PARIS (AP) — The truth, some say, sets you free. Could it do the same for cycling, help the sport get back in the saddle and move past the damage done by Lance Armstrong?
It's certainly an interesting idea, perhaps even a good one. Flush out cycling's dirty secrets, rinse them all away. Find out who else doped and how they did it, and then close those loopholes to make it harder for riders, now and in the future, to copy their cheating methods, use their doping doctors and be pressured to dope by old-school team managers.
Something, maybe, not unlike the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that post-apartheid South Africa established to confront and forgive its brutal history. Offer amnesty to those who volunteer information about doping, and tough punishments for continuing to harbor cheats and lies.
Having unmasked Armstrong as a drug cheat, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency is pushing the sport to take this next step to "fully unshackle itself from the past," uncover doping doctors, corrupt team directors, and riders with doping histories it says remain hidden, undermining any convincing cleanup.
"The past is going to dig itself up, so why not boldly address it?" USADA CEO Travis Tygart said Wednesday in a phone interview. "You have to give this sport a fresh start."
Among those who support the idea — and, for the moment, it is nothing more than that — is Jonathan Vaughters, who rode with Armstrong as a pro. Vaughters testified to USADA about doping on their former U.S. Postal Service team, including his own. He is a cycling mover and shaker, running a pro team, Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda, and he was among the thousands who packed a Paris auditorium for Wednesday's unveiling of the Tour route for 2013. Judging from the size and enthusiasm of the crowd, cycling's showcase race still has ample appeal, despite the disgrace of the rider who was its most successful champion.
If nothing else, getting riders who doped and others who helped them to confess to a truth commission could perhaps be cathartic, both for them and their sport. But Vaughters wants it to be more ambitious than that.
"Of course, your objective is absolute truth, but what you are after is trying to figure out where things went wrong and where it can be improved," he said in an interview. "It's not just so that people will be truthful just for the hell of it, to get the monkey off their back. That's a bit useless."
Because people aren't "just going to walk up to you and say 'Hey, by the way, guess what I did,'" the first step would be to declare an amnesty period — a year, month, week, whatever — where past doping is "forgiven totally" to encourage confessions, Vaughters said.
"There has to be an absolute amnesty, otherwise why will people be honest with you?"
Then the commission has to dig and probe, interview people individually, "look for specific rumors or issues or whatever else that seems unaddressed and then try to address them," he said. "You know: 'What happened there? What happened here? We've heard this rumor of X, Y or Z. Is it true? Is it not true?'
"The point of it is that you're trying to figure out what went wrong, how did people avoid testing positive, how did they circumvent anti-doping measures, and so how can that be prevented in the future."
That this idea is being kicked around and will be discussed by the International Cycling Union at a meeting on Friday is, in itself, a measure of how cycling's doping past is hard to shake off. Anti-doping controls are better now than in Armstrong's era and yet suspicion, justified or not, weighs on riders and others who work in the sport today.
The 11 former teammates of Armstrong who testified to USADA identified other people who were involved in doping, but many of those names were blacked out in affidavits the agency published. Do they still work in cycling? If it could answer that, a truth commission would do some good.
Tygart said that during the probe of Armstrong and doping on his teams, USADA uncovered information on "several dozen" other people, some of them still in cycling and so far unidentified. "That's just what we found, there are far more there," he said.
If there's no truth commission, USADA would turn over that information to other anti-doping agencies and the World Anti-Doping Agency.
"It's really important people are revealed," he said. "If you got away with it in the past and think you can get away with it today, what's going to change?"
"There's really no choice."
There are hurdles that would need to be overcome for a truth commission to become more than just an idea. Not the least is Pat McQuaid, the cycling federation president who this week rubber-stamped USADA's decision to ban Armstrong for life and erase his seven Tour titles. McQuaid initially appeared interested in an amnesty within cycling but now seems skeptical that South Africa's experience can be translated to cycling.
"Where you've got a white population and a black population who're killing each other over a number of years, that's one thing," the London Guardian quoted him as saying this week. "Whether it works in anti-doping or sport is another question. You have to ask yourself, if you can set it up, who's going to give information? Are riders and managers going to come forward? I don't know. Will it stop people wanting to cheat? If they come forward — and that's a big 'if' — will it help much in the future?"
World Anti-Doping Agency rules don't allow for amnesty programs for repenting dopers, although Tygart said that shouldn't be an insurmountable obstacle to establishing a truth commission.
"The need for it is so great, you can work through the details to make it happen," he said.
"It is unchartered territory for the anti-doping community," WADA director general David Howman said by email. But he added that the agency's board "might be interested to hear from any sport" that presents the idea.
"The execution is certainly difficult," Vaughters said.
But so, too, is living with the idea that Armstrong was far from alone in an era ruined by doping, that there are other secrets that need to be uncovered.
The truth could help free cycling from that.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester