A Scalpel, Not a Hatchet

We’re featuring another tag-team pair of posts regarding doping and our views on how well sanctions are working … and what might be done to improve the situation. What follows is Robot’s post. You can find my post here.—Padraig

Last night I was finishing Graeme Fife’s excellent Inside the Peloton, published in 2001, when I read the line “We have now, I think, won the battle against EPO…” I chuckled aloud. My wife looked at me askance. So did the dog.

The fact is that EPO, it’s younger cousin CERA, and an array of other doping practices are still alive and well in the pro peloton. Apparently even my dog knows that.

So, what to do about it?

The UCI’s current system of “justice,” provides one set of punishments for “non-negative findings” from anti-doping tests conducted both in and out of competition. The first offense earns a two-year ban from competition, the second a life sentence.

In our discussion, last week, here and here, we mostly agreed that there is a difference between a rider who is caught and then confesses and repents, like David Millar, and a rider who denies everything, simply serves his time and then comes back, a la Alexander Vinokourov. The problem with the UCI’s one-size-fits-all approach to convicted dopers is that it sees no difference between the two, and so offers no incentive for riders to cooperate or formal ways for them to rehabilitate themselves in the eyes of cycling fans. Today’s regime is simply one of punishment, not rehabilitation.

Here in the US, in many states, they punish murderers with the death penalty. As a punishment, there is no stronger sanction allowed under law. And yet, people continue to kill each other at more or less steady rates, year after year, decade after decade. What is apparent is that the punishment is not a deterrent. There is an amoral portion of the populace who just don’t respond to punishment. Padraig makes excellent points about these folks, and their representation in top level sports in his post today.

The way most modern justice systems deal with transgressors is through a sort of remediation process. For example, if you’re caught with a pound of cocaine, you’re charged with a crime. If then, you are willing to say where you got that cocaine from, you may receive an offer of reduced sentence, an acknowledgment that your cooperation will remove more than just that one pound of cocaine from circulation. It’s a way of using a small conviction to gain a larger one.

As Padraig suggests in his post, a sort of amnesty deal, a truth and reconciliation process, would be one way to cull dopers from the pro ranks. Another might be to apply this same principle of remediation to convicted dopers.

My proposal would be to instate an initial three-year ban, but to offer a reduction of up to two years if the rider explains how he or she doped, who provided them with the drugs and which other riders are involved. Failure to cooperate on that level leaves the ban at three years. A subsequent conviction would lead to a lifetime ban that would extend, not just to racing, but also to pro-level coaching and management. A rider who dopes and gets caught, and then dopes again, can reasonably be assumed to fall into that amoral category, that group that simply won’t respond to sanction or rehabilitation.

The point of raising the initial ban to three years is to make the prospect of comeback just that much more tenuous for an athlete who doesn’t wish to cooperate. The ability to mitigate that sanction to as small as one year’s absence from the peloton gives the athlete a real incentive to participate in cleaning up the sport, because it incorporates a strong element of self-interest.

To be sure, there is still some code of silence in the pack. A rider who implicates a teammate is in for a rough ride upon his or her return. By formalizing the process by which this information is drawn from convicts, the peloton‘s embrace of the omerta is loosened. Any one of them would be able to see why a sanctioned rider had cooperated. In a group dominated by that self-serving ethos, self-interest is one motivator that is widely accepted. In other words, it’s one thing to rat out a teammate and still sit on the sideline for two years. It’s quite another to cooperate in order to gain a swifter return to racing. Further, by using each conviction to gain others, the UCI can remove more riders who are involved in doping at one fell swoop, thereby reducing the influence of the doping tolerant riders in the peloton considerably.

The UCI can continue with their punishment only approach, but I believe this is something like the kids’ game Whack-a-Mole. You hit one doper with your hammer, and another pops up, ad infinitum, ad absurdum. If, instead, you cut the dopers out, and their doctors, the managers who participate, and the soigneurs who traffic in these things, then you stand a better chance of ridding the sport of its worst sickness, that thing that erodes public support and interest, that drains away sponsorship dollars, and even the confidence of the most ardent fans.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  3. Rod Diaz

    I really like the idea of grading doping offences to the level of “cooperation” they offer. Even better would be combining the two methods by offering some sort of amnesty.

    I doubt there’s any athlete doping on his/her own. At least a trainer is involved. These people move from athlete to athlete, and are some really sordid stories (q.v. G. Jeanson).


  4. sophrosune

    I am a bit troubled by this solution, Robot. What if a guy gets nabbed for doping, he’s going to do his three years but decides he’ll “turn state’s evidence” so to speak to get a reduced sentence and says that a number of his teammates are dopers. But what if, in fact, they’re innocent? What proof is there besides his charge if they are clean in all there tests and biological passport?

    Yeah, I’m sure some guys will sing like a bird but what if it’s all fabricated? It sounds good at first but has some troubling bits.

  5. Author

    @sophrosune I think that rider who makes things up to reduce his sentence would get banned for life.

  6. SinglespeedJarv

    @Sophrosune generally when people confess, they are questioned with the intention of checking out their truth and their alibi’s. Then people go out and question those implicated to find out the truth.

    Ban for three years, four years or life? Why not ban for life? It’s not as if the argument that the riders lose their right to earn a living, they don’t have to ride bikes. There are plenty of other jobs out there if they want to cheat at procycling.

    But everyone knows that just banning the riders isn’t going to solve the problem. Look at Liquigas, currently defending ‘Franco the Perm’ to add to their fabulous record that includes hiring Basso and not stopping racing after three doping cases in a season that go against the requirements of Protour memebership. It was mentioned somewhere else in recent days, but perhaps teams should be suspended, or relegated a divison. That would make them understand the consequences of not checking bio-passports out properly.

    Also mentioned somewhere else – I am not often one for original thought – the UCI need to take anti-doping away from the national federations. However this *is* the UCI

  7. Touriste-Routier

    Basic Criminology (my University degree): In order for a punishment to be a deterrent it needs to be: Severe, Swift & Certain. Whether we are talking about WADA/UCI or the death penalty in the US, I am certain the flaws are obvious to all.

  8. JZ

    SSJarv, I agree that anti-doping testing needs to be taken away from national federations, but I also think that it needs to be taken away from the UCI. There is just too big of a conflict of interest between any federation that benefits from the growth of a sport and is its major proponent on the one hand, and is supposed to catch the cheaters on the other hand, which hurts the sport, at least in the short-term.

    Having said that, I am surprised that the UCI would make these latest announcements on the eve of the Giro. What a boneheaded move if their goal is to promote cycling as a great sporting event. On the other hand, I am not surprised, because I often get the feeling that the UCI’s goal is to promote itself (or cycling as a spectacle or drama rather than a sport) and, thus, the timing of the announcement seems timed to get the maximum exposure. Strange indeed. I can only anticipate that we will get more of the same on the eve of the Tour, particularly given the still pending investigation into Astana’s medical waste.

  9. James

    I agree with Touriste-Routier about severe, swift and certain. I, personally, don’t feel that 2 years is nearly enough for a 1st offense. It’s not nearly severe enough (read Ricco). I think a first offender should be staring 5 years in the face with time off for spilling your guts in a manner that is verifiable. But, in order for any system to work you must have confidence in your primary weapon against doping and that, for the moment, are the labs that do the checks. I don’t have a lot of confidence in any of the labs. In the other column Padraig mentioned the drug of death for Olympic glory research that seemed to indicate that a lot of these guys just don’t give a damn as long as they get the initial glory. Perhaps stocks and pillories should be thrown into the mix to counter any glory gained by cheating! I just can’t abide cheaters but they are everywhere. A case in point (I work for a major airline) a crew called me today to as if a certain passenger had paid for an upgrade as he had planted himself in a superior seat. The passenger had not purchased and upgrade and should have been in the last row of the plane. So, no harm in trying? That guy was, basically, stealing and riders who dope are stealing from riders who don’t dope, sponsors and fans! Sorry about the rant!

  10. SinglespeedJarv

    @JZ I should have explained that it was not so much taking the dope-tests away from the national federations, but taking the sanctioning from them. Goes without saying that the dope-testing should be run by an independent third-party.

    Announcing these things on the eve of big events mean that the riders don’t get to ride those events and so don’t affect the results, it also seems to be intended to send a message (that frequently falls on deaf ears) to discourage people from doping.

  11. randomactsofcycling

    Doping; it’s like driving under the influence for the athletically gifted. The vast majority of the general population just WON’T do it because they understand the danger. The consequences not only of their actions but of being caught are a secondary in their thinking to the danger drink-driving poses to others and themselves. Those that think they can take the back streets to avoid being breath tested are in the ‘micro-dosing’ camp. Chance of being caught/chance of making it home to a warm bed. If I make it home, no-one will ever know and I’ll never have to admit it.
    Then there are those that think you can hyper-ventilate and beat the test. These people should never have descended from the trees. BUT! Some can create enough doubt in the public’s mind that there will always be questions about ‘the system’.
    What needs to be understood and built into ‘the system’ is that these different elements of society and sport will always exist. You will never stamp out crime. In fact some lawyers have a vested interest in promoting it.
    However those that are deemed guilty and a danger to society should be removed from said society. Permanently. The danger of re-offending and involving others is too great.

  12. MattyVT

    CycleSport’s “Clean Issue” from fall of ’06 mentioned the idea of a doping amnesty, and that was the first time I’d heard of the idea. At first I didn’t like it, but as a resolution tool it’s hard to beat in complicated situations like this. There is a dual standard when Erik Zabel can tearfully confess to using EPO (for only a short while) without repaying any prize money or legal fees while someone attempting the same act today can get a two year ban for their first offense. Granted the landscape has changed dramatically, but there is no statute of limitations for when it’s OK for Bjarne Riis to say he doped to win the Tour without consequences.

    In my mind an amnesty for confessed dopers is the way forward. The French would say “I told you so” and the Germans would threaten to ban all two wheeled vehicles from their streets until the problem was eradicated, but in the end the sport as a whole would be in better shape. An amnesty would declare an arbitrary but enforceable boundary where past transgressions could be aired and stricter punishments could be enacted for the future.

  13. wvcycling

    Would an even more intense punishment on doping cause the athletes to go more underground with their practices? Using a rusty needle filled with expired EPO in the barn of their cousin’s neighbor’s girlfriend’s farm? You get the idea…

    They aren’t going to stop, so why not have them duke it out in their own league of cycling events. Men’s. Women’s, U23’s. Dopers.

    It’s either that or have a Downhill one-on-one Big-Wheel battle down the Alps d’Huez to prove one’s innocence!


  14. Robot

    Is it wrong that I read that bit about Alpe d’Huez Big Wheel downhill and think, “Hell yes. Where do I sign up?” Rather than, “That’s crazy and dangerous!”?

    1. Padraig

      Nope. It means you’re just our sort of guy.

      Oh, and personally, if Andre was still around, I’d want to see him on a little flotilla of Big Wheels.

  15. pacificnomadd

    Cycling is DOPE. Cyclist been doping since the dawn of time. Why crack down now? The only enforcement of doping should be to ensure the health of the riders. A high hematocrit of 52% is fine. Like Dr. Ferrari said, ” EPO is not dangerous, it’s the abuse that is. It’s also dangerous to drink 10 litres of orange juice”. What is the difference between a theraputic drug and a drug used to dope? Is riding a 3 week grand tour natural for the human body?

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