Interview: who is Pat McQuaid and why is he running our sport?

As UCI president, Pat McQuaid is the figurehead of an organisation that governs and authorises all aspects of the sport. But he is not popular with everyone. He has been caricatured as a bumbling fool. There have been bitter rows with race organisers, and with the teams, who have accused the UCI of operating a feudal system designed to ensure it prospers. The sport remains dogged by doping scandals. Why do it? Why face all that flak and take responsibility for every farce and cock-up committed by a sport that seems to have the barrel pointed permanently at its own foot? This is an extract from our major interview with McQuaid, which appears in the current edition of Cycle Sport.

Words by Lionel Birnie

Wednesday March 21, 2012

Who would want to be the president of cycling’s governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale? During the sport’s darkest recent days, the acronym UCI could easily have come to stand for Universally Considered Incompetent such has been the breadth of criticism aimed at those in charge.

Pat McQuaid, the Irishman who became president in 2005 and was re-elected in 2009, has weathered so many storms since then it’s a surprise he hasn’t started issuing rainbow-banded sou’westers to go with the UCI blazers. Of all the heads of world sport, perhaps only Fifa’s Sepp Blatter has been more heavily criticised.

It has been the most controversial period in the 112-year history of a governing body that was formed in 1900 after a dispute split the International Cycling Association. The UCI has overseen the sport ever since and McQuaid is its ninth president.

These days, the UCI has a smart, modern headquarters in Aigle just to the southeast of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Take a drive round the lake and you’ll see signs pointing to the headquarters of many of world sport’s governing bodies. The IOC [International Olympic Committee] is in Lausanne. Uefa, European football’s governing body, is in Nyon. Fifa, the administrators for world football, are a bit further away, in Zurich, but Switzerland is home to almost 50 sports governing bodies – more than any other country. Switzerland is popular because of its location, its political neutrality and stability, its legal and administrative tradition and, of course, an attractive tax system. Federal tax law allows exemptions for bodies that pursue public service goals or are acting in the public interest. That means that the UCI, which states in its constitution that it has a non-profit-making purpose, benefits from hefty tax breaks.

The UCI employs 90 people, governs all aspects of cycling and, more recently, has branched further into the business of race organising, with its private company, Global Cycling Promotion.

But McQuaid seems to face almost constant criticism. He fell out with the major race organizers, ASO and RCS, which own the biggest stage races. Doping scandals continue to plague the sport. McQuaid fell out with the teams, and he has endured the wrath of women cyclists who say the UCI has been too slow to develop their branch of the sport. The Australian rider Chloe Hosking called McQuaid a “dickhead” in an interview. The one unifying factor of McQuaid’s presidency seems to have been an ability to annoy almost everybody.


Pat McQuaid has cycling in his blood. He was born in Dublin in 1949, the eldest of ten children, seven boys and three girls. His parents were from Northern Ireland, his mother was a Protestant and his father a Catholic. Northern Ireland was bitterly divided and Protestants simply did not go out with Catholics. The repercussions could be very unpleasant, so when they married they had to move south, to Dublin.

The family’s love of cycling started with McQuaid’s father, Jim, and uncle Paddy. They raced in Dungannon, north of the border, and Jim McQuaid continued to compete after moving south. Seeing his father race a bike made a strong impression on the eldest son. McQuaid says: “I remember seeing my father win the Grand Prix of Ireland in Phoenix Park in Dublin, 1961. He was 41 and I was 11. My father was a sprinter and he won many races. In those days Phoenix Park was huge for cycling and all the best English riders used to come over. There would be regular crashes and more than once I remember seeing him crash and then we’d go down to St Stephen’s hospital and I’d see him come out all bandaged up.”

The McQuaids lived in the north of the city. McQuaid’s father ran a greengrocer’s which also had a small bakery. On Fridays they’d sell fish too. There was always food on the table and it was, he says, a happy, vibrant household. Meal times were dominated by cycling talk, ‘much to the disgust of my three sisters’.

One by one, the seven brothers tried bike racing. First Pat, then Keiron, Sean, Oliver, Jim, Paul and Darrach. Their father retired from racing and got involved with the political side of Irish cycling. He got onto the board of the national governing body, the CRE [Cumann Rothaiochta na Eireann] as it was called then. As McQuaid says, with some understatement: “The politics of cycling in Ireland was all quite complex.”

McQuaid was a good rider, a junior champion in Ireland and a regular on the national team but he says it never occurred to him that he might earn a living from racing a bike. At the time, Ireland had produced only one rider who had made an impact in European cycling and that was Shay Elliott.
Elliott wore the yellow jersey during the 1963 Tour de France. “He was my first idol,” says McQuaid. “When Elliott was still a kid, my father helped him win the king of the mountains in the An Tostal [a stage race to celebrate Irish heritage and culture]. The prize was to go on a training camp in the south of France with one of the pro teams, and that is what started Elliott out on his career.”

McQuaid remembers being a teenager, perhaps 12 or 13, and being woken by his father late one night to go downstairs to meet Elliott. It was like being introduced to Father Christmas. Elliott had been away all year in France but had popped in to visit the McQuaids.

In the late 1960s, McQuaid left school and travelled to London to study physical education at Strawberry Hill college. McQuaid knew he wanted sport to be a part of his life. After getting his degree, he spent a year working as a teacher in England, including a spell at an open prison for young delinquents in Kidderminster, near Birmingham. “There were kids in there for all sorts, including murder,” he says. “But I enjoyed seeing them get something out of sport.”

After returning to Ireland, he worked in secondary schools. “When you taught PE, you had to do a second subject and my second subject was maths. I liked it well enough but I’m not sure I’d have enjoyed teaching as much if it was just standing in a classroom teaching maths. It was the sport that interested me. Teaching and racing worked well. As a teacher you worked seven months of the year, so there was a lot of time for training and racing.”

The revealing story of McQuaid’s decision in 1976 to defy an international ban on athletes competing in South Africa during the apartheid era has been well told, but the build-up to the 1972 Munich Olympic Games helps to set it in context.

McQuaid was still at college in London but he had trained and raced well during the spring. When the term ended, he had plenty of time to polish his form and earn selection. He won the Shay Elliott Memorial, one of the toughest races in Ireland, beating Peter Doyle, who was arguably the strongest rider in Ireland that year. “In a very short space of time I won five, six races and thought I’d be in the running for Munich but I was left out. You can say I was pissed off to say the least,” he says.
His younger brother Keiron went to Munich while he set his sights on Montreal, four years later. He won the Tour of Ireland in 1975 and 1976 and had seemingly staked his claim for selection, but he wanted to be sure.

At the time, South African society was segregated. The whites had all the money and political power, the blacks did all the menial work and lived in shanty towns. The international community showed its disapproval by barring sports people from competing in the country. Cricket teams, rugby teams and other athletes had ignored the ban and been suspended.

South Africa’s big race was the Rapport Tour, which took place in October. During the 1976 Tour of Ireland McQuaid was approached by Scottish rider John Curran, asking if he could get a couple of lads together to make up a team that would compete as a British squad at the Rapport Tour.

McQuaid has often been described as one of the instigators. “That wouldn’t be far out,” he says.
“John Curran had been the year before and he said he needed a couple of riders. I spoke to Keiron and Sean Kelly and we decided we’d go.”

Racing in South Africa would mean leaving Ireland without being noticed by the cycling authorities, racing under a false name and hoping no one found out.

The rule was well established, so what made McQuaid think it didn’t apply to him? His justification has several strands. “You have to picture cycling in those years. The road season ran from March to September and there was nothing for five months. It would lengthen the season and shorten the winter and give us a real good start going into the Olympic season. It was a good, hard race – 14 days, ten of which were double stages, so it was a very high level at a good time of the year.

“Another aspect is that apartheid was heavily publicised in Ireland. There was a South African who was a lecturer at Trinity College, Kader Asmal, who later went on to become a minister in the first government under Mandela. He was a very strong activist and I had an interest in South Africa because I was hearing and reading about apartheid every day. I’d just finished college and I had an opportunity to go and see it for myself. I had a political interest.

“I felt they were using sport as a means to break apartheid when business people were free to do business with South Africa on a daily basis. I thought that was wrong. Why shouldn’t sports people be allowed to compete there?”

The two McQuaids and Kelly were rumbled by an unlikely set of circumstances. The actors Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were on their honeymoon and a reporter from the Daily Mail had travelled to cover that. When the bike race hit town, the reporter sensed a story. He then noticed a British team was taking part, sponsored by the deodorant, Mum for Men.

He asked the team’s manager, Tommy Shardelow, if he could take a photo of the team and his suspicions were aroused when Shardelow produced five guys who did not look like athletes and who spoke with South African accents.

McQuaid – who had been racing under the name Jim Burns – completed the race and went on a week’s holiday to the Kruger Park game reserve. He says he was not paid for the trip, other than the cost of the flights, accommodation and expenses. Nor was the holiday free, he says. “We were given a minibus and told we could go away for a week.”

Riders from other countries went and received little more than a slap on the wrist, if they were found out at all. Jean-François Pescheux, now competitions director at ASO, Serge Beucherie, who went on to be a professional, and Jock Boyer, the American were other notable riders on the Rapport Tour. “I knew other riders were going and I knew it was outside the UCI. I am not saying I can justify going, or anything like that, but I’d do the same again.”

The repurcussions for McQuaid and Kelly were more serious, although McQuaid believes the decision to ban them from the Olympic Games in Montreal was political.

At the time there were two families wrestling for control of Irish cycling. The McQuaids and the Lallys. “Irish politics got involved,” says McQuaid. “There were people on the board of Irish Cycling who had an interest in myself and Kelly being banned, because of their own family connections and who would get selected instead.”

The Lallys?

“Yes. What I understand is that one of them was on the board of Irish Cycling. He got very active and immediately informed the OCI [Olympic Council of Ireland] and they took action.

“I knew we were breaking the rules but I was just a young cyclist and all I wanted to do was race my bike and see the country. Riders had been before and banned for two months, which was taken in the winter, so it wasn’t treated seriously by other federations. I didn’t feel the Irish federation should have treated it so seriously but they did because of political reasons.”

McQuaid missed out on representing Ireland in Montreal, although his brother Oliver did go. When you analyse it, McQuaid went to South Africa because he wanted to, because he thought he wouldn’t get caught and because he thought that if he did get caught the punishment would be light.

To read the rest of this major feature, buy Cycle Sport May 2012.

To read Lionel’s conclusions about the interview, read our related story Interviewing Pat McQuaid, also on the Cycle Sport website.

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