UCI chief Cookson: Doping still endemic in cycling

AIGLE, Switzerland (AP) As cycling deals with a scathing report into its deep-rooted culture of doping, UCI President Brian Cookson said Monday that cheating remains ”endemic”’ in the sport but the governing body will ”no longer turn a blind eye” to the problem.

Cookson also said he wants former UCI leader Hein Verbruggen to give up his honorary presidency after the 227-page dossier said the governing body colluded with Lance Armstrong to cover up positive tests at the 1999 Tour de France.

The International Cycling Union was severely criticized in the report for failing to act during the doping era dominated by Armstrong, and broke rules to favor the now-disgraced rider.

The report was commissioned by the new UCI leadership to investigate doping that shredded cycling’s credibility and led to Armstrong being stripped of his seven Tour de France titles in 2012.

While the yearlong probe turned up no major revelations, and found no proof that payments Armstrong made to the UCI was to cover up positive tests, it suggested doping is still rife.

”I do believe that there is still an endemic problem of lower-level doping throughout different levels of our sport,” Cookson said Monday.

Still, the UCI chief questioned the claim of one Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC) witness who suggested 90 percent of top-level riders still dope.

Cookson hopes publishing the report can help turn the page on the doping era.

”We will no longer turn a blind eye to doping, we will no longer assist people in covering up doping,” he said.

Cookson’s two predecessors, Verbruggen and Pat McQuaid – described respectively in the report as ”autocratic” and ”weak” leaders – were severely criticized for undermining anti-doping efforts.

”I am surprised and occasionally appalled by some of the things” in the report, said Cookson, citing Armstrong’s 1999 Tour win as ”an absolutely critical moment” in sending a message the UCI was not serious about stopping doping.

The report confirmed Armstrong’s first Tour title was possible only because the UCI accepted a back-dated prescription for corticosteroids to explain positive tests during the race.

Still, Verbruggen insisted he had ”nothing to be ashamed for” and that UCI rules were not broken.

”I’m not a criminal. I don’t feel guilty of anything,” Verbruggen told The Associated Press in an interview on Monday.

The Dutch official dismissed threats to his UCI figurehead role and suggestions that his honorary IOC membership is at risk. He was an elected member for 12 years, ending after overseeing the 2008 Beijing Games for the Olympic body.

The International Olympic Committee did not address questions over whether Verbruggen’s honorary status would be reviewed, though issued a statement welcoming the UCI report.

Verbruggen’s chosen successor as UCI leader, McQuaid, said Monday’s report ”totally exonerates me on the key questions it set out to answer, on corruption and cover-ups in doping.”

Armstrong, Verbruggen and McQuaid were among 174 witnesses from across the sport interviewed by the panel chaired by Dick Marty, a Swiss politician who formerly investigated the CIA’s use of secret interrogation prisons in Europe.

Though Armstrong wants to reduce his lifetime ban imposed by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, the report did not include any published recommendation.

It did say that many riders believe doping is still widespread as athletes adapt to evade new tests and detection methods, including the biological passport program pioneered by the UCI.

”A common response to the commission, when asked about teams, was that probably three or four were clean, three or four were doping, and the rest were a `don’t know,”’ the report said.

It said the ”generally sophisticated” cheating is likely done outside team control by riders meeting with ”doping doctors.”

Cookson said it was ”despicable” that some banned doctors continue to work with riders. The report identified former Armstrong associate Michele Ferrari and Eufemiano Fuentes, the Spanish doctor in the Operation Puerto case who was banned for four years in 2013.

However, clean riders today have a chance of being competitive, Cookson said.

The micro doses of doping products now used, the report said, boost performance by just ”3-5 percent gains, instead of 10-15 percent in the EPO era.”

The UCI of Verbruggen’s era was criticized for ”inadequate” anti-doping policies and seeing only excessive drug use as a health problem.

The report noted that Verbruggen, ”with his business experience” as a marketing executive, saw the potential appeal of Armstrong returning as a cancer survivor to cycling after scandal blighted the 1998 Tour.

”UCI saw Lance Armstrong as the perfect choice to lead the sport’s renaissance,” the report said, adding, ”the fact that he was American opened up a new continent for the sport.”

Armstrong said in a statement Sunday he was ”deeply sorry for many things I have done.”

”I am grateful to CIRC for seeking the truth and allowing me to assist in that search,” Armstrong said ahead of seeing the report.