Brian Cookson - President, International Cycling Union (UCI) Share PDF Print E-mail
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When the Lance Armstrong doping scandal hit the International Cycling Union (UCI), the reputational damage done to the sport of cycling was immense. Sponsors and broadcasters left, whilst fans who had idolised Armstrong’s rise to the top, felt angered that their sport had let them down.

One of those fans was Brian Cookson, who at the time, was leading British Cycling. In September 2013, Cookson was elected as the new President of the UCI, to take over from Pat McQuaid, who many felt had let the sport down.

In this interview with iSportconnect, Cookson talks about how he has set about restoring the sport’s reputation, how he is building the women’s game and the radical ideas he has for the Olympic programme that have left a few sports upset.

By Steve Moorhouse

Have you always been a big fan of cycling?

Yes, my earliest memories are cycling around the garden at home in Lancashire. I joined my first club in 1965, the year that Tom Simpson won the World Professional Road Race Championship. From then on I have always been involved in cycling.

Before the UCI you helped turn around British Cycling. What were the big challenges there for you and how has that role prepared you for the one you are doing now?

The British Cycling Federation, in the mid 90s, was in a pretty dire state. It was in a bit of a meltdown situation. They had a very poor reputation, were challenged financially and there were lots of legal issues. The situation was considerably worse than the situation of the UCI last year.

We turned that around by transforming the fortunes of that organisation when a lot of people thought it was beyond redemption, by making the right recruitments and hiring the right people. We made sure we had sufficient resources and worked with a good CEO and seized good opportunities. The job of governing bodies is to provide the circumstances by which athletes can thrive. I think there are many parallels with the situation the UCI was in.

You have been UCI President since September 2013. What has surprised you about the job and what was the biggest problem for you to solve?

The biggest problem was the restoration of the reputation of the UCI and the sport of cycling, especially professional men’s road cycling. Those issues are well known and revolve around the doping culture and the revelations of Lance Armstrong. A lot of work had been done before I was elected and I give credit to my predecessors, for example the biological passport had already began to make a huge difference. But there was still that reputational damage. What we have had to do is make a clean break with the past. I think it was clear that most of the external agencies, media and cycling fans understood that whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, a change in leadership would be helpful. One of the things that I have found is that people are very happy now to start working with the new administration. People from both inside and outside of the sport have positively approached me and said ‘cycling had to change and the UCI had to change.’ That applies to organisations like WADA and the IOC, plus the teams, National Federations and the fans. The goodwill out there for our sport is what has surprised me, despite the problems.

How long will it take to rebuild cycling’s reputation and how will you ensure everyone sees cycling as a clean sport?

I cannot put a precise time frame on things. What we have to do is keep working at this whole issue. One milestone has been a change in leadership, another has been an audit in the UCI’s internal anti-doping processes and continuing the process of making the anti-doping cycling foundation an independent body. Another has been creating the independent commission which is looking at the problems of the past with a view to making recommendations and hearing how we got into that situation and then learn some lessons.

There will always be people who try and cheat in life. I think there is a strong lesson that is coming out that no matter how rich you become, no matter how good your lawyers are, if you have built your career on lying and cheating, ultimately it will come out and your reputation will be destroyed.

You mentioned the investigation into the UCI’s past with WADA. How has that developed and how has your relationship with WADA been?

The relationship with WADA is very good. WADA didn’t appear to have much confidence in the previous leadership and there was a history of conflict. We have put that to bed. I worked very hard with the previous President of WADA and I know the new President, Sir Craig Reedie, very well from my time at the British Olympic Association. Our jobs are to stop people cheating and I think we can work together. I never understood why there was the conflict between the UCI and WADA in this important area of sport.

Have you found it difficult attracting commercial income because of the Lance Armstrong scandal?

There has been huge damage. You only have to look at the situation in Germany where there was extensive coverage of the Tour de France on top channels and now there isn’t any. Clearly there is a big impact. We have seen sponsors leaving the sport. I do not think there is a magic switch you can press and say ‘everything is ok now.’ The relationship with sponsors and broadcasters is tied up with the longer term process of restoring the reputation. There are good signs and people coming forward who want to talk to us. If we keep our good process going then more will come out and come back into the sport. We are working hard on that and hopefully in the next few months we can make some positive announcements.

This is the thing with doping for me. Even if you did not accept the ethical and moral arguments, clearly there is an economic imperative that everyone can understand. Sponsors, broadcasters and of course fans do not want to support something that is tainted with this terrible reputation. However cynical your world view is, it is still clear that tackling doping is integral to the future success of our sport.

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