doping’s darkest years. They also knew when they hired him that he’d been named by Floyd Landis as having used drugs.”

At the time Floyd Landis made his allegations CA ran an intense campaign to try and stop him speaking at the New Cycling Pathways conference at Deakin University in Geelong in 2010. At that conference Hardie and his co-authors launched their year-long study into doping and pro cycling, with particular emphasis on the Australian peloton.

CA’s statement goes on to say that stronger tools are needed — including a greater role of the star chamber-like Australian Crime Commission and for an extraordinary extension of powers for the local anti-doping agency ASADA, to allow it to compel witnesses to testify before it. CA also supports the criminalisation of doping, saying this broadened approach to doping will send a “strong message that such conduct is unacceptable”.

For many looking for “new pathways” out of the bloody mess that Australian cycling has fallen into criminalising conduct like doping is a crazy response and would be counter-productive.

Peter Fray

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