Ambivalence

Alexander Vinkourov’s victory at Liege-Bastogne-Liege was met with boos and questions. It comes less than a year following his return to cycling after a two-year suspension for doping during which time the rider shed no light on his past. Vinokourov has voiced his displeasure with the reaction to his success, and released a letter voicing his views, which you can read here.

Padraig has also written a post concerning the convicted doper’s win at one of the five Monuments.

Yesterday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege gave us almost everything we look for from a Spring Classic, crashes, attacks, splintering chase groups, breakaways, and an unlikely winner. The name of that improbable champion was the one thing that left something to be desired in the minds of many cycling fans. You could tell from all the booing at the finish line and the wave of articles questioning the result, based on that rider’s checkered past. Despite a stunning and classy win, cycling just isn’t sure about Alexander Vinokourov.

There seem to be two strains of thought as regards the ongoing exploits of Mr. Vinokourov. There are those who view him as an unrepentant doper, a rider who cheated, never confessed and then came back at the top level to plunder anew. Then there is an admittedly smaller group who say the Kazakh has paid his dues, served his suspension and is, therefore, entitled to continue with his career.

I find myself curiously caught between the two. Ambivalent.

Certainly, I have sympathy with the skeptics. I have always been a believer that how you do something is at least as important as having done it. And so, when I ponder the growing field of convicted dopers returning from suspension, I am able to draw some distinction between David Millar, honest, contrite, outspoken and humble, and someone like Vinokourov, who has been seemingly oblivious to the seriousness of his transgressions. He has been neither contrite nor humble. Having served his time, he is back to feed at the trough. Full stop.

But is that a valid distinction?

Millar and Vinokourov both cheated. Both served suspensions. Both have, theoretically, changed their behavior to that prescribed by the governors of the sport. Those are substantive changes, no matter how they’re effected.

Does it matter that Vinokourov has not become an outspoken critic of doping within the sport? If each returning rider cast himself in this role, would the gesture become hollow? And is the sword not, in fact, double-edged? Would the same people who pillory the Astana rider for not being contrite enough, call him a hypocrite if he spent too much time extolling the virtues of clean sport? Quite how Millar has turned this trick for himself is a bit of a mystery, but, by all accounts, the British rider has always been more charming than his Kazakh counterpart.

At root, are we, as fans, entitled to more bowing and scraping? Or are the sport’s laws and punishments enough?

I don’t know. I ask myself if I’m not maybe simply biased toward riders I like better on the bike. I can forgive Pantani his transgressions, to some degree, because he gave us such drama. Danilo DiLuca also falls into this category maybe. But the less emotionally compelling riders like Vinokourov, Alejandro Valverde (unconvicted) or Jan Ullrich suffer a greater wrath. They cheated, AND they failed to entertain properly. This double transgression may be the real problem.

Today, Vinokourov has come forth with an open letter that seeks to address his situation more fully. It’s hard to read it and not feel an ounce of compassion for the man, who, at 36, is only trying to salvage something of a damaged career.

Would we prefer that he simply go away? For doping to go away, do the dopers all have to go, permanently? If so, we need to change our rules and procedures. Now. Before this dynamic plays itself out into absurdity.

The whole situation brings to the forefront some of the central challenges for the UCI going forward, how to reintegrate the sport’s transgressors and how to convince cycling fans that the punishments doled out are proportionate to the crimes being committed.

What we are seeing with Vinokourov is that, though the UCI has sanctioned his return, the tifosi have not, and neither have the cycling press. Perhaps these are just the consequences. You can cheat, and you can go away for two years, and you can come back, but all that will be left for you are these begrudged victories. You can stand on the podium and kiss the girls and hold the bouquet. You can even pocket the prize money, but you will never be allowed to win again.

Is that fair? I have no idea.

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18 comments

  1. Pingback: The Taint of Suspicion : Red Kite Prayer

  2. MattyVT

    For me the central issue is his track record, and by starting with a supposed clean slate after his suspension he has no track record. If he’s able to prove that he can win clean over the coming months AND there are no revelations about banned substances from post-race drug tests then I think he will be accepted again.

    On the other hand, if he can’t win or is implicated in any doping related shenanigans everyone will turn their backs on him.

    In some ways I feel for the guy. Although I can’t say I’ve ever been to Kazakhstan, he’s supposedly a national celebrity. He also pretty much put Kazakh cycling on the map, and nobody had heard of Astana until the Liberty Seguros meltdown. If he were to crusade against “the system” he would really be stabbing his supporters in the back. Although this is an extreme example it’s all too familiar in the world of cycling: an athlete is pushed to the top and his network that got him there is looking for results.

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  4. todd k

    While not infallible, a measure of confession at least tells this fan that you agree that you cheated. I am at least provisioned an olive leaf from the athlete that confesses. I’ll grant those folks a single, but fair, chance to redeem themselves as fair sportspersons.

    Without a confession, though, I am left filling in the blanks about the athlete’s position on doping and cheating. And given the only impression in my head is “unrepentant cheater’, it isn’t likely I will work any harder than they to salvage the athelete’s reputation.

    Right or wrong, I’ve defined Vino (and Ricco despite a very feeble sounding apology as he was returning to the peloton) unrepentant cheaters. The only thing I get from them is that they were sorry that they got caught. To that end I expect them to get caught again or assume there is a more than a fair possibility that they have figured out how to cheat the system again. This is particularly more true when years of doping are suspected. They may not find this “fair”, but to be blunt, what do I care about how they feel given their general behavior and actions on the position?

    And with the timely news of Frei’s confession of micro-dosing CERA, we know cheating still occurs in the peloton. It also tells us there is an increased liklihood that the only thing that has changed the past few years is the methods and chemicals involved. I have cause for my pause that the system is keeping the peloton as clean as some would advertise. Cleaner, maybe, but how much so? I get more skeptical as time passes.

  5. randomactsofcycling

    Is it fair? Yes.
    Like a lot of other ‘laws’ we have in civilised society, we know why they are in place and what the consequences are if we choose to break them. The key word is “choose”.
    Drug cheats make choices. I am sure they do not do it without considerable thought. To ponder whether to dope (or not) and then choose to break the rules displays singular selfishness and disrespect for EVERYONE associated with your trade. That includes team-mates, staff, race organisers, media and tifosi.
    I am beginning to agree with some viewpoints that the UCI should seek life bans for first time offenders unless the offender agrees to ‘fess up and provide concrete details of who else was involved in the cheating (doctors, suppliers etc). Otherwise we are left with a whole bunch of repeat offenders that effectively ‘flip the bird’ at all of us with their unrepentant tripe.
    I have no sympathy for those that are only sorry they were caught.

  6. mark

    “Quite how Millar has turned this trick for himself is a bit of a mystery, but, by all accounts, the British rider has always been more charming than his Kazakh counterpart.”

    I think it helps Millar’s cause that he hasn’t won anything meaningful (such as, oh, I don’t know, one of the monuments) since his return. People don’t expect reformed dopers to compete at their pre-suspension level, and by and large, Millar hasn’t.

    1. Padraig

      Matty VT: Are you really able to view Vino’s riding as if he doesn’t have a tainted past? It’s true that he is a national hero in Kazakhstan, and they think he’s persecuted for coming from a backwater, but many people feel his past is utterly unresolved.

      Todd K: That is exactly—unless they confess, we are busy filling in gaps in their past with our own guesses which have the potential to give them a far darker past than they deserve.

      Random Acts of Cycling: I may not agree with everything David Walsh has written about cycling, but I do think he clarified a worthwhile distinction between the “draggers” and the “dragged.” I suspect the vast majority of all riders who have doped were “dragged.” That is, they were coerced and their Faustian bargain wasn’t one of their choosing. Ricco has said something things I find VERY troubling and he seems not just unrepentant but a dragger to boot.

      Mark: Would you truly feel differently about Millar if he, say, won a stage of the Giro? Supposing Cancellara and Contador don’t go to Worlds and he takes the rainbow strips in the ITT. I’m not challenging you; I’m just curious. For me, I really see him as a clean rider who has proven you can be competitive without dope. And like any clean rider, his chances to win are fewer than those on dope. You bring up an interesting point regarding fans’ expectations. Yes, I think for the most part, we don’t expect them to win quite as much, or as you seem to suggest, at all.

  7. SinglespeedJarv

    Simple answer, yes I think it’s fair. For years the media was complicit in the high-powered doping cover-up, thankfully over the last few years they’ve started to speak out. They are at least privy to a lot of information that is never going to get out otherwise. It’s never really in the journos best interest to speak out because that means a good chance of being black-listed.
    As for The Fans, we have been made fools of for years, asked to believe the impossible and more recently seen dopers threaten to destroy the sport for their own greed. The Fans are normally the most forgiving of people, I think the response at Liege says a lot. It may well be because riders like Philippe Gilbert, who have been outspoken against doping for years are now winning, as well as teams the Garmin have shown The Fans that the sport can be clean and exciting.

    As for returning dopers. just as we want performances to be believable, I also want those caught to confess believably and to return believably. The trouble is that most dopers just don’t do that, possibly because most of them have become so used to lying.

    Millar was one of the few (there was also Museeuw, but I’ll come back to him) to admit to doping without actually having tested positive. They key here is not that he just accepted or took his suspension, but that he admitted to what he did and set out his own way for redemption. But he did win a TT stage of the Vuelta only three months after returning from his ban.

    As for those caught, they either deny, shut up, do their two years and return (Vino). Valv.Piti, Schumacher and Rebellin have used every legal trick in the book, Hamilton and Landis did as well and scammed their fans for money on top (classy). Loads have used the, “I only did it once a few weeks ago sir” confession. Including Ricco and Kohl, which was patently a lie and eventually Kohl admitted as much.

    Then you have the returns, toddk in his comment here and jza in another post got this almost spot-on. Millar won a Vuelta TT stage his first year back, but then nothing much else and only in the last year of two has he started to get a few more results, but he never did get a lot of major results. Basso has had a believable return because he he proved himself to be OK. Ricco and Vino, winning straight out of the box and Vino winning a 260km monument? Not buying it.

    @Robot, I got as far as the part where you can forgive Pantani and Di Luca and got distracted. I find it hard to comprehend the view that doping is forgivable if they entertain as well. I found Pantani and Di Luca to be two of the worse kinds, because as with Vino, they were doing things that were unbelievable and expecting fans to believe they were clean. But it’s an interesting concept and may well explain the view that a lot of people hold about Pantani at least.

    @toddk although micro-dosing is clearly still happening and perhaps there are other ways around the system, I think Michael Ashenden(?) or another of the leading anti-doping scientists suggested that micro-dosing EPO and similar might not actually produce any worthwhile benefits, other than psychological. Long-term benefit from steroid use is more likely to benefit. But in my mind, while clean riders like Gilbert are competing and winning then it suggests a fairly clean peloton. In an interview a few years ago Gilbert said given the current state of things he would never expected to be able to win a classic.

  8. Henry

    Vino is an old school sleaze ball. Rule #1. Never admit to anything, even if you are caught red handed on video tape with 10 witnesses. Rule #2 never be a rat.

    The new school sleazeballs hire a PR firm to orchestrate their tearful confessions and image rehab. Either way the only thing these guys are sorry about is getting caught. Vino did his time, unless he gets caught cheating again I’ll cheer when he turns in a great performance. If I had to think about who is juiced and not while watching the race it wouldn’t be worth watching. Hopefully the UCI will continue to develop better controls so it’s less on an issue and the sport is not dominated by the cheaters.

    Unfortunately human nature being what it is it works the same way in any human endeavor from Wall Street to the Giro. Without effective oversight the scumbags wind up in the drivers seat.

  9. Touriste-Routier

    SinglespeedJarv- I am not picking on you here, but how do you know that Gilbert is clean? Many riders who have been assumed to be clean have later been implicated in a scandal (not the same as being guilty, regardless of how teams or the UCI treat them) or have tested positive.

    I agree with Henry, I’d rather enjoy the show rather than waste my cycles on trying to figure out who is and who is not juiced. I hate to have this cynical attitude, but I default to the old Jacques Anquetil quote which more or less said, “you don’t expect us to be able to do this on water alone, do you?”.

    While I wish everything was cleaner, and I certainly don’t assume everyone is charged, I’ve learned to acknowledge that people will always seek out an advantage, and recognize that enforcers are always at lease 1 step behind those that cross boundaries. Thus I try not to be outraged or judgmental, and just roll with the punches.

    When someone comes back from suspension, whether I like them or not, they’ve served their time. They have a right to be there, and have the right to win.

    I don’t think it is fair to assume that if you win big after you return, then you are still up to no good. A lot of it depends on how you spent your time during your suspension (working your ass off or getting drunk), how old you are, how much natural talent and ability you have, what team you are on, and how much they support you.

  10. MattyVT

    @Padraig, for sure I can’t vouch for Vino’s past especially considering the doping culture of the former Soviet satellites. That also implicates his former Telekom teammates Ullrich and Zabel as they came up in the East German athelete development program. Ullrich we know about, but most of us see Zabel as somehow removed from that situation.

    I’m trying to give Vino the benefit of the doubt and not judge him guilty by association, but that’s becoming a tenuous position. The doping culture within the Russian Nordic skiing program has come to the surface and many of their top athletes have been banned for failed drug tests leading up to the Vancouver Olympics – http://www.skierpost.com/index.php?/Latest/truth-about-doping-part-ii.html. This is interesting because Rasmus Damsgaard is working to get the ski version of the UCI’s biological passport system rolling yet the doping controls still lag behind cycling by a couple years.

    Specifically Russia and Estonia are implicated and it’s easy to extend that suspicion across every endurance athlete in Eastern Europe or Western Asia. Although it’s a different sport it parallels cycling very closely and gives outsiders like us some insight into the mentality of athletes from those countries.

  11. jza

    Let us not forget Vino’s first attempt at returning from his suspension. After the positive test, he retired and the Kazakh federation issued a 1 year suspension, UCI let it slide. Then he un-retired after the short suspension and the UCI had to take him to court to enforce the standard 2 year ban.

  12. SinglespeedJarv

    Touriste-Routier ask around. I used Gilbert as the example because he is widely acknowledged as being a clean rider who has always (on record going back many years) spoken out against doping. There are few who are held is such esteem amongst in the sport. Now, he could be having us all on…

  13. bubba

    Vino didn’t win out of the box – remember him dropping out of the vuelta last year? And he’s right – he always did have class as a rider. All these comments about David Millar – remember that he confessed to using a few times after almost 48 HOURS! of interrogation?? And this guy is clean cycling’s poster child? I know we love coming-of-age dramas here, but this is ridiculous – time for some new heroes.

  14. Henry

    There are a lot more sinners then saints in the world. Gandhi, Mandella and King are the rare exception not the rule. If someone showed up at your workplace with a magic pill that could give you an edge on the other programmers, salesmen, writers, financial analysts you had to compete with to feed your family and advance your career how many would refuse?

    I’d still be really bummed if Cancelara or Contador was caught cheating, maybe not surprised but really disapointed none the less -but I can still enjoy Vino’s fireworks on the race course.

  15. todd k

    For the record, I would refuse the magic pill. It is simply a reflection of the ethics and value system I have choosen to guide me through life. My goal is to honor that system regardless of the behavior of others because more often than not I find the penalty for violating that system far worse than the momentary victory one may gain by doing otherwise.

    I found this interview timely given the topic of discussion: http://velocitynation.com/content/interviews/2010/marco-pinotti-interview

    (Off topic aside… Interestingly I heard an interview with Richard Stengel last week. One of the topics of discussion regarded how Mandella doesn’t consider himself a saint.)

  16. Souleur

    Cosmos has a brilliant point in the tactic of the LBL, well plotted by Astana, uncertian in who was to be covered, well covered when others moved up and tatactically, that is the reason Astana won. Contador played well in it.

    But the central question when Vino crossed was….’what the hell was in his chamois?’ because he climbed like a billygoat on meth….

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