Cookson’s Wholesome Recipe for Cycling Renewal
It was with an air of genuine anticipation that I headed to a chic bar on London’s Aldwych to meet the man who would be boss of world cycling.
Brian Cookson, 62 years old in a couple of weeks, should have plenty in his favor in his forthcoming joust with Pat McQuaid, the incumbent International Cycling Union (UCI) President.
It is hard to dispute that the credibility of world cycling’s present leadership is at a particularly low ebb.
Cookson, meanwhile, has presided at British Cycling over a resurrection to rank with the most remarkable in world sport – seemingly demonstrating in the process that drug-free success, even dominance, is possible in a drug-addled sphere.
And, yet I left the briefing far from convinced that the former executive director of regeneration at Pendle Borough Council has what it is likely to take to emerge victorious from the all-important election in Florence in September.
I hope I am wrong – and this is very much a superficial impression, not one built up over decades of close scrutiny of the ins and outs of cycling politics – but I walked out of the meeting wondering whether, nice guy though he obviously is, Cookson possesses the toughness or tactical nous typically needed to prevail in tussles for the top seats in global sports administration.
This can be a harsh and bruising world, as Paul King, another likeable Englishman, discovered when he ran for the Presidency of AIBA, the international boxing association.
I wasn’t even completely convinced that this was a challenge that Cookson wanted, in his bones, to mount.
The official announcement of his candidacy stated, slightly oddly, that Cookson was “willing to offer himself” as a candidate for the UCI Presidency.
I wouldn’t necessarily read too much into that; these formal statements can seem stilted.
But, it hardly makes it sound as though this is an opportunity he relishes, or a destiny he has been preparing all his life to fulfill.
It also bothers me that Cookson, in spite of spending 17 years as President, receives so little credit for the extraordinary success story that is British Cycling.
This may not be true inside cycling, but if you asked the typical armchair sports fan who was responsible for the sport’s revival, I doubt that Cookson’s name would be among the first dozen mentioned.
You may feel that this is both as it should be and the inexorable fate of decent, competent sports administrators.
That may be so, but there is no way that the real masters of the craft of sports politics would let such an outstanding feat pass by without securing for themselves a large chunk of the credit.
Having said all that, it could be that the timing is right and that world cycling is ready for a dose of the sort of uncomplicated wholesomeness that Cookson appears to represent.
I jotted down four or five sentences from the briefing to build up a picture of the ground the British challenger is seeking to occupy.
“I am not the sort of person who wants to do anything behind closed doors”; “I’m just a guy who got involved in cycling because I loved the sport”; “My natural modus operandi is to be a peacemaker rather than a street-fighter”; “I am not going to engage in any mudslinging”.
What’s not to like?
But also, is that the way high-stakes international sports politics tends to operate in the big, bad, real world?
“This is like the worst job interview I have ever had,” Cookson quipped, as the gaggle of journalists descended on the boardroom-style table to grill him in a basement room hung with abstract, grey art.
I wish him well, but I cannot help feeling he would be well advised to steel himself for even tougher tests in the months ahead.
David Owen worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2010 World Cup and London 2012. Owen’s Twitter feed can be accessed here.