UCI President Brian Cookson Talks Doping, Youth Participation And Women's Cycling
The sport of cycling has been tarnished by a seemingly endless amount of doping scandals over the last two decades. The sport's governing body, the UCI, has done next to nothing to stop this practice of systematic doping. However, new UCI President BRIAN COOKSON has made it his primary goal to ensure such a culture has no future in cycling. Cookson recently talked to SBD Global about the sport's damaged reputation, doping, youth participation and women's cycling.
Q: You have been on the job for a little more than three months now. What are the biggest issues on your agenda?
Brian Cookson: There are lots of quite big issues really. Besides restoring the reputation of the sport, we are also looking at wider issues of developing the sport around the world. Wider issues involving developing women’s aspects of the sport a lot more productively and proactively than it has been the case in the past. We are looking at broadening and strengthening the economic base of the sport at the top level. We can make a stronger professional and commercial element of the sport, so we don't lose teams, events and the riders, both men and women at the elite level, can be rewarded and remunerated in line with other top sports.
Q: You have established an independent commission to look into the UCI's alleged wrongdoing and cover-up of cycling's systematic doping. Do you believe the commission's findings will put an end to cycling's doping?
Cookson: Cycling is not alone in having a problem with doping. In fact, I go as far as to say that there are two types of sport. There are those who have a doping problem and are trying to do something about it like we are in cycling, and there are those who have a doping problem and are in denial about it. I’m very proud that cycling has made a lot of progress, but it’s been painful because of the problems that we’ve unearthed. But, you know, I don’t really care about other sports. My job is our sport, cycling, and my job is to make sure that we have a sport where parents can bring their child and that child can go all of the way to the very, very top, to the highest, elite level of the sport without having to lie, without having to cheat, without having to take substances that might damage their long-term health and without having to spend the rest of their lives looking over their shoulder to find someone making revelations or retesting their samples and accusing them of doping. The ethical and moral principles are very, very simple here. It’s a tragedy that we’ve lost our way as a sport as other sports have done, but we are actively trying to do something about it and I’m very proud and pleased about that.
Q: You just mentioned children. In Australia, the most recent National Cycling Participation Survey showed a decline in the number of children riding bikes. What is the UCI doing to counter this trend?
Cookson: Well, that’s disappointing to hear in Australia. I think in Australia, they are having a kind of cultural change. Australia has always been a nation that almost defines itself by sports and maybe culturally that’s changing. But the nation that I know best of course is Great Britain, where I was the president of British Cycling for 17 years before I’ve taken on the UCI role, and I can tell you that the opposite is absolutely true in Great Britain. We’ve never seen more people participating in cycling in Great Britain at every level, at every age group including the youngsters and I’m very, very proud and pleased about that. But I think the lesson that all of us have to learn in the developed nations about sports participation is that it just doesn’t happen by chance anymore. For young people there are so many demands, conflicting demands, on them. There’s so much interest in entertainment, you know, computer games and so on, and there are things that challenge sports.
Q: British riders have won the last two editions of the Tour de France. However, there are people who doubt that either Bradley Wiggins or Chris Froome were clean doing so. What impact would a positive test result have on British cycling and the sport's overall image?
Cookson: I think it would be disastrous. I’m hopeful and confident that won’t happen. I know there are people who find it hard to believe when they see exceptional performances now. But if you look at the development of our sport in Great Britain and the way that we instill a completely anti-doping culture into riders at every level, I don’t think there’s a danger of that. I’m certain that there’s no structural doping in British cycling. However, that doesn’t mean you won’t occasionally get somebody who does something stupid. I think the change that we have seen in recent years, and it’s not just in British cycling or in any one particular professional team, there are a lot of other teams who have seen the writing on the wall, and they have finally realized that things have to change. I’m confident there’s a new culture abroad in the world of professional cycling now, and things are not as bad as they were. That’s not to say they are perfect, I think there are still people that are flying under the radar as it were, but gradually we are weeding those people out of the sport and we are changing that culture.
Q: Looking at this year's Tour, riders have to conquer a distance of 3,635km (2,259 miles) in 23 days. Do you think cycling should scale back the length of its events to prevent riders from using banned substances?
Cookson: Yes, I think maybe it would be a good idea to reduce the demands that we put on riders to compete such great lengths and over such arduous courses. But you know there’s plenty of doping in sprint athletics, for instance, and all they do is sprint 100 meters along the track. Doping is not about the degree of difficulty of the event or the sport. It’s about people wanting to find shortcuts, easy routes to success. I do agree that maybe we should look at the degree of difficulty here and there and reduce the demands on riders. However, I don’t buy that as an excuse.
Q: The Tour de France is one of the biggest annual sporting events with a history of more than 100 years. However, there is still no women's equivalent. Why is there such a lack of interest in women's cycling and what is the UCI doing to grow women's cycling?
Cookson: I think all of us men who are involved in all sports are guilty of not taking women’s sports seriously enough for years and years past. That doesn’t just apply to people like me in sports governing bodies; it applies to people in the media as well. We haven’t taken women’s sports seriously enough. We need to do a lot more. We need to be more proactive. That doesn’t just mean mimicking men’s sport completely. I think what we need to do is really work together with women sports people, sports teams, and make sure that what we propose suits the rather different physiology of women, for instance. That’s not to say that women are lesser in any way, they aren’t. They are just different from men, I guess, it’s fair to say. If you look at what we’ve been doing at cycling, I’ve appointed the UCI’s first woman vice president. We’ve established a women’s commission to really proactively develop women’s cycling. We’ve put at least one woman on every one of the UCI’s specific discipline commissions, so cycling cross, mountain bike, road, track and so forth. Those are not just talking appointments. Those are women with real expertise in their own right. Hearing women’s voices at every level throughout our sport and doing something about what they are telling us men is an important part of what we really, really need to do to change and modernize our sport.