O'Grady case shows why an amnesty will never work

Al Hinds

cycling,tour de france,stuart o'grady,AUS,orica-greenedge,doping,1998,CYC,alex hinds,al hinds
Stuart O'Grady at the 1998 Tour of Britain... The South Australian won the event overall putting him in good stead for his second Tour de France. In the fortnight or so after the race finished, and just two weeks before the 1998 Tour he made a decision that will haunt him for the rest of his life. (Getty)
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Doping is such a dirty word that even the faintest association can damage an athlete's reputation beyond repair. Lying is even worse. Both are reason why nobody, even with the offers of incentivised carrots like "amnesties" and "Truth and Reconcilliation Commissions" will ever come forward unless exposed. Just ask Stuart O'Grady.

For all of O'Grady's commendations, he avoided the chance to come forward when White was being slammed, and only made his final admission when he'd been all but completely exposed. He would've taken it to his grave had he had the chance. Hardly laudable.

O'Grady's tale is a sad one, but one that's all too familiar. A fall from grace of epic proportions. Follow the South Australian's name in the media between Monday, 22 July, the day the Tour finished, and Thursday, 25 July, when he admitted to doping in the lead-up to the 1998 Tour de France. Glowing tributes for a long-serving retiring athlete turned sour, very sour, and very quickly.

In the space of a few days, O'Grady's reputation was shattered. It is shattered. Just as so many before him, O'Grady's career can now be classed in the binary, 'did dope during career as athlete'. That's a mark that nobody can lift, a tattoo that can't be lasered off, and a wound that will live with even the most ardent supporters for a long time. Some may forgive, perhaps in time. Others may have come to terms with the idea already. But you only have to look at the community reaction as a whole to understand that this is betrayal, as Armstrong was, as White was, as Hodge was, and one that most people are wholly uncomfortable with.

Gone was the athlete admired, idolised and looked up to. The man who propelled Australia to a gold medal in 2004 with Graeme Brown. The man who won Paris-Roubaix solo in 2007, and who was a poster boy of what Australians can achieve overseas, against the odds. O'Grady's career has been and will forever be tarnished. Even if his admission - that he doped during the fortnight before the 1998 Tour, and no time other - is true, doubt now shrouds his entire career. It's inescapable. The only person that can verify otherwise is the man himself, and his credibility is shot.

"Stuey" is a nice guy. I've met him. I've interviewed him. I've seen what he's done for the Adelaide cycling community, for Australia. I've heard glowing endorsements from team-mates, past and present alike. As The Advertiser's Reece Homfray wrote, O'Grady's indiscretion "must not define him as a person". And it won't. But it's immaterial to his legacy as an athlete. Nice guys, it seems, dope too.

That's not what's most disappointing. What's most disappointing is the state of our sport, a sport which has undergone radical change in the past decade and yet one that in so many ways is still the same. Chris Froome was dogged by questions at this year's Tour de France because of those that have ridden before him, not because of what he has done.

That's a tragedy. Our faith, if you can call it that, in cycling's sporting performances is so shallow that even the most well-tested teams and riders, even the most transparent processes, cannot convince us.

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On Wednesday evening I watched the live feed from the French Senate floor as two Senators I knew little about until that point presented their more than 900-page report into doping. The younger of the two, Senateur Jean-Jacques Lozach, after concluding the formal part of proceedings, joked about the cycling media's presence at the meeting, where other sports correspondents were notable in their absence.

It was true that cycling was well-represented, but nobody was laughing. Cycling reporting has become as much about doping as cycling. The sports journalists in this field are more attuned to it than in any other pursuit. It's difficult after all that's happened to write effusively about something which you believe to be false. Journalists are as burdened by the past as anyone. The past anchors us in the churn of doping stories, even while the present may spin a different tale. It's hardly a pleasure to write about O'Grady's demise, but it's too important too ignore.

History provides important context to the sins of the past, but it does not atone them. As one of the riders exposed by the French Senate report, Jacky Durand said doping at the time was "something that was inescapable, that nobody knew how to stop" or in French "une fuite en avant", a sort of arms race, if you like. That's sad too; that riders felt they had no option but to dope to compete. Even O'Grady, a young man that had been imbued by the best ethics the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) could inspire was unable to resist. Does it justify anything? No, but it's food for thought.

More broadly, cycling and doping have been for a long time inextricably linked. At one time or another it was even considered acceptable. In the early years of the Tour, unimaginable agony through feats the average man could not dream of, let alone replicate, were forgiven, the substances and concoctions they put together to ease their pain, rise above their fatigue, and soldier on, luxuries the fans would allow. It was hard not to sympathise. The roads were more cruel, the bikes heavier and over-geared, the support almost non-existant, and the rewards scant.

In the 1950s and 1960s amphetamine use was rampant. Five-time Tour winner Jacques Anquetil was open about it, and even when people died like Tom Simpson, in 1967, the show kept on rolling. The "greatest cyclist" of all time, Eddy Merckx, tested positive three times during his career, the first of which earned him a paltry now, but scandalous at the time, one-month ban. He returned in time for the Tour de France, which he won.

Cortisone and testosterone were the weapons of choice in the 1970s and 1980s, but then the sport started to get really sophisticated. Fans were becoming less forgiving, more, simply duped. When Michele Ferrari helped to bastardise the 1994 Fleche Wallone with his Gewiss lab rats the sport had become hard to even take seriously.

When the Festina Affair played out in 1998, riders and Tour de France organisers appeared shocked. Some protested. Perhaps they had a right to. A lot of people had gone along with the ride. Doping didn't end there, but the incident did scar the fans. Festina hurt. It was public. It exposed just how deep things had gone, how rotten the sport had become. Sure, riders and teams were blood-doping throughout the 2000s, and it's clear after the Giro d'Italia that to some extent the sport is still infected. But things are changing and fans are less tolerant. Fuelled by the Armstrong myth, we are far less tolerant.

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So how do we address the past?

That's the question that has plagued the sport's governing body, its fans and its current crop of riders for a while now. Frustratingly, there's no easy way to do it. Case in point, O'Grady, Orica-GreenEDGE and Nicki Vance.

The Vance Review, the idea to create a policy framework that the team could use consistently to deal with future doping cases and reinforce its existing checks and balances was a creditable idea in principle.

However, the end result of the Vance Review did all parties a disservice. Orica-GreenEDGE appeared to use it simply as a free pass to welcome back White while paying only lip service to many of the broader points of the report. A framework that should've allowed people like Neil Stephens, Stuart O'Grady and others to come forward and make confessions, and still retain employment with the team, was rejected.

O'Grady's impromptu retirement was Orica-GreenEDGE's way of getting around that. Strangely it felt uncomfortable to keep O'Grady on board, and yet had no issue with reinstating White. The timing also begs the question as to how early senior team staff knew, and whether they kept that information from Vance? O'Grady certainly did.

Vance says she wasn't totally blindsided by the episode, prefacing her report with the comment that she felt there was a possibility people weren't being totally honest in their statements to her because of Gerry Ryan's comments about a zero-tolerance approach to the team, and White's departure. Even so, she was surprised.

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For all of O'Grady's commendations, the fundamental point to take away from this sorry episode was that he avoided a chance to come forward when White was being slammed, and only made his final admission when he'd been all but completely exposed. Presumably, he would've taken it to his grave had he had the chance. Considering the admission was for an infringement in 1998, it falls well outside the statute of limitations. He could face no sanction. He was retiring, so he couldn't lose his job.

The disincentives were no different to that of a mooted "truth and reconcilliation commission". Admit your past and go away unpunished. And yet no dice. Only a small handful of people have fronted up of their own volition. One was Stephen Hodge, the former Cycling Australia vice president, although that came about when he was asked officially, by an internal CA review, to state he had never doped during his career. His conscience got the better of him, and he stepped down. But other than Hodge, it's not a common occurrence, and that can't possibly bode well for an amnesty's efficacy.

Jonathan Vaughters, White, Vance, new UCI presidential candidate Brian Cookson - I've seen all of them talk about an amnesty as a way forward. A line in the sand. But I don't see how it could work. It may pave a way for cycling to accept dopers back into the sport. But the label, a label that nobody wants to live with would still remain. "Doper".

It's why we're in the predicament we're in. The drip feed of past indiscretions, the environment of mistrust, and of half-truths, it will go on. It has to. Social stigma is something no amnesty or truth and reconciliation can ever repair. If I could offer one piece of advice to those with skeletons still in your closets: you can hasten the process of healing by coming forward quickly, a final gesture, which in some tiny way may be admirable in allowing us to progress. A tiny self-sacrifice for a sport that gave you everything. But I'm not optimistic. I wouldn't walk into the lion's den, but then again, I didn't dope.

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