Pound’s righteous fury: how cycling’s ethical crisis accelerated progress in anti-doping worldwide

by Jeremy Whittle

Words by Jeremy Whittle | Photo: WADA

Dick Pound, the founding President of WADA, nemesis of Lance Armstrong and one of the most pivotal figures in world anti-doping, was once labelled the ‘sheriff who shoots everything that moves’ by indignant former UCI President, Hein Verbruggen. 

But then Pound was always easy meat for those who wanted to besmirch his reputation or troll him online. His name, the catalyst for a thousand schoolboy sniggers, didn’t help. 

Fulsome tribute has been paid to the 78 year old since his retirement on December 31. “Dick was the right person, in the right place at the right time,” WADA’s current Director General, Olivier Niggli said, adding that Pound “gave WADA the credibility that it needed and deserved.” 

Pound, who retired at the end of last year after over 20 years working at the highest level with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), was never one to indulge his detractors, many of whom were ultimately revealed to be long-standing drugs cheats. He poured scorn on world sport’s sacred cows at a time when doping had taken a stranglehold in many disciplines.

“I’m quite happy to be known by the enemies I make,” he told me in 2007. “In fact, if you haven’t made enemies, then I’d say you’re not doing the job.” 

Hawkish, serious, unflinching, Pound didn’t suffer fools and took a withering stance when it came to sporting superstars protesting their innocence after testing positive. “Most athletes, when they’re caught, lie,” the Canadian said once. “Their coaches lie. The people around them lie. They just deny, deny, deny.”

Top of his hit list of course was Lance Armstrong, who campaigned long and hard to discredit Pound, when, as President of WADA, he regularly heaped scepticism on Armstrong’s ongoing run of Tour de France success. At a time when many wilted in the face of the American’s hegemony, Pound remained an unflinching critic. 

“Dick Pound is a recidivist violator of ethical standards,” a grandstanding Armstrong wrote in 2005, as he demanded that Pound be sacked. “Mr. Pound has depicted himself as the ethical conscience of the IOC (International Olympic Committee), while failing to practice what he preaches.”

Pound rolled his eyes and remained unmoved. History has of course, proven him right. “I have learned a lot about human nature,” he said, with dry understatement, when interviewed by The Times in 2016. 

But then Pound, a lawyer who swam for Canada in the Olympic Games prior to his career in sports governance, had already been there, done that and got the T-shirt, with another notorious drugs cheat — Ben Johnson. 

His scepticism was founded on the Road to Damascus experience of defending the Canadian sprinter after he failed a drug test at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. It was an experience that, according to some, converted him, overnight, from naive romantic to hardened cynic. 

By the time the Festina Affair tainted the Tour de France a decade later, he was the IOC’s de facto trouble-shooter in chief, having led the corruption investigation into the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games. 

“The groundwork for WADA was laid as early as August 1998,” Pound said, of that scandalous summer that revealed how ingrained doping in cycling had become. “We needed an independent agency which led to the creation of WADA. I was asked to run it, but I didn’t know anything about doping and I’d damn near killed myself doing the Salt Lake investigation.”

Pat McQuaid, director of the 1998 Tour’s Grand Depart and Hein Verbruggen’s successor as UCI President, believes that Pound targeted cycling “from the beginning, as it was an easy outlet for his criticism and was always guaranteed to get major coverage in European media.”

“He selected cycling for his daggers because of his poor relationship with Hein Verbruggen,” McQuaid told La Course en Tete. “This was purely because of Verbruggen’s support for Jacques Rogge in the IOC Presidential election in 2001 where Dick was also a candidate.”

Appointed as WADA President, Pound’s fun and games with then-UCI President Verbruggen began soon afterwards, as Verbruggen lionised Armstrong’s achievements, while Pound scoffed at them. Pound remembers his conflict with the late Dutchman well. 

“I was saying, ‘Hein, you have a real problem in your sport and you don’t seem able to deal with it'” – Verbruggen responded with “…if they want the Tour de France at 42 kilometres per hour, then the riders can’t do it without preparation.”

dick Pound – recalling a conversation with then UCI president Hein Verbruggen

“I was saying, ‘Hein, you have a real problem in your sport and you don’t seem able to deal with it,'” Pound recalled, saying that Verbruggen responded with “…if they want the Tour de France at 42 kilometres per hour, then the riders can’t do it without preparation.” 

Verbruggen, who died in 2017, always dismissed Pound’s recollections of that particular exchange as “nonsense.”

But Pound remained a thorn in cycling’s side throughout the first decade of the century. “Which came first?” former UCI President Brian Cookson, speaking to La Course en Tete, pondered. “Dick’s focus on cycling’s doping problems or his conflicts with Verbruggen?”

“I think both men were very ambitious and probably wanted to be IOC President. So I think it was very helpful for him to be able to use cycling’s doping problems as a weapon in his political conflicts with Hein.”

Pound’s willingness to ruffle the feathers of sport’s rich and famous could seem at odds with his quietly-spoken demeanour, yet with the Canadian as the agency’s unapologetic and often confrontational leader, WADA made real progress in anti-doping. The WADA Code was eventually adopted by all Olympic sports and public understanding, both of the sophistication of doping and the widespread nature of ethical misdemeanours, was greatly enhanced. 

He could also be a discreet ally to the media in their efforts to understand what they could really believe of the performances they reported on. His quiet support of those who struggled to navigate the more outrageous excesses, particularly of cycling’s ‘Generation EPO,’ was always appreciated.

Unfortunately, his successors as WADA President, John Fahey and Craig Reedie, mealy-mouthed in comparison, lacked Pound’s gravitas and profile and little by little, WADA lost some of its crusading appeal. 

Pound hopes that the fire will be rekindled by the agency’s new president Witold Banka, Poland’s former Minister of Sport and Tourism. “I think he is determined to do as much as possible,” Pound told Reuters. “He is a breath of fresh air.”

Pound, who once described cycling’s ethics as being “in the toilet,” remained sceptical of the sport until the last.”There was always a surprising number of heroic asthmatics on TUEs,” he said sardonically, when Chris Froome’s salbutamol case made headlines in 2018. Froome was eventually, if controversially, absolved. 

Cookson suggests that Pound could be over-critical of cycling in particular. “Dick often used to focus on cycling when, as we all know, many other sports had and still have just as serious doping problems. That still seems unfair, especially as that impression has continued to impact upon the media (and public) view of cycling.”

“He was a pioneer,” Niggli concluded of Pound. “He had to dig the trenches while also managing to move things forward. He led the successful project to harmonise the anti-doping rules across all sports and all countries – I don’t think people realise what a singular achievement that was. He extolled all the virtues of WADA, such as integrity, transparency and independence, and the world of sport owes him an enormous debt of gratitude.”

McQuaid too acknowledged that Pound’s “dogmatic personality meant he drove WADA from the front, from the beginning, and in doing so both modernised and accelerated the progress on anti-doping.”

The Irishman added that, the WADA Code is “the framework for anti-doping policies, rules and regulations for sport worldwide. All of this was driven by Dick Pound from the start and whilst there is no doubt it is not perfect it still resulted in major changes in sport worldwide.  This is his legacy.”

If you enjoyed reading this, why not take a look at our review of the 2020 season,
Racing in the Time of Covid, available to buy here.

You may also like