The Callum Murray Interview - Hein Verbruggen
Hein Verbruggen, the former UCI and SportAccord president, talks to Sportcal Insight about his battles to save his reputation, Lance Armstrong and the future of sports governance and anti-doping Author
5th May 2017, 09:57

Hein Verbruggen, the man who presided over the UCI, cycling’s world governing body, during some of the most desperate days of cycling’s doping scandals, is still, 12 years after stepping down, battling allegations of complicity and cover-ups in the Lance Armstrong affair.

He himself would like to believe all that is behind him. He won’t be pitied or judged and he is keen for the Armstrong affair to be seen as just one incident in the course of his long career in sports administration and governance. “You find a positive guy that has done what he could do for sport,” he says. But he meets me fully prepared to fight his corner and armed with the documentary evidence that, he claims, proves his innocence. He is, in a word, implacable.

At the age of 75 he also has leukaemia and, on the day we meet in his comfortable, traditionally-furnished apartment in a suburb of Lausanne set among vineyards on the slopes above Lake Geneva, he is in line to undergo a bone marrow transplant.

But you wouldn’t know it. He looks in good shape for his age (he says bone marrow transplants aren’t usually given to those aged over 70 but that he was judged suitable to receive one because he has the physique of a man 10 years younger). And he remains fierce, combative, argumentative and absolutely convinced, not just of his innocence, but of the lasting value of his contribution to cycling and sport in general as president of the UCI and as an IOC member, including leading the IOC co-ordination commission for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

When we discuss some of the most controversial, contentious issues of his career, Verbruggen leans forward, looks me in the eye and actually shouts to make his point (we are alone in his drawing room, with no competing noise or distractions). As another of the main targets of his wrath is the media, this is disconcerting. At other times he springs up from his chair to find one of those pieces of documentary evidence that he says support his case.

Among other charges, Verbruggen has been accused of: showing favouritism towards Armstrong, cycling’s idol and cash cow until his eventual mea culpa in 2013; helping to cover up Armstrong’s ante-dated therapeutic use exemption in 1999 and an adverse doping test at the Tour de Suisse in 2001; and of allowing Armstrong to help finance the UCI-commissioned Vrijman report which cleared Armstrong of allegations of having tested positive for EPO at the 1999 Tour de France.

Verbruggen meets Lance Armstrong before his fall from grace
 

Verbruggen has a formidable record of going to court to defend his reputation. Last year he won costs of SFr12,000 [$12,012] in a lawsuit against Sunday Times journalist and former rider Paul Kimmage, with the judge in a Swiss court prohibiting Kimmage from claiming that Verbruggen knowingly tolerated doping, hid controls, is dishonest, did not behave responsibly, did not apply the same rules for all, and did not pursue Armstrong after he had provided the ante-dated TUE certificate. In 2002 the UCI sued Willy Voet, the former ‘soigneur’ at the Festina team, after Voet made various claims in his book Breaking the Chain about the UCI’s and Verbruggen’s behaviour at the 1997 UCI Road World Championships, winning both the case and a subsequent appeal. And Verbruggen says he also ‘won’ a case against former World Anti-Doping Agency president Dick Pound in 2009 after Pound agreed to an out-of-court settlement.

Verbruggen is proud that the UCI was the first international federation to introduce the so-called ‘biological passport’ which, for the first time, allowed anti-doping testers to detect a prohibited substance not based on its presence in urine or blood, but through deviations in the athlete’s biological parameters. He says: “We were the first to introduce blood controls because we were serious about anti-doping. We all know that a sophisticated blood passport is the answer for anti-doping controls.

“Unfortunately, there are still certain substances you cannot discover. When the French developed a detection method for EPO in 2000, who applied immediately that method? Cycling. Who waited two and half years? Athletics and WADA. They left us totally alone. These guys said the method is not scientifically approved, so when we went to court, riders said, ‘Athletics does not recognise it yet, because it’s not scientifically approved’. That was the defence also of Armstrong against a doubtful test result in 2001 in the Tour de Suisse. We were all by ourselves, with zero help from WADA and other federations.”

This is the first of many references to WADA, the organisation that probably tops Verbruggen’s lengthy sporting blacklist.

Verbruggen’s battle to clear his name continues. In 2015, he launched at considerable personal expense an entire website devoted to refuting allegations contained in a report commissioned by the UCI and conducted by the so-called Cycling Independent Reform Commission (Verbruggen scoffs at the word ‘independent’ in that title). And he did so despite insisting that the CIRC report actually exonerates, not incriminates him. “It was biased, but they couldn’t find anything,” he says.

The report was part of the witch hunt against him, Verbruggen believes, but in the absence of any hard evidence, “twenty-four hours [after its publication] and it was gone. I launched the website and the truth was never contested by CIRC. Even in the process against Kimmage they asked the president of CIRC to witness and he had to say under oath that they haven’t found anything against Verbruggen. But they say I was too close to Armstrong.”


Armstrong was one of the riders that I saw during races, but I never had any special contact with him  

 

Verbruggen’s tactic of simultaneously claiming that the report vindicates him and that it is biased makes it difficult to hold him to account on any of its findings. Either he is in the clear – and there are instances, as with the supposed Tour de Suisse cover-up or the Vrijman report allegation – where he is largely exonerated by CIRC; or its authors had already made up their minds about the case, as he claimed soon after its publication, describing the report’s allegation that “policies put in place to combat doping during my presidency were inadequate” as “a rather cheap shot from people who today have the benefit of 25 years of hindsight.”

So how well did he know Armstrong? What did he think of him before his doping confession? “Armstrong was one of the riders that I saw during races, but I never had any special contact with him,” Verbruggen replies. “Never had dinner, never had social contact with him. Other riders were my consultants and helped me when difficult decisions had to be taken. On the question of haematocrit controls, the Italian riders helped me enormously. What I thought before [his fall] was that he was a real American. If you look at Trump in politics, it was Armstrong in sport. Americans, they bully people. He was always bullying the UCI, wanting special rules for sponsors, wanting to wear long socks, which were forbidden…”

But it’s his work in sport, not the Armstrong saga, that should define him, Verbruggen insists, adding: “I’m a businessman who got involved in cycling. I was reasonably successful as a businessman, in the area of acquisitions and consulting, but I stopped that 20 years ago. Then I had more time for sport.”

Verbruggen was born in 1941 in Helmond, a town of about 90,000 inhabitants in the south of the Netherlands near Eindhoven. He tells an anecdote of the arrival of British troops to liberate the city from Nazi occupation in 1944 and his excitement, at the age of three, at being allowed to take an early-morning cup of tea in to soldiers billeted temporarily with his family. However, any lingering gratitude he might feel is well hidden as a result of the hounding he feels he has had to endure from the British press, and of a perceived Anglo-Saxon conspiracy in the running of his bete noir WADA, which he believes is dominated by a UK-USA-Canada-Australia-New Zealand cabal.

Verbruggen’s introduction to cycling (other than as a ‘hobby’) came through one of his first jobs working in the marketing department of Mars, the US food giant, in Belgium, where, at the time, television advertising was forbidden. He says: “I worked for six and a half years for Mars, one of the best organised companies in the world. Everything they taught me I put into practice in the UCI: marketing, management, finance, transparency. At a certain moment I was responsible for Belgian marketing, where there were no advertisements on TV, so we were looking for other ways [of promoting the products] and had the idea of sponsoring a team.”

During 1970 and 1971, Mars sponsored the Belgian Flandria professional road cycling team, giving Verbruggen his introduction to the world of professional cycling, and the Dutch cycling federation quickly came calling, asking him to join one of its commissions. In 1978, Verbruggen took on the role of representing the federation at the UCI, and then became president of the FICP, the international professional cycling organisation, in 1984, a post he held until 1991, when he was elected UCI president. One of his first acts as UCI president was to unite the federation, which was divided into three parts: the UCI itself, the FICP and the FIAC, its amateur equivalent (the IOC had originally demanded the division in the days when only amateur athletes competed in the Olympics).

Verbruggen at a Beijing 2008 IOC co-ordination commission meeting
 

“The UCI was paralysed for 25 years,” Verbruggen says. “It was the Communist amateurs versus the western professionals. When I became president, there was no reason any more to have those three federations. But a lot of people were not willing to give up those nice functions. I had to fight hard for a year to dismantle the professional and amateur bodies and concentrate everything into the UCI. When I started there was nothing. Almost anyone could have done a better job. I said, we have to start from scratch, and we did that by the end of 1992. Then we sold ourselves the TV rights [for the World Championships]. They were given to the country that organised them before.”

As a result, Verbruggen claims to have increased the UCI’s budget from SFr300,000 a year to create a “very successful business” with SFr14 million “in the coffers,” when he left. “We went from negative capital and from four to 80 people, who were well paid, organised and motivated,” he says, after he set about hiring experts, including in anti-doping. “I knew already at that time how difficult this problem was,” he adds.

As a businessman successful enough to have been able to retire young and take on his unpaid roles in sport, Verbruggen has some trenchant views on the governance of sport.

These derive from his observation that whereas a commercial company has a board of shareholders united in the same cause – profits for the company – the executive board of a sporting organisation is invariably made up of representatives of a wide range of differing, and often competing, national and other constituencies.

His solution to this problem would be to create a ‘world government of sport’, perhaps made up in part of respected ex-politicians (here he cites, perhaps surprisingly, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton). He says: “The problem is that the structure of international sport is an amateur one. My background is in the corporate world, not in sport. I was many times blamed that I didn’t understand sport. But one thing I understood, and that is how to run a company. I had my own companies working as a consultant for large corporations. So what I did with the UCI was what I was used to doing: I organised it as a company.”

Surely the role of world government of sport is one for the IOC, I ask? “But is the IOC prepared to take that on?,” Verbruggen replies. “I think they should. This might be the only solution. It’s a respectable organisation in spite of what they say about it. In the long run there is no choice. The IOC should exercise control. The problem is that we live from election to election.”


Are you going to tell me that Barclays Bank is a democracy, or Nestle, or British Airways? There is one boss 

 

He illustrates the point with reference to the highly controversial election in 2013 of Marius Vizer, his successor as president of SportAccord, the umbrella body of international sports federations. Vizer was forced to quit weeks after launching an astonishing attack on the IOC and its president, Thomas Bach, calling the IOC system “expired, outdated, wrong, unfair and not at all transparent” and questioning the validity of Bach’s Agenda 2020 reform programme.

The attack offended many of the international federations that Vizer purported to represent as SportAccord president, and which depend on the IOC for funding, and led to mass resignations and suspensions by the federations of their SportAccord memberships.

Verbruggen had envisaged SportAccord as a service organisation, providing services to international federations that they could not easily achieve themselves, such as anti-doping and organising themed multi-sports events on behalf of the smaller federations. Yet he is not unsympathetic to Vizer’s much loftier ambitions for the organisation, albeit he believes he made a fundamental error by aiming to compete directly with the Olympic Games with his proposal for a combined event aggregating the world championships of SportAccord members.

“I don’t blame Mr Vizer,” he says. He sold a vision and the majority of the members went for that, and it failed. If you in the world of sport start competing with the IOC because you announce games every four years, you do not exactly know the place you should be. But he was perfectly open; he presented plans, and said he would sign with big Russian sponsors, and bring in $60 million. But he could not realise everything, and then he started to get frustrated and the frustration came out in Sochi [where Vizer made his now-famous speech denouncing the IOC and Bach]. It was not a service operation but a big international business company. I don’t think that was right. But he was perfectly open.

“The election of Vizer was democratic, and you cannot argue with democracy,” he concludes. “But it does not guarantee you have the right person. Elections is politics. Sport is an important social phenomenon, but it’s probably the only social phenomenon that escapes control.”

What about WADA, I ask, does it need reforming? And this is the point at which the floodgates really open. Verbruggen is incensed at WADA’s habitual argument that, with an annual $28-million budget, it does not have the resources to act as the world’s doping police, saying – actually, shouting – “Bullshit, it has ‘limited resources’. The problem of WADA is the fact that WADA is way more a political organisation than an anti-doping organisation. They need more money for what, to do what? WADA should be the anti-doping organisation in the world, but they don’t want to do doping control, anti-doping.”

"If people want to pick my brains, I’m happy to do that. But I was never paid for any [sports] work"

And with that he’s off again, shaking his head and muttering, “The trouble with you guys is you don’t have the time to read things,” before returning with a thick folder, and saying: “This is a key thing that I’m going to show you.” He turns to an internal WADA document from 2013, produced by a WADA working group, in which WADA’s ‘principal role’ is described as being to ‘monitor compliance with the World Anti-Doping Code’, while other tasks such as research and education are apparently relegated to secondary roles, at best.

“Do you understand that WADA three years ago has told the world, ‘We don’t want to do education and research any more?’,” Verbruggen thunders.” WADA say they don’t want to be involved. So what do you want to do? WADA controlled Armstrong [just] three times in 10 years. They don’t want to be involved in controls or results management, they withdrew from research and education. So what do you need money for?

“The Olympic movement is freaking fed up with an agency in an ivory tower that doesn’t want to do anything. The agency doesn’t work. You think it’s a sign that they are efficient if they leave whistleblowers in the cold for four years? Dr Rodchenkov [former Moscow anti-doping laboratory director Grigory Rodchenkov] tells WADA things are happening in his lab, interference with results management, and WADA does nothing. If you say they need a total overhaul, what do you want me to say? Absolutely WADA needs reforming completely. There is nobody that is happy with WADA.”

This, remember, is a man about to undergo a bone marrow transplant and who, by his own estimate, is very sick (albeit he says he is “confident” of making a full recovery after the operation). If he is to go down in history as one of sport’s bad guys, he’s certainly not going quietly.

So after all the aggro, would he accept the presidency of the UCI if he had his time again? Of course he would, he says indignantly. “It was my major occupation.” Brian Cookson, the incumbent president, has described Verbruggen’s reign at the UCI as ‘dictatorial’. Was this fair? His reply is withering. “My background is in the corporate world,” he says. “Are you going to tell me that Barclays Bank is a democracy, or Nestle, or British Airways? There is one boss. If he’s smart he surrounds himself with capable people. But at the end of the day you cannot run a company with collective responsibility.”

Perhaps the major criticism of the UCI and Verbruggen contained in the CIRC report is reflected in Verbruggen’s own rueful comment, earlier in the conversation: “They say I was too close to Armstrong.” The report claimed: “Numerous examples have been identified showing that UCI leadership ‘defended’ or ‘protected’ Lance Armstrong and took decisions because they were favourable to him. This was in circumstances where there was strong reason to suspect him of doping, which should have led UCI to be more circumspect in its dealings with him.”


Clearly we were a scapegoat. Not me personally, but WADA used the UCI as a scapegoat 

 

Verbruggen was able to act thus because, the report says, “Internal management bodies appear to have been devoid of any real influence and the governance structure was such that if the president wanted to take a particular direction, he was able to do so almost unchallenged. This style of management was (and sometimes still is) not uncommon in sports governing bodies, although this does not justify either the governance structure or the decisions that were taken.”

So it’s interesting, and probably the closest Verbruggen comes to any sign of remorse, to hear him argue for a world government of sport that might provide a check on the power of a federation’s leadership, even as he insists that you can’t “run a company with collective responsibility.” He has also publicly admitted that accepting a $100,000 donation from Armstrong in 2005 to buy an anti-doping blood analysis machine for the UCI was a mistake.

What does he do with his time now, I ask, apart from waging war against those that have attempted to smear his reputation? “I am still consulted by certain people in the world of sport, the presidents of international federations within the Olympic movement,” he says. “For example, I’m talking to the skating federation which is thinking of setting up a world centre of excellence. It’s a copy of what we did, which remains unique, at the World Cycling Centre [the UCI’s headquarters and training centre in Aigle, Switzerland].

“I’m talking to the president [of the International Skating Union] who happens to be a Dutchman. I’m also involved in an Amsterdam feasibility study for the Olympic Games of 2028. A number of people ask my opinion in anti-doping cases. But I very explicitly don’t do anything official, I have no function. If people want to pick my brains, I’m happy to do that. But I was never paid for any [sports] work, not even in the UCI [he claimed expenses only as UCI president, he says].”

I ask him if he is bitter over the way he has been treated. He replies, “You always feel bitter when it’s not right, but it’s part of the game. There are people that have sent me reactions and said, ‘we were wrong’. Not too many. I’m still asked by teams and organisers who say they are in a total mess, ‘what would you do?’ I give advice, then I go home. Apparently, still, there are some people that would like to hear how I would solve a problem.”

But then he pulls himself up saying, “I know where this is going. I’ve had a lot of experience of journalists, as you can imagine. You want to portray me as a bitter man. But you find a man here who is happy with what he’s done in sport. I have had an incident with Armstrong. The biggest doping case was used by WADA and USADA [the US Anti-Doping Agency] for their purposes to prove that doping is an enormous problem. In fact, we don’t know how big the problem is.”

I try again. Does he believe his reputation has been unfairly tarnished - that he became a scapegoat for cycling’s problems? “Apparently,” he replies, “because you asked the question. But I’ve always said truth is a daughter of time. I’ve done good things in sport and enjoyed it. With the UCI, the co-ordination commission for Beijing, I was reasonably successful. Clearly we were a scapegoat. Not me personally, but WADA used the UCI as a scapegoat. But we won or they retracted all of the cases [against himself and the UCI].”

“I have written letters to Howman [David Howman, WADA’s former director general] saying, ‘Instead of picking on the UCI and cycling, why don’t you work together with the UCI?’ We were by far the best anti-doping organisation. We were and still are. Then in 2012 during the London Olympics he admitted that to me. He said: ‘Only two IFs do a decent job, cycling and athletics’. In hindsight, he was not right about one.”

Just weeks ago, Verbruggen launched a blog, blog.verbruggen.ch, in which he aims to tackle commercial and governance issues of the day in sport, beginning with an article titled 'Resolving the Olympic host city crisis with professional long-term marketing' - not the actions of someone who is going quietly.

Hein Verbruggen: a man with no regrets, whatever the world might think. So don’t feel sorry for him. And definitely don’t call him bitter.

Sportcal