Chipping away at Omertà

News & Results

11/6/2012| 0 comments
by Neil Browne
Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen Fotoreporter Sirotti

Chipping away at Omertà

A slow process but an achievable goal.

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.

The always blunt David Millar in an interview with The Guardian published yesterday said that until recently cycling has been, “a deeply criminal business.”

An often used example of omertà in cycling is when Lance Armstrong in the 18th stage of the 2004 Tour de France chased down Italian Filippo Simeoni’s breakaway – effectively killing its chances of survival. To appease Armstrong, Simeoni was told by his fellow breakaway companions to drop out of the break and return to the peloton. Once back in the main group he was verbally abused.

Simeoni testified that Armstrong claimed he could destroy him. Speaking on Italian radio Simeoni said, “(Armstrong) was in charge of cycling, and nothing was done."

Why nothing was done and how omertà thrives is simple to me – the governing/federation body is either corrupt or incompetent.

To be fair Armstrong and team director Johan Bruyneel didn’t create omertà - they just had the power to make it happen. And that’s one of the most common questions I was asked during the flurry of interviews I did after the USADA report was released (most common question: why is he guilty of doping if he’s never failed a doping test?).

The now disgraced rider rose to power when the sport was still reeling from the 1998 Tour de France. The Festina doping scandal rocked the sport and peeled away a layer of what was going on behind the closed hotel doors of cycling teams. In the end the Festina squad was kicked out of the Tour de France and Spanish squads also quit the race in protest. In the end Marco Pantani won what was called the Tour du Dopage with Jan Ullrich second and American Bobby Julich third.

While we can look back with hindsight now, in those days we couldn’t see the forest that is institutionalized doping through the trees of the Festina squad. That year’s podium exemplified this – Pantani was expelled from the 1999 Giro d’Italia for doping and died of a cocaine overdose in 2004. Ullrich’s name has been tied to Operation Puerto and he is widely considered to have doped throughout his career. Recently Julich stated that he had doped up until July of 1998.

In his confession he states, “the use of EPO in the peloton was


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