Doping is just part of the problem
By Les Earnest, Cyclops USA, 2012 December 8
The fact that Lance Armstrong and his colleagues were able to engage in blood doping for years without getting caught is a symptom of a more fundamental problem, namely corruption at the highest levels of our national sports organizations. I and others have been trying to get this fixed for many years, without success so far, but we now plan to take another run at it, given that some of the principal perpetrators are now enmeshed in the Armstrong doping scandal..
For most of the last 120 years the sport of bicycle racing
Inevitably, there will be an ongoing battle between those developing new technologies to enhance athletic performance and those trying to keep the competition fair. Things will get even more complicated when genetic engineering begins to allow parents to design offspring with advanced athletic capabilities.
This article talks about my experiences in bike racing from 1973 to the present and my sometimes successful attempts at reforming it. I plan to add another article following this one that proposes what I think should be done now to restore fair competition. I was prepared to back away from this project if business interests gained ground in the elections just held but since that didn’t happen I think this will be worth trying, though I recognize it will not be easy given that there will be Big Money on the other side.
Les Earnest, a cycling reformer since 1973
Drawn into racing
I became a cyclist in 1933 at age 3 using a trike. By age 8 I was riding my fat tired one-speed bike on 60 mile solo day trips into the San Diego backcountry to visit relatives. However I never saw a bike race growing up because very few people did that on the West Coast in the 1930s.
I was drawn into Northern California bike racing in 1973 by my sons Mark and Ian, who did pretty well. Mark made the junior national team and got to compete in Munich as a track sprinter, then wandered around Europe with support from people he met there, using winnings from bike races to cover expenses.
I raced a bit locally but noticed that the officiating was rather uneven, so I decided to take that up too. One observation was that even though officials often incurred substantial travel expenses in getting to remote venues they were paid nothing. I could afford that but some others couldn’t. As a result some officials took the position that “Since I’m doing this for free I get to make up the rules.” Early on I began trying to change that and eventually succeeded so that race officials at least broke even and in big money races they earned a bit.
Having been cycling for a rather long time, I am now over-the-hill as a competitor though I still ride a lot. I have five great grandchildren so far, who are growing up fast. I hope that the problems under consideration below can be fixed by the time they are old enough to get into serious athletic competition.
As a result I was appointed Rulebook Editor in 1977 and promptly added appendices listing National Champions, National Records, District Representatives, etc. I also started being appointed to officiate at major races, including international stage races.
Support for Armstrong
I was amused by a recent comment by Jim Ochowicz about Lance Armstrong: "I think he's earned every victory he's had." I observe that Ochowicz has for many years been part of the commercial conspiracy that enabled Armstrong’s misconduct.
I was able to calibrate Jim's integrity when I first met him
at the 1978 Red Zinger Stage Race where he was competing and I served as chief
timer. In the race on July 11 from Aspen to Vail, Colorado, Jim came off the
back of the peloton and was not seen again until he finished third, well ahead
of the peloton. Needless to say he was booted out of the race but he didn't
seem to learn anything from that experience. He went on to become a very
successful professional team manager and played a strong supporting role in the
later corrupt takeover of USA Cycling (USAC) by San Francisco investment banker
After I linked up with
Meanwhile another incident in 1978 pointed up the general incompetence of the officers running the U.S. Cycling Federation (USCF). A local rider named Chris Springer was a four time national champion as a Junior when he came to the starting line at the 1978 National Road Race Championships in Milwaukee to defend his title. He was a contemporary of Greg Lemond, another outstanding Northern California/Nevada rider who I got to watch growing up. Early on Springer often beat Lemond with his superior sprint. However at the 1978 Nationals he was barred from racing by the chief official of USCF, who told him he was disqualified but declined to give a reason. Later that day Springer was brought before a panel of USCF directors where he was accused of misconduct in a dormitory and suspended for a year without having an opportunity to challenge the charge against him. As we later found out, that charge was based on fourth-hand hearsay that had not been investigated and the claimed incident never actually occurred, as documented in a report I wrote:
As a result of that experience I decided to run for a seat on the USCF Board of Directors and was elected in 1979. I was then able to get our proposed new racing rules adopted and also was elected Chairman, Board of Control, replacing the director who had initiated the bogus charges against Springer. On the whole that was a good year.
Over a number of years I was able to reform the regulations in a number of ways, with the concurrence of the Board of Directors. For example:
(a) In disciplinary cases the chief prosecutor could no longer appoint the jury;
(b) Clothing rules were liberalized so that riders no longer had to wear black shorts and white socks;
(c) Women of all ages were no longer called “girls”;
(d) The term “amateur”, which had been introduced a century earlier as a form of class discrimination was no longer used formally;
(e) Age classifications were liberalized so that race organizers could put together a greater variety of races.
In 1979 and following years at the Red Zinger and its successor, the Coors International, I noticed that riders were systematically required to submit urine samples but no one ever tested positive. When I looked into that I learned that these tests were just for show and that all urine samples were submitted to the "toilet test," being flushed down the drain so as to save the substantial costs of having them tested.
The Coors race subsequently started doing actual lab tests, probably as a result of my inquiry, but even that program went off track in 1984 just before the Olympic Games. At the Coors race that year in Vail, Alexi Grewal, who had been selected for the U.S. Olympic Road Race team, tested positive for taking ephedrine and admitted it, which would bar him from participating in the Olympics. However under the existing rules his confession didn't count--it had to be proven by a lab test. The Executive Director of USCF then recruited the Chief Medical Officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee and, ignoring the fact that they were both responsible for enforcing drug control regulations, they concocted a defense claiming that the drug test had not been done properly, which got Grewal off the hook and allowed him to win a gold medal in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. For a more complete account see:
Les Earnest, Cardiovascular capers, Cyclops USA, January 1985
Wink Andanod, Blood bath, Cyclops USA, January 1985
Les Earnest, Stoned, Cyclops USA, April 1985
Les Earnest, Please be polite!, Cyclops USA, April 1985
I had earlier observed that there was a list of prohibited substances handed down by the International Olympic Committee but there were no USCF medical control regulations for how specimens should be collected and tested. Having become Legislation Chair, in 1984 I drafted a set of medical control regulations. Along the way I discovered that testing labs took it upon themselves to overlook small quantities of certain substances but there were no standards for what constituted a "small quantity," so I added those to the regulations in order to standardize results. Those regulations were approved by the Board just after the Olympics but before we learned about the blood doping discussed just above. We subsequently added a prohibition on blood doping. USCF was apparently the first athletic organization anywhere in the world to do that.
The brain bucket bash
Based on my observations of serious head injuries and deaths resulting from the use of inadequate helmets, in the early 1980s I began advocating a rule requiring that strong helmets be used. However I soon discovered that because this was non-traditional there was strong opposition. In fact, as a result of that controversy I lost my seat on the Board in 1985. Instead of going out quietly however I wrote a parting report refuting all known arguments against the strong helmet rule. That together with another cyclist's death from a head injury at a velodrome near where the Board was meeting that year finally convinced them to adopt a strong helmet rule and, after a couple of years' experience, everyone figured out that I was right and I regained my seat on the Board. USCF was again the first organization anywhere in the world to adopt such a rule and it subsequently spread to other racing organizations worldwide. For more on that see:
As noted in the discussion above of how Alexi Grewal was able to win a gold medal in the 1984 Olympics, USCF and the U.S. Olympic Committee had a conflict of interest in that they were seeking medals in international competition but were also responsible for enforcing drug control regulations. Their choice of overlooking doping in order to acquire more medals was eventually recognized but was not fixed until WADA and USADA began operating in the new Millennium. Had that not happened, the crooked operations of the U.S. Postal Service Team and Lance Armstrong would likely never have become publicly known.
Those of us who observed that Lance Armstrong had earlier begun consulting with Italian Dr. Michele Ferrari, whose specialty was blood doping, were pretty sure about what was going on but such circumstantial evidence didn't count under the rules.
In the early 1980s a startup company called Amgen developed a new drug called erythropoietin, better known as EPO, that enhanced red blood cell counts and could therefore be used to treat anemia. In 1983 they raised $40 million in an initial public offering underwritten by Smith Barney, Dean Witter and Montgomery Securities, which was run by a cyclist named Thom Weisel. See:
When I heard about EPO in 1988 it occurred to me that it was likely to be used by cyclists. I did not know how to evaluate the risks involved in its use so I requested through the Executive Director of USCF that it be studied by the U.S. Olympic Committee and that the risks be assessed. I then posted a note on Cyclops USA about the study that I thought was underway, not realizing that I had been lied to:
misconduct and the failure to warn athletes about side effects resulted in a
number of them dying in their sleep due to excessively thickened blood,
particularly among European cyclists. American cyclists were apparently more
successful in misusing EPO.
The crooked commercial takeover
The later cheating by Armstrong and the U.S. Postal Service team, including the use of EPO to enhance performance, was one of the results of a broader conspiracy among U.S. cycling officials going back to at least 1993. In the Spring of that year I proposed a restructuring that resulted in the creation of USA Cycling (USAC). After years of infighting and law suits between USCF and USPRO, the professional racing association, I proposed to bring all U.S. bike racing agencies together in one organization and provide democratic representation on its Board of Directors for all participants, so I drafted bylaws for this proposed organization and got them on the agenda for the 1993 USCF annual meeting.
However some people didn't like my proposal because they viewed it as too democratic. For example, collegiate bike racing had been run under USCF for many years but they never had elected representation on the Board of Directors. Also mountain bike racing had been organized under NORBA but had been mismanaged into financial collapse, then was purchased by a promoter who in turn sold it to USCF for several times what it was worth. When USCF took over they treated NORBA as a slave organization and gave no political representation on the Board to its participants.
My proposed new organization included democratic representation for all participants, which clearly scared some people. One USCF Director, Beth Wrenn-Estes, found an excuse for blocking its adoption at the 1993 Annual Meeting, namely the fact that it had not been reviewed by the USCF corporate attorney, so she used that to get it tabled. Note that the corporate attorney worked for the Executive Director, Lisa Voight, not the Board of Directors, so we had no say in what he did. Thus this oversight looked a lot like a deliberate "accident." In fact, though I was not aware of it at the time, it later became evident that the USCF staff was serving outside business interests.
The next year, 1994, I put the reorganization proposal up for adoption again and asked Lisa Voight to have it distributed it to the Board for their review while I went off on a lengthy trip to Europe. Instead it was given only to Beth Wrenn-Estes, the person who had blocked it earlier, and she recruited a smart race official and a lawyer to modify it so that a majority of the Board of Directors would be elected by commercial interests who represented less than 2% of the participants in bike racing. That proposal was distributed to the Board instead of mine until I found out about it upon my return and threatened legal action.
By that time the commercial interests had lined up enough Board votes to get their distorted version put on the annual meeting agenda but by using a parliamentary maneuver I was able to get a set of amendments on the agenda that would restore the proposal to its original democratic form. However as the annual meeting approached I discovered that even though the complete legislative agenda was distributed to the voters, only the arguments in favor of the undemocratic version had been included. I then again threatened to sue and they distributed my supporting arguments for the democratic amendments just before the annual meeting took place in Atlanta.
As Legislation Chair I was expected to run the legislative session but my opponents were clearly worried that I would use that bully pulpit to get the amendments adopted, so they set up an action to remove me from that position and succeeded. As a result the voters, most of who didn't understand what was going on, were talked into approving the grossly undemocratic proposal.
When USA Cycling began operating in July 1995 the commercial interests that then controlled it elected Mike Plant, who worked for Turner Broadcasting, as President. He had earlier been an organizer of the Tour de Trump for the floppy-haired Donald and then the Tour DuPont which succeeded it for awhile.
is worth noting is that Lance Armstrong rode on the Motorola team in the
mid-1990s under Team Manager Jim Ochowicz and that one of his teammates,
Stephen Swart from New Zealand, has since stated that
they took EPO in order to enhance performance. Thus the
Armstrong-Ochowicz-Weisel collaboration apparently has a rather long history.
Meanwhile Thom Weisel put together a cycling organization called Tailwind Sports that assembled a professional team, got sponsorship from the U.S. Postal Service and recruited Lance Armstrong, then put together the most efficient doping program in the sport. Tailwind Sports also organized a major annual race series called the San Francisco Grand Prix that reneged on payments to the city for police services then disappeared.
The second coup got reversed
In early 1999 a special meeting of the USA Cycling Board of Directors was set up by Mike Plant with a secret agenda that was not disclosed to the Directors until they arrived. On the agenda was a set of Bylaw amendments that would essentially remove the rights of general members of the organization to amend the Bylaws and that expanded the Board of Directors to include representatives of the USA Cycling Development Foundation, a "charitable nonprofit corporation" that had been set up by Thom Weisel. That agenda was presented as an emergency measure that, if approved, would go into effect promptly and one of its effects would be to further stack the Board's composition so that a majority would be elected by people with commercial cycling ties who made up less than 1% of the participants in the sport. Members of the Board approved this amendment, given that the commercial interests already held a majority of the seats there.
While most cyclists are apolitical, many were aghast at this flagrantly crooked takeover by business interests. I and others started rallying opposition using the Internet, especially the Usenet newsgroup rec.bicycles.racing, which I had initiated some years earlier. I set up a Fund for Cycling Reform to which many people contributed and we soon found attorney Andrew Rosen in Colorado, where USAC was incorporated, who was interested in helping us fight back. It took a couple of years of legal action but we won on appeal and, as a result, Thom Weisel and the others from the USA Cycling Development Foundation were booted off the USAC Board of Directors and the Bylaws reverted to their previous form.
The third coup was not charming
Meanwhile Lisa Voight and her colleagues drove USAC into a financial hole and were rescued by Thom Weisel's USAC Development Foundation with a string attached, namely that the Foundation's Executive Director, Steve Johnson, became the Chief Operating Officer of USAC. It soon became apparent that even though Lisa Voight remained as nominal head of the organization it was being run by Johnson.
Given that the earlier Bylaws had been restored, including members’ rights to vote on bylaw amendments, a group of us submitted a proposal called the "Democratic Reform Initiative" that would replace the commercial takeover of the Board of Directors with democratically elected directors. However instead of putting it on the ballot in the order received, Steve Johnson put in a Proposition A called the "Responsible Democratic Reform Initiative" that would again put the Weisel gang back on the Board. He also renamed our proposal as “Proposition B” without the “Democratic Reform Initiative” title. He then enlisted staff members to go to various races around the country and try to convince members they should vote for Proposition A and against B. Even more cleverly, young women reportedly hired by his USAC Development Foundation went to major races wearing bikini tops and invited riders to sign what appeared to be petitions in favor of Proposition A but that were actually proxies giving up the signer’s vote for the election.
Johnson also announced a new way of counting votes that was contrary to the Bylaws. All things considered they were clearly conducting another illegal action, so we sued again. It was clear that we again would win in court but it was also clear that the commercial interests would continue to defend themselves using funds derived from rider licensing and that this gambit could be repeated indefinitely. USAC eventually made me an offer I couldn't refuse and I decided to pursue a different strategy by supporting a competing organization called the Federation of Independent Associations for Cycling (FIAC) that had been started shortly after the 1999 coup in the hope that it could eventually bring about reforms.
I had served for a time as a Director of FIAC representing the Northern California-Nevada Cycling Association (NCNCA) and also donated the financial resources of our Fund for Cycling Reform to FIAC. However NCNCA eventually dropped out and I was then selected as Executive Director of FIAC.
USAC pretty much ignored FIAC for a time as we ran many bike races mostly in the Midwest and West, including Colorado where USAC was based, but when a major racing organization in the East showed interest in joining FIAC they were sent a letter threatening to suspend riders who competed in FIAC events. Given that under Federal Law USAC had monopoly control of access to international racing, including the Olympics, this would be a major deterrent for top-level riders.
There was no legal requirement that such riders be suspended, so in 2009 FIAC initiated a lawsuit trying to block that action. However the Court found in favor of USAC, arguably on bogus grounds, but that consolidated their monopoly control of the sport.
Paul, Kimmage, Rough Ride: Behind the wheel with a pro cyclist, 2007
David Walsh, From Lance to Landis, 2007
Based on statements by Tyler Hamilton and others it now appears likely
that the $50,000 “gift” by Lance Armstrong to
Is reform possible?
Given that the people running USAC have been exposed as crooked it is unlikely that the sport can be cleaned up until a way is found to get rid of them. Also, this problem is not confined to cycling. For example, before taking over USAC Thom Weisel reportedly bought control of Alpine Skiing in the U.S. and apparently other National Governing Bodies of Olympic Sports have also been taken over by business interests even though they are supposed to be charitable nonprofit corporations.
In other words, there are serious problems in the way that the U.S. Olympic Committee and its National Governing Bodies are structured and in order to fix them an existing Federal Law must be amended, namely the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act.