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March 10/14 11:05 am - Interview with UCI President Brian Cookson

Posted by Editoress on 03/10/14

Brian Cookson was elected President of the UCI over five months ago, after a hard fought campaign. Since then, he has instituted a number of reforms to the international cycling federation, including striking an Independent Commission to review past activities in cycling and at the UCI. We had the opportunity to sit down with Mr Cookson last week at the Track World Championships for a one-on-one interview about his first months in office.

Canadian Cyclist: It has been just over five months since you took office. From your perspective, what are the major accomplishments of your Presidency so far?

Brian Cookson: I think we've done some of the key things I said we were going to do in my manifesto. Establishing a new Women's Commission; installing a woman vice-president; putting a woman on every one of the new Commissions; strengthening the links between the Commissions, the Management Committee and the national federations by making sure every Commission President is a member of the Management Committee.

I think the work we've done on bringing together some of the key stakeholders to look at the work we've done on overhauling the professional scene - and that's a work in progress - is important and the way we've restructured our approach to key issues like doping. We've now made the anti-doping activities of the UCI generally and fully independent. We have established the Independent Commission, which we said we were going to do, to look at the problems historically in cycling; how we got to where we are - or were - and to investigate the allegations about the UCI's role in that situation.

Those are all good things that have happened. When you add to that the visits that I have been doing to some of the key parts of the globe where cycling is developing strongly ... in the five months that I have been President I have now travelled to each of the Continents. Although, for those that follow Twitter, you will have noticed that when I said that on Twitter, someone quickly pointed out that I hadn't visited Antarctica ... as I said, once the penguins start organizing bike races I'll get down there.

To be more serious, I think it's been important to have a high profile as a new President, and the leader of a new management at the UCI. We've made some key appointments to the staff and the commissions, like completely restructuring the Equipment Commission to bring in some people, like consultant Dimitris Katsanis, to look at the bikes. Those are the sorts of things that I think have been well received, and that I said I would do, during the election campaign, and I think people respect the fact that me and my team are delivering the sorts of things that we said we would do.

CC: One of the most high profile things you have done is establishing the Independent Commission. The formation and members was just announced [January 8, 2014], but can you talk a bit about where you expect it to go, or the current status? What are the sorts of outcomes we are likely to start seeing over the next few months?

BC: You may see some things over the next few months, but [what] I really want the Commission to do is to try to do its work discretely and efficiently, not like a circus. So there won't be people rolling up in front of banks of camera men to give their evidence. It will be receiving evidence and going out to look for evidence, talking to people and taking statements in a way that will be instructive and beneficial to the sport, rather than providing theatre and entertainment for the media, if you don't mind me saying so.

It's got people of huge experience and integrity, who don't have any previous involvement in the sport of cycling, but have huge commitment to the task we have given them. So, for example, in the President [Dick Marty] you've got a guy who was a respected senior politician in Switzerland, but also from a legal background was a prosecutor who has been involved in serious organized crime investigations. You've got a guy who has got a background in anti-doping regulations [Ulrich Haas], and the law and science and technology of it. And there is a guy who's got a background in military investigations [Peter Nicholson], including war crimes in Srebenica and the former Yugoslavia.

These are serious people who have real kudos and have agreed to take on the job of investigating cycling problems in the doping respect, and the allegations against the UCI. They would not have taken that on if we hadn't guaranteed them proper independence, sufficient resources to do the job, and sufficient time to do the job.

What I've been saying recently, is that we can argue for hours or weeks on end about truth and reconciliation commissions, and rights of subpoena, and whether people can be prosecuted for not telling the truth, and what powers we've got ... but the UCI is not a national government, it's not a state or an international court of justice.

What we've got here is an international sport federation. We are operating within the terms and conditions that we have available to us. We are doing it with the understanding of the World Anti-doping Agency [WADA], and their code, and everyone agrees that we need to do something quickly, expeditiously and efficiently, and that's what we are going to do. Those three people have taken on that job with a support team of staff, we've given them a budget and now I'm stepping back, the UCI is stepping back and letting them get on with it.

Whilst people can argue until the cows come home about different ways of doing it, this is a way of doing it that is practical, achievable and deliverable within the timeframe and with the resources that are available to us. So I'm urging everyone now to take this opportunity to come forward and to put their trust in those three people, and to work with us. If those people who have information really care about the future of the sport, now is the time to come forward.

CC: Has there been any movement; have people been coming forward and agreeing to testify?

BC: The Commission have already begun gathering evidence. I don't know what they are doing on a day-to-day basis, I don't know know who they are talking to. All I do know is that they have started taking evidence from people, yes.

CC: One of the major concerns is that in some countries, where doping is a criminal offence - like Italy - coming forward could open them to being arrested back in their own country. Is there any way around this, is there anything WADA can do to help in this regard?

BC: We can't stop national governments doing what they are legally empowered to do. But, what we have got with WADA is an agreement that there will be a sympathetic approach to people who are prepared to come forward to the Commission under the terms and conditions that are clearly outlined in the Terms of Reference.

I'm confident that if people come forward, and genuinely and honestly tell the truth to this forum, that they will be treated sympathetically by the authorities, whether it is the national anti-doping agencies in their own country or the legal authorities. But the UCI cannot have, never would have and never will have the powers to overrule the laws of a sovereign national country.

CC: Moving to something different ... with the Winter Olympics on us, the discussion has come up, as usual, about Cyclo-cross in the Olympics. You have made a few statements about the possibility. Can you talk about what the possibilities are of having that happen?

BC: I think I've said that this is a long term project, but what is interesting this time is that it really seems to have sparked some interest and dialogue in the wider Olympic movement about 'what is the form and shape of the Winter Olympics?' Does it always have to be on snow or ice? Could it not be sports that traditionally take part in the winter without needing snow or ice?

If you went down that road you could start to think about cyclo-cross; you could start to think about cross-country running. If you did that then you would bring in all the African nations, who have a huge heritage in cross-country running.

You could even go further than that, and say 'what about some of the sports that traditionally take place indoors in winter in the northern hemisphere?' So maybe - and I'm flying some kites here - what about badminton and combat sports [judo, etc.].

CC: So maybe more of a balance between Summer and Winter Games?

BC: Yes. What I'm saying - and this is only a personal view at the moment - if the problem is that the Summer Olympics is overheated and overstaffed, with huge numbers and huge facility requirements, why not think about spreading that out a bit, and putting some of the sports in the Winter Olympics? I'm almost tempted to say: 'why don't we throw in track cycling?' It is pretty much an indoor sport these days.

Let's have that debate. I'm willing to stand up and start that debate. Interestingly, quite a few people have taken that on board and said 'yeah, this is something we need to start talking about'.

CC: But to get back to Cyclo-cross, I guess what you are saying is that there is not a strong chance that we will see it in the next Winter Olympics?

BC: I think it would be overly optimistic to think that it could happen by the time of the next Winter Olympics. It's a real long term project. The Olympics is planned a long time in advance, six years in advance, so it would be unrealistic to expect changes within that timeframe.

CC: Moving to something closer to Canada - we just had the announcement that Cycling Canada's President, John Tolkamp, has been appointed to the Ethics Commission. We also have Tanya Dubnicoff on the Women's Commission and Brian Jolly on the Mountain Bike Commission. Canada is quite well represented right now; we're obviously quite pleased, but why has Canada managed to do so well?

BC: Well, now that you've put it that way [laughs] .... But let's be serious about it, I think Canada is a great nation, with a good cycling heritage. It's well organized and well run from a federation point of view, so it's right and proper that people with ability and influence are put into positions of trust and influence. That's what is happening and I'm very pleased about it.

It's not just Canada. We've broadened the remit and recruitment of all of the Commissions. It's not a case of one person per Continent per commission, but we have gone out of our way to put at least one woman on each Commission - and they are not token women, they are people of ability - and we are trying to spread that around. Maybe Canada has benefited from that.

CC: Let's move to pro road racing. It has been struggling a bit lately, with the number of teams and some events, due to economic conditions. You have floated some ideas about possibly restructuring the season, the length of races, the size of teams, and so on. Can you talk about what you would like to see, and whether or not you are getting any push back from traditional cycling nations like France and Italy and Spain?

BC: I want to emphasize that this is all very much a work in progress. The approach that I'm trying to bring to this is one of working together, not causing conflict, and not negotiating through a megaphone. I think it is important that all of us who care about the future of road racing are prepared to look forward into the future in as radical a way as necessary.

We have to say 'what do we have to do to make sure there is a sustainable future for road racing?' It has been under challenge for a number of reasons, and in a number of its traditional heartlands but, nevertheless, has some very strong points that need to be protected. I think the heart of the international road calendar will always be the great events in Europe; the monuments, the classics and the Grand Tours. But that doesn't mean some of those things can't change here and there, and that they shouldn't be prepared to adapt.

if you don't adapt and evolve you become like the dinosaurs, which became extinct. So we all have to adapt to the world that is changing around us. There are economic challenges in cycling's heartland, there are sporting challenges. There are economic opportunities in other areas of the planet and there are sporting opportunities and environmental opportunities, and we have to, if we are going to be a world governing body and a world sport, find opportunities for our riders, men and women, earn a decent living like other athletes in other global sports. We've got to be prepared to look radically and creatively at what makes up our sport.

That's a process we are going through at the moment. I don't want to get into a situation like the old ProTour days, where it became a huge, huge conflict. What I've been talking about all along is that we're having the wrong arguments in cycling. We argue about who's going to get the slice of a small cake. Well, I'm saying let's make that cake bigger, and work together to make sure we can do that. That might require a bit of give and take in principle, but that's all I want to say at this stage.

Let's put things on the table, let's talk together. That's a process we are engaged in. Let's find ways that we can grow the economy of professional road racing for men and women that benefits everybody, that benefits the organizers, benefits the teams, benefits the riders. It benefits the fans as well, because if we get it right, then they will continue to see the great classics and they will see new events that are exciting as well.

It's a work in progress. All these things require a spirit of cooperation and partnership, which I think was lacking from the UCI in the past, which I believe we are now able to bring to the table.


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