Hein Verbruggen: Constructive And Controversial Legacy
The passing of Hein Verbruggen on the 14th June went without much ceremony, with barely more than a mention in even the Dutch press. The ex-UCI president was a controversial character and less than popular in many circles. Joe Harris and Steve Maxwell of The Outer Line had a long interview with Verbruggen which we have shortened. You can read the full interview HERE.
–By Joe Harris and Steve Maxwell, The Outer Line.–
Hein Verbruggen ran professional cycling for most of the past thirty years – first, as President of the predecessor FICP starting in the mid-1980s, then as President of the UCI from 1991 through 2005, and he has been Honorary President right up to the present. Verbruggen ruled the sport with what many viewed as an iron fist, and he was often a lightning rod for controversy. However, the fact is that he oversaw pro cycling during a long period of increasing visibility and international growth. And despite the accusations of his detractors, no one has had more international executive experience in cycling.
Verbruggen recently initiated a dialogue with the Outer Line to express his opinions regarding our 2013 “Roadmap to Repair Pro Cycling” report, and then agreed to a detailed discussion and interview. Our interest in talking with Verbruggen was not to revisit the polarizing allegations surrounding Lance Armstrong, the alleged cover-ups, or his more recent skirmish with Jonathan Vaughters and the AIGCP. Those topics have already been given ample coverage, and we take no position on those issues here; our interest was solely to talk about the future of cycling.
Keeping in mind the historians’ notion that “those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it,” we asked Verbruggen to comment on three general areas – the commercial structure of the sport, governance issues, and how to solve the doping problem. During a series of long conversations, he offered his perspectives on the current situation in pro cycling and how to grow the sport in the future. And in the course of this, he provided detail and insights about his clashes with Amaury Sports Organization (ASO, the owner of the Tour de France); the effect of specialized doctors coming into the sport at the time of the expanding doping culture in the 1980s; the general lack of trained business professionals throughout cycling; a new model for future race ownership and organization; and some innovative ideas about controlling doping in the future. What follows is a summary of our conversations with Hein Verbruggen – Steve Maxwell and Joe Harris.
What role do you see in the future for the UCI, or the governing agency overseeing the whole sport?
A new governance model must also be created – one that takes into account all the changes which we have been discussing. I have referred to this as the need for an “adequate structure” – a body that is structured to operate more like a business, and less like a traditional sports federation. The UCI must keep an important role in making the rules and promoting the sport within this new model of pro cycling. The teams would become important stakeholders in the new model, and there should also be a role for the current owners.
As I have said, the calendar will need to be revised to welcome new races in new cities, like the Tour of Beijing. This should be the UCI’s role – to find, develop and help to promote interest in new places around the world. Once we have sorted out this “adequate structure,” the UCI can take more of a longer-term view – of what the sport should look like in ten to twenty years. However, we can only gradually make this change, with due respect to the existing owner-organizers and their events.
Your key themes seems to be that pro cycling needs to operate more like a business. Why hasn’t this happened?
In my view, there are two primary reasons. First is the near monopoly power of the ASO, as we have already discussed. (As an aside, I have to say that ASO is virtually the only professional business organization in the sport today.) But there is also a second problem. This is that there are very few people in pro cycling with any real business training, experience or background. Most managers in cycling know the sport of cycling, they know how to race a bike, but most of them don’t really understand business management. They don’t understand how to prepare a strategic plan, or how to calculate a return on investment, and those kinds of business concepts.
And in fact, it is even worse than this. Even some of the high-level business people that own the licenses nowadays are just cycling fans in the first place – and they behave like that. They act more like fans than like business men. And it’s even true at the level of the sports administrators – at the bottom-line, most of us are just big fans.
I think that partly because of this, the teams have remained in a vulnerable situation. And not only financially. Remember that before the Pro Tour was started, there were some teams that couldn’t even guarantee to their sponsor which events they would be racing in! Teams have to have a guarantee for participation in key races. Thanks to the Pro Tour – and after a very tough battle with the ASO – they now have that. But financially, not much has changed. Teams are still way too dependent upon their sponsors.
When we first organized the Pro Tour, we thought it might take five or ten years before all the licenses would end up in the hands of team owners and business people who would then unite themselves together, and negotiate – maybe with the help of the UCI – a better deal with the main owners/organizers. But that has not happened. Why not? In my view, it is because these people don’t think like business managers.
Unfortunately, no interview about changing pro cycling can really be complete without addressing the doping challenge. Can you comment briefly on this, and give us your perspectives on how to address the problem?
Well, let’s look back at the history first. Doping has been in this sport since the very beginning, since the 1870s, but in those early days it was not really seen as doping. Such things weren’t unusual in those days; factory workers with demanding jobs were often provided aids by their employers to help them work harder. Cyclists were viewed the same way. What we consider as the culture of doping today came into the sport in a very natural way, and it’s always been there.
The Tour and the Giro and many other races were originally designed to be “spectacles” – events that would sell a lot of newspapers and create advertising opportunity. If you translate “spectacle” into “difficult or impossible race for normal human beings,” that brings you easily to a number of ramifications – one of which is unfortunately the long culture of doping in cycling. Looking back, perhaps by wanting so badly to organize difficult and spectacular racing events, they have contributed to the whole doping problem in the first place.
But then in the 1970s and 1980s, doctors started to come into the sport. They started to study performance much more carefully, and started to introduce more sophisticated methods and products. Cortisones, testosterones, steroids, growth hormones, and then in the 1990s, EPO. And you have to remember that at the same time period, the whole society was becoming increasingly “medicalized” – chemical aids and enhancement techniques were starting to be used by everyone, not just by professional athletes. The background and landscape of the doping was changing.
At first, the EPO era was no different than the previous period – it was just a new and different product, but unfortunately it could not be detected. It soon became clear that EPO really worked, and so a problem quickly developed, and became quite prevalent. Doping had not really been such a prevalent and widespread problem before, because it was never so clear that the supposed “enhancement” products really worked. Not everyone used testosterone back in the 1970s – because its effect was not so clear, because not everyone believed in it, and because it was easily tested for. But during the 1990s, and in particular in the endurance sports, athletes started to think that doping with EPO was almost a necessity; not to cheat your opponents, but simply to survive. This is important – many athletes felt they had to dope to survive in the sport. Today, you will still hear Armstrong and others defend themselves by saying “I didn’t really cheat, because everyone was doing the same thing.” Although this is of course unacceptable as an argument, it does show how many athletes reasoned at that time.
I believe that there will always be a small group of willful cheaters in sports, just like in all walks of society. I said this to the sport, and to the International Olympic Committee way back in 1998; there will always be people who try to cheat. (See https://oldsite.uci.ch/english/news/news_pre2000/hv_990127_1.htm for an overview and summary of the doping challenge written by Verbruggen in 1999 – editors.) But even if there are only a few cheaters, sometimes the bigger group will see what is going on, and they will start to take the products or the PEDs as well, because they do not trust the others – because they feel “obliged” to take the product.
So what we really need to do is figure out a system to protect this much larger group of riders that prefer not to cheat, not to take products – to protect them against that small group of willful cheats. Most people don’t want to dope; sometimes they just feel like they have to. We have to develop a system where anti-doping officials are somehow closer to the riders. We need to have anti-doping officials and anti-doping doctors living right in the middle of the sport – officials in the peloton that know all the riders, and officials the riders can trust and talk to. Doctors or officials that live day and night with the riders can learn a lot – learn what suspicions the riders have against their colleagues or competitors. Then lots of new information would be learned, and eventually that small element of cheaters could gradually be identified and cleaned out.
This kind of “embedded” referee or judge process sounds like this could function almost like a sort of “moving” truth and reconciliation process?
Yes, it could almost work that way. And although it may seem expensive, I think it could be cheaper than much of the testing and controls that we have today that don’t always work very well anyway.
Having said that, we obviously also need good anti-doping controls – procedures that the athletes recognize as thorough and robust, something they can trust. In this respect, I believe that cycling is second to none with its biological passport. In fact, the hematocrit controls, introduced in 1997 (after we had been informed by scientists that a reliable EPO test was still years away) was clearly the beginning of the road towards the biological passport. In a meeting with team directors and doctors on January 24th, 1997, the UCI announced that the blood samples would not only be used to determine the hematocrit level, but also to analyze other blood values for purposes of health monitoring. This databank became the basis for the biological passport.
But let’s talk about the future. What really has to happen to solve the doping problem is a change of mentality – a change in the culture. I am confident – with robust anti-doping controls and with the types of more creative testing procedures I’ve discussed – that this will indeed lead to a change of mentality. That change has already been starting to happen over the last ten years, and I think it will continue to take hold in the coming years. But it will take a few generations of new riders for the change to really achieve its full effect. We anticipated this back in the Festina days, and we tried to tell people how hard it would be to change a culture – you really just do not achieve that overnight.
You’ve made several references to the newspapers’ influence on cycling. What is your view of the role of the press in addressing the various challenges facing pro cycling?
The broader press has to study and understand these important issues, and the requirements for future growth that we have been discussing. And then they have to present these ideas to the public. I think that the press has changed. Much of the press is focused on following the races and reporting on the riders, but I think they don’t take enough time to study and understand these complex issues of sporting structure, governance and economics. I don’t like to blame the press for this, and blame the press for that – but the press is not like it used to be. Today, they mostly want to go only for the exciting story, and the more complicated truth is not always so important. We want a juicy story, period. The press nowadays just works like that. Most papers aren’t doing so well financially – and they need the exciting story. Stories, stories, stories – oftentimes about the doping problems, and then of course all of cycling pays the price. And now 200 million tweeters make it worse. More journalists need to spend the time to study and read and understand the real issues and real facts of the problems that professional sports face. Unfortunately, that is not the environment nowadays, and sometimes it takes away the right picture of reality for the public.
Do you have any regrets about how the sport was managed under your leadership? What would you do differently?
Of course I have some regrets. It is always easier to see the right solution in hindsight. What would I have done differently? I would have better sold the organizers on the Pro Tour idea, but I should have done that differently. I should have had a better plan to organize a license system for the teams, like F1. The ASO promised to support the Pro Tour – I went for it, but maybe too fast. Then they reneged on me – I under-estimated the opposition of the Tour de France. That was a mistake.
Even when I first came to the FICP, I saw the big potential for cycling, and I think cycling is realizing a lot of that potential. Cycling needs a strong ruling agency in the UCI; otherwise it just turns into chaos. I know I have been accused of being a dictator, even though I always delegated things to many other people. But with its structure, its many different and often uncoordinated parties, and all of the other challenges in cycling, the sport needs a very strong and forceful leader. Maybe cycling needs a dictator.
In conclusion, what do you think is the most important thing that UCI can do to promote the future of pro cycling?
The thing I worry about the most is – there is no clear vision for the long-term future of cycling. Just look at the election campaign of last year; everyone can say “we need more women’s events,” or “we need more events in the Olympics,” but there is no one with a clear vision of what pro cycling should be in 2020, or in 2030. If you are the CEO of Coca-Cola or some big company, you have a vision, and then you make a strategy to move your company towards that objective. But we don’t have that clear vision or strategy in cycling.
We have to make big plans, and then we have to implement them. When I was in the chair, I made a four year plan every year. We need to be more specific. We need to ask – where are we now, where are we headed, and what will it cost us to get there? We have to update this plan every year, just like a business. That’s what the UCI must try to do, more and more.
But let’s also remember to look at the bright side. The future situation for cycling is wonderful, compared to most other sports. Look at the Olympics in London. Look at track cycling; it’s doing great. Cycling fits in perfectly with many of the major social and demographic trends we are seeing today – it is healthy, it’s green, it’s good for you, and it’s not so hard on the body as other sports. It is getting bigger and bigger crowds, and more and more people are riding bikes. Cycling can be for everyone – zillions of people are cycling today. Overall, cycling has a bright future!
You can read the full interview HERE.
DISCLAIMER: As with all postings on theouterline.com, our goal is simply to provide ideas and spur debate about what constitutes real change in professional cycling. If you have an opinion about how to repair and strengthen professional cycling, please contact us, and make your ideas or opinions heard.
By Steve Maxwell and Joe Harris, March 30, 2014.
Steve Maxwell and Joe Harris are co-editors of TheOuterLine.com – providing an external perspective on the economics, structure and governance of pro cycling.
Thanks to The Outer Line for permission to share this story with PEZ Fans – Ed.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by our contributors and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of PezCyclingNews.com or its employees. Although we do try our best, PezCyclingNews.com is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by our contributors.