When a scandal breaks, the news often exposes evidence that undiscussable elephants have been stomping around, leaving squashed, altered bits of reality and stinky piles of consequences that are difficult to clean up. The mess existed all the while, but new publicity puts it on amplified display, under harsh lights, perhaps to a wider audience that is finally drawn to look. What is the influence of this deeper scrutiny? It depends…

Consider the existence of omertà in professional cycling:

Omertà is defined as a rule or code that prohibits speaking or divulging information about certain activities, especially the activities of a criminal organization. The word is often used when speaking about the Mafia and their code of silence. As we know, omertà hasn’t been used exclusively by criminal organizations, but by sporting ones as well.

How does an omertà work? A rational person would think that if a crime has been committed against a person, this person would alert the authorities. Instead nothing is reported and the crime gets buried deeper and deeper until it becomes part of the fabric of the organization. The reason the crime gets buried is the person who commits the crime has more power than the organization that is supposed to police it.

Omertà related to the use of performance enhancing drugs has been part of professional cycling for decades, particularly and perhaps especially at its best-known international event, the Tour de France.

Hallmarks of participating in professional cycling include the willingness to suffer, and the tolerance of risk. The Tour de France in particular is a grueling three-week suffer-fest:

The Tour de France’s status as the world’s most physiologically demanding event is largely unquestioned. The riders cover 2,272 miles at an average speed of 25 miles per hour, roughly the equivalent of running a marathon almost every day for almost three weeks. In the Pyrenees and the Alps, they climb a vertical distance equal to three Mount Everests.

In its 99-year history, the ten smallest time differences between the winner and the second-place finisher ranged from eight seconds to one minute 20 seconds (the biggest difference was over 28 minutes). Given the daily grind of riding, the potential for accidents, the unforeseen mishaps in planning and execution, the recovery needed after each and every stage to ride the next – these are incredibly tight margins. To train for years, in all manner of weather, to put family second, to monitor your eating to the extreme, and then come up short, seconds from the podium, in a hyper-competitive atmosphere. It is likely all that sacrifice changes one’s perception of risk, and cyclists, like athletes in other sporting arenas, have been taking the risk of using performance-enhancing drugs throughout the history of the Tour. That extra edge in recovery, the extra boost on a tortuous mountain stage, may mean the difference of seconds for you and your team, and seconds count. The doping that has been rampant in the biggest event for professional cycling has ensured that omertà is truly woven into the culture of the sport.

The revelation of extensive drug use in the 1998 Tour and subsequent legal action provided a significant catalyst to change the sport. That year a police raid found such overwhelming evidence of doping paraphernalia that the entire Festina team was dismissed during the race. Investigations (involving additional teams and networks), confessions, arrests and trials followed.

Was this massive disruption and embarrassment to cycling enough to erase omertà? Not really. While some cyclists not directly linked to the controversy cite the so-called Festina Affair as a wake-up call, many participants at the Tour have been implicated (and sometimes punished) ever since, including those who have reached the podium.  Before the Festina Affair, there was widespread misconduct, resulting in some incidents being dealt with through legal action, while other improprieties were ignored. In spite of the fallout from 1998, the scandals continued, seemingly unabated.

Interest in professional cycling has survived these events, and carries on, albeit cycling has a severely tarnished reputation. Some say that, because of the ongoing admissions, reports and additional testing, cycling is likely the cleanest sport now.

But what of the huge and still emerging story in cycling – the “most dramatic and precipitous fall of an athlete, really, worldwide, in the history of sport“?  Lance Armstrong’s lifetime ban due to organized cheating last year resulted in the stripping of his Tour wins for the years 1999-2005.  In the wake of the Festina Affair of 1998, where doping embarrassed the entire organization around professional cycling, there is now no official Tour winner for the following seven years, once again because of widespread doping. Yet this is not the same old story – there is a significant addition that speaks directly to the influence of omertà.  Revelations of the extensive power with which Armstrong coerced others to keep quiet provide a catalyst for change in the sport that surely cannot be ignored.

The swirling controversy was addressed directly in the week leading up to the presentation of the 2013 route for the Tour de France’s centennial. According to Tour director Christian Prudhomme,

It’s the system that’s to blame. We’re in a mafia system that goes beyond doping and beyond the name of sport… The Armstrong aura touches everyone, everywhere in the world… It’s through difficulty that you can build things… Today’s cycling has already changed from the past, but of course, the UCI must learn all the lessons from the Armstrong case and how we arrived at this point.

In the month earlier, yet after the story broke about Armstrong’s ban, Michael Ashenden, a leading anti-doping researcher (who himself has claimed to be “muzzled”  by authorities when speaking about drug use in sports) expressed ongoing frustration in the pursuit of truth and transparency:

Yet again, a member of the cycling fraternity had confided to me a shocking anecdote, this time calling into question the integrity of cycling’s overlords. Yet again, despite my pleadings, they refused to share their knowledge with authorities. They were terrified that if ever their name was leaked they would be ostracized from cycling forever.

I don’t care what broadcasters, op-eds, ‘journalists with access’ or the sport administrators themselves have to say about this. I know the cycling fraternity are afraid to speak out, because I witnessed it myself yesterday. Omertà is alive and well in September 2012.

To put it bluntly: where else in the civilised world would we tolerate an environment where citizens were afraid to tell the truth? It was an epiphany for me to contemplate that grotesque realisation.

David Walsh, Betsy Andreu, Emma O’Reilly, Paul Kimmage, Greg LeMondFloyd LandisnyvelocityTyler Hamilton, Jonathan Vaughters, Travis Tygart, Mike Anderson, and many former team mates, associates and journalists have all played a part in exposing truth in this complex story. Each story is unique and essential in telling the tale, not just about one star athlete cheating, but about the code of silence regarding the true breadth and depth of cheating that has been riddling the sport. Many of these witnesses to the code have been persistent change agents – standing firm in their truth despite the intimidation and bullying culture that has been created and endured, not just around Armstrong, but around the organizations meant to govern the sport of cycling. Finally, real change seems inevitable – there seems to be a tipping point in action to overthrow the ongoing system of omertà.

Bonnie Ford, an ever-astute commentator on the sport for ESPN, had this to say following the announcement of the Tour’s centenary plans:

Amid the nonstop news deluge of the last few weeks, many readers have asked me whether cycling is still worth following, which riders they can believe in, and whether they are foolish to feel any affection for the sport.

I can only answer for myself. I will keep covering it. Cycling is brutal to write about in many ways, but it also holds up an authentic mirror for human nature, and that’s never been more true than right now.

Over the last 14 years, cycling has taught me to quit making assumptions and anointing saviours, and to live with the tension that some nice guys cheat, some abrasive guys don’t, and it’s always possible that someone who looks you in the eye multiple times in multiple interviews isn’t who he says he is. Dwelling with that tension makes me feel fidgety and un-moored sometimes, but isn’t that where we frequently live everywhere else? In politics, business, our relationships? Why expect bike racing to be any different?

The fidget-inducing un-mooring tension Ford describes exists in arenas beyond cycling, and beyond sports in general. We are all capable of noticing when something is amiss, when someone or something is not what is presented on the surface. The opportunity with this story isn’t just in examining the history of professional cycling and judging its characters, but to see what is true in this story as the “authentic mirror for human nature”.

In your organization, are there patterns of behaviour that make you “feel fidgety and unmoored?” Pay attention to those feelings. It could be that those rising tensions are the first signs of elephants.

How can you begin to pay closer attention? Consider these questions: Is power held tightly by a few to the detriment of the whole? Is there evidence that the true nature of the organization (or individuals within it) is not visible to the public? Are people in the system routinely discouraged or prevented from speaking authentically and sharing effectively? Any confirmation to the questions substantiates the possibility that elephants are stomping around and things may be getting very messy.

Recall that with omertà, “The reason the crime gets buried is the person who commits the crime has more power than the organization that is supposed to police it.”  It is difficult to speak truth to power, and power works to keep it so.

As seen in the numerous links cited throughout this post, the organization around professional cycling has become seen as broadly untrustworthy due to the persistent internal power imbalances and stifled information exchanges.

To develop trust that professional cycling competitions are drug-free will require action from both within and outside the system. Some changes can be seen on the horizon, but it is too soon if a lasting trust will emerge. Cycling’s governing body, the International Cycling Union (UCI), took significant public action with regards to Armstrong’s longtime influence on the sport only after the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) asserted its authority to strip Armstrong of his Tour titles and to ban him from the sport for life. Much remains to be done. Efforts have begun to influence the future via Change Cycling Now, involving some of the same people who have been instrumental in keeping tenacious attention on omertà. Their message begins:

Change Cycling Now is an organisation committed to creating an opportunity for EVERYONE to help generate positive changes for the future of professional cycling.

What does this saga mean for you? Are there places where you suspect elephants are creating a mess? If so, are you ready and willing to help generate positive change in the future?

As this tale of omertà in cycling shows, it may take tenacity, persistence, and a certain amount of fearlessness to be a mighty mouse. It also takes a commitment to speaking truth until someone listens. It takes leadership, no matter where you fit on an organizational chart.

If your success is defined as being well adjusted to injustice and well adapted to indifference, then we don’t want successful leaders. We want great leaders – who love the people enough and respect the people enough to be unbought, unbound, unafraid, and unintimidated to tell the truth. – Dr. Cornell West