The Way Out

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 my post. You can find Robot’s post here.—Padraig

For reasons I can’t explain, doping has yet to kill my enthusiasm for professional bike racing. My knowledge of what takes place in private has changed my view of the sport and injected a frustration into what would otherwise be a pursuit devoid of downside. Even so, I continue to watch.

And while I temper my tongue, I admit that because I’m a connect-the-dots sort, whenever anyone crosses the line first, there’s a moment, a moment I try to reduce to something even shorter than an eye blink, but a moment I can’t wipe away. I wonder if the winner is clean.

There are people in cycling who have, following various positive tests, claimed that cycling is winning the war on doping. People in high places, such as the ASO and UCI. If by winning they mean more positive tests, well then yes, we seem to be leading the race by 10 seconds with 40k to go.

How anyone ever had the epiphany that we should declare wars on concepts such as doping, facism or terror, I’ll never know. Weirder still is the fact that too few intelligent people have observed an undeniable truth: You can’t stamp out an idea, no matter how good or bad it is.

The underlying practice of doping—the desire to gain a competitive edge over one’s rivals by any means necessary set down roots in the very nature of survival. At its most elemental, the desire to win is the very desire to live. It wasn’t so many years ago that our ancestors were competing for food and shelter on a literal basis. Today, we’re competing with SATs, GPAs, income and Fortune Magazine rankings. It still comes down to a fight for resources.

That some athletes will go to whatever length is necessary to cross the line first should not surprise us. There’s a dark side to the human condition that emboldens some people to ignore rules that society has agreed to obey. These days, most everyone can find ready examples at hand in Wall Street and oil companies.

In 1982 a researcher named Bob Goldman began asking elite athletes a question. Would they take a drug that would guarantee them an Olympic gold medal but would also result in their death within five years?More than half the athletes surveyed responded yes, they would take the drug. From 1982 to 1995 Goldman continued to survey elite athletes and the survey bore the same result each time—more than half the athletes said they would take the drug.

The question became known as the Goldman Dilemma.

Recently, a group of researchers decided to pose the Goldman Dilemma to a population of non-athletes. Some 250 people were asked the question. Only two responded that they would take the drug. That’s less than one percent of the respondents.

The British Journal of Medicine published the paper last year. One of the study’s authors, James Connor, Ph.D., summed up the findings thusly: “We were surprised. I expected 10-20 percent yes.”

His big conclusion?  That “elite athletes are different from the general population, especially on desire to win.”

Thank you, Captain Obvious.

In reading the study, which was drier than sandstone, I drew two conclusions of my own. First, that doping isn’t going to go away. Ever. The drive to achieve fame, power and glory is too strong with some athletes to simply leave the result to chance. No length is too great for those athletes; stacked deck doesn’t begin to describe the lengths some would go to ensure a win. If you are willing to die prematurely to get a gold medal at the Olympics, then ordinary doping isn’t much of a threshold to cross.

The second conclusion I drew is that this population is very, very small. If the 250 respondents are representative of society, then less than one percent of the population will show this predilection. Unfortunately, I expect that sports will draw these people to an unusual degree. But here’s where nature steps in: No amount of drive can overcome a lack of talent. Not everyone who has the drive to achieve gold will also have the requisite talent necessary to reach the elite ranks of a given sport.

Without spending too much (any) time with the statistics regarding these slices of population, I suspect that less than five percent of all the cyclists with enough talent to make it to the pro ranks will also have the amoral inclination to take any drug necessary to guarantee a win.

In his book “From Lance to Landis,” cycling journalist David Walsh divided pro cyclists into two camps, the “draggers”—those who tended to initiate doping as a means to win, and the “dragged”—those riders who were essentially coerced into doping as a means to survive.

That less than five percent are your draggers, not the dragged. Get rid of them and you can have a reasonable hope for a clean sport.

A few years ago I wrote an Op-Ed for the Los Angeles Times in the wake of Bjarne Riis’ confession that he used EPO on his way to winning the 1996 Tour de France. Getting the LA Times editorial page interested in cycling is as difficult as getting a vegan interested in steak tartare. And yet somehow, they thought my idea—a truth and reconciliation commission a la South Africa to get at doping practices and doctors—had enough merit to warrant their attention.

The piece made it its way to the powers that be at the UCI.

I barely had space enough to get the idea out before I had to close the piece. It amounted to a political campaign ad—great idea with few details. It’s worth spelling out the finer points of my suggestion. Even if the UCI is as likely to listen to me now as they did in 2007.

The idea is simple. It is based on an invitation: Come tell us what you know. Tell us what you’ve done, and tell us anything you have seen with your own eyes. Give everyone until the end of 2010 to fess up with anything on their conscience. Add a little caveat: if you test positive after December 31, 2010, you will be banned from the sport for life.

For those who confess, they will be granted immunity for all past misdeeds. You did blow on a stripper’s ass in Geneva? No worries. You won a stage of the 2009 Tour de France hopped up on growth hormone and pig’s blood? Your win stays in the record books.

However, for the confession to count, you have to tell everything you know to the tribunal on the spot. You can’t hold monthly press conferences and tease out details like kite string in a weak wind as Bernard Kohl did with the German media.

What’s more, I’d add yet another incentive. For every rider who tested positive sometime in the past, if they didn’t tell the full story and divulge everything they knew, were they to confess their full knowledge, they could get their salary reinstated for the term of the previous suspension. Back pay.

If the UCI pursued such a course of action, here’s what I think would happen: All the riders of the ilk of David Millar and Tyler Hamilton—guys who undoubtedly doped, but would be counted among Walsh’s dragged—would fess up before Thanksgiving. A few guys would weigh the odds and confess by Christmas. And there would be at least one bombshell as everyone was about to pop New Year’s Eve bubbly.

After that, each doctor implicated by a rider could confess his part and agree to cooperate with the UCI and WADA or face losing his medical license.

But the guys we would most like to catch, the ones who ultimately coerce the rest of the peloton—either implicitly by being faster or explicitly by telling them they need to step up and deliver for the team—won’t say a word.

Would we hear from Vinokourov, from Basso, from Ricco? Don’t hold your breath. Would Ullrich speak up if he knew the truth could restore some of his tarnished reputation?


So could this be a one-time house-cleaning? Not likely. It is something the UCI would almost certainly have to bring back at irregular intervals (say three to five years depending on how fast the racing is) just to find out what the latest bunch of doctors have cooked up. In nabbing the doctors there would be a reasonable hope of plowing that field under for a few seasons.

If we are lucky, years from now we will remember Bjarne Riis as a heroic figure not for his incredible talent for managing a team of talented riders and encouraging them to work together, nor for his Tour de France win. If we are lucky, he will be remembered as a hero, the first rider to have the courage to stand up and tell the truth without first being caught.

Images: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. Pingback: A Scalpel, Not a Hatchet : Red Kite Prayer

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  3. SinglespeedJarv

    “Give everyone until the end of 2010 to fess up with anything on their conscience” You are of course assuming that they have a conscience…

    Ultimately, did not every big doping scandal give everyone concerned the chance to draw the line in the sand? I felt that after Puerto, but only to be faced with another scandal a year down the line.

    Like Padraig, I’m quite surprised that my enjoyment of PROcycling has survived the last 10 years. There is a period around 2004 and early 2005 that I would struggle to recount what happened in races, but that had as much to do with what I was up to in my life as to the state of the peloton.

    I was hopeful that the worst is behind us, known clean riders like Gilbert and Wiggins and clean teams like Garmin are able to compete at the highest level, even at the Grand Tours. But there is always something that drags us back into the mire and makes me question my hopes.

  4. Touriste-Routier

    Padraig, another very well written, insightful piece.

    As for the study you refer to, there is potentially a subtle flaw (either in the study or how you referred to it). Was the drug offered to athletes legal or illegal? If it was legal, then we are talking purely about desire to win, if it is illegal, we are also talking about ethics. Would the results vary? Who knows?

    An overwhelming problem with all of the reference to the UCI in doping matters is that they are not entirely in control; WADA “governs” the testing (performed by national affiliates), and the UCI “governs” punishment, yet the National Federations dictate sentence, which may vary from UCI guidelines.

    A problem with reinstating forfeited pay is that the teams pay the riders, not the federation; it should be up to the teams as to how rider compensation is handled. The employment law questions in Pro Cycling are already well muddled.

    All doping issues hinge on strong science and consistent methodology on the testing side. Whether one believes Floyd Landis’ claims of innocence or not, his appeal revealed gaping wholes in the process. Until these are resolved, and uniformly followed, much of the rest is meaningless.

    While I am a proponent of amnesty programs, there are many things that need to be resolved in order for them to be effective.

    1. Author

      SinglespeedJarv: None of the big doping scandals every held the amnesty carrot out for riders. Had investigators offered amnesty I think we would have seen a much different result to Puerto, Festina, Oil for Drugs, etc. I believe if the choices were more black and white that results would be very different. Your view of Liquigas wouldn’t very different.

      Touriste-Routier: I’ve always assumed the drug would be illegal but I’ve never seen the exact survey Goldman used. I made this assumption because for most of the population doping goes against someone’s moral compass. It’s hard for me to conceive of taking a drug that would both enhance my performance and be legal to use. So my reading has been that the question shows an ethical lapse in ‘yes’ respondents.

      The UCI drives the bus in matters of doping investigation on the people (rather than scientific) end, and that’s what this really comes down to. They do have the ability, as I understand it, to impose bans beyond what a national federation does, so even if, say, the Spanish federation was reluctant to ban a rider, the UCI could step in to impose an additional ban.

      My thinking is that forfeited pay would be granted not by the teams, but by the UCI. It’s in their interest and no one else’s to hold up as big a carrot as possible.

      The Landis case is precisely why I suggested a confess for amnesty program. I’m not confident in the uniform consistency and standards of all of the WADA labs. I think we can learn more through confession than testing, currently.

  5. todd k

    Compelling articles gentlemen.

    Another item to consider is the timeliness required to adjudicate amnesty in a manner that does not minimize the carrot. Using Valverde as an example, the UCI has still not obtained a ruling from the CAS regarding a challenge to the Spanish ruling on a case that originated in 2006. Winning for four years after a violation does not build confidence that rules are being enforced in a manner that doesn’t undermine the rule book.

    I think the problem the UCI has is that while it governs cycling and establishes common rules, it does not have the capacity or authority to serve as an adjudicator in all the legal disputes that arise that prompt suspension. The UCI often participates in the judiciary process by challenging and presenting cases, often through CAS. Maybe I am incorrect in my understanding, but ultimately there is a legal component that restricts an organization such as UCI? (At the very least, looking through several past tours where the UCI and ASO disagreed on the rules, we can at least say the UCI has limited enforcement abilities).

    As an aside, I think Robot’s suggestions are a bit more immune to these dilemmas as they are not as revolutionary and can be deployed despite the current judiciary system. In fact, some national federations already employ some of his ideas. For example, CONI does provide sentence reduction for cooperation. The notion of case by case discretion allows for flexibility. But the amnesty proposal seems to warrant much more alignment across the organizations that oversee cycling for it to be effective.

  6. SinglespeedJarv

    @Padraig certainly agree that there should have been a carrot held out after Puerto. But even without a carrot there could have been a line drawn in the sand for sanctions, after Event X you no longer have any excuses.

    @Todd a lot of the Valv.Piti case is because the Spanish judiciary has done all it can to keep their boy out of trouble. This is why the sanctioning process needs to be taken away from national federations

  7. randomactsofcycling

    A few years ago here in Australia we had what was called the ‘Gun Amnesty’. Owners of unregistered guns (handguns, rifles, shotguns, you name it) were encouraged to turn in their weapons at the local Police Station. There was no penalty. I think there was a six month moratorium on punishment. When that deadline expired, legislation came into effect that made it illegal, except under very, very strict and special circumstances, to keep a gun anywhere but at a Registered Premises (eg: Gun Club). No more guns at home. Hunters had to register their guns and keep them at the Club.
    Hundreds of thousands of guns were handed in. It was quite literally amazing. I for one never thought Australia a gun-toting society.
    Problem is, only the honest people handed in their guns and the honest people were scared of the dishonest people so they wouldn’t dob them in. So we ended up with only criminals having guns and still no-one knows how many there are or where they get them from.
    I like the idea of confession (just don’t get me started on Religion) but is it OK to play up as long as you to confess?
    Some people will never get the point. A conscience is a valuable thing that is underappreciated.

  8. Souleur

    I have to side on Padraigs overhaul of the current system w/an amnesty period for riders in an interim basis.

    Toddk nails it in part that it is a fragmented system in its current station. The UCI has interest, but no real authority internationally nor nationally to participate in the judiciary proceedings. It doesn’t own the races, and therefore the perennial ASO/UCI dispute will rear its head in about 2-3 wks, more on that later.

    It is true that there are some practices that are not ‘illegal’ in and of themselves, but banned from cycling. It may be illegal in one nation, but not another. It may be taboo in one nation, but accepted in another. And the UCI may recognize this, but not the nation the offense takes place. It may be illegal but if not ‘in participation’ at the time, therefore, not tested. Ala Tomke et recreational weekend drug use. Its a rubiks cube that the more you look, the more you wonder which way to turn.

    In terms of the study, here is another observation that mr obvious missed. It would have been interesting to have been posed the question to another group similarly outside of PRO cycling, say…banking. IF you were able to commit ‘X’, which is illegal, in which you would profit, you would be the big-banker…would you do it??? of course.

    Cheating is cheating, mr obvious’s study was just that, it simply told us something we already knew. However, it would have maybe softened the blow knowing that perhaps that is a human tendancy across the spectrum of life not dependent upon sport, that of ‘taking the easy way out’. Perhaps too, pose the question, if you were able to sustain your current career longer, or more successfully by committing ‘X’, would you??? Pose a legal yet ‘forbidden’ benefit; like sleeping with your boss for promotion, and one illegal, commiting fraud and a promis of not ever getting caught. Because I think that is part of the equation as well, its not a unique issue in cycling. Not to justify it, but I understand that to be part of it that some of PRO are making a career of it, and to re-up contracts…well…they need to win, actually, they MUST win. That is hard supporting a wife, perhaps a child or two and I simply can understand the pressure that brings.

    Then what to do after amnesty?? that is the larger question, and most difficult. It starts w/cooperation internationally down to the local levels of cycling. Consistency, swiftness and a penalty that hurts. We are a long way from that now, but must start somewhere.

  9. mark

    The problem with medical licenses for doping doctors is that it’s not enough of a disincentive. As long as these doctors can get the drugs, they will have patients. It’s not as if they’re writing prescriptions that are getting filled at the Walgreen’s on the corner.

    I think both approaches (Padraig’s and Robot’s) have merits. Aesthetically, I like Padraig’s better; I would love a tell-all from as many as possible at the end of this year, especially if we can get it before Lance retires again. Practically, I think Robot’s would be more effective and more reasonably implemented–it requires less heavy lifting at the international level and provides a long-term approach that can be used year in and year out. My only regret is that both are just hope, the same hope that each of us has that the rider crossing the finish line first is clean.

  10. MattyVT

    As cycling fans (considering current company aficionados) we tend to get very wrapped up as doping being a problem in our sport, yet cycling is way ahead of other sports in terms of cleaning up. Football has been a steroid haven for years, baseball literally exploded in the juiced ball era of the 90’s and track and field has been rife with controversy for decades.

    The aversion of the UCI’s biological passport is close to being adopted for FIS ski events, and baseball just started banning players for failed drug tests within the last three years. The length of the ban for failing a dope test in baseball could be as little as 40 games from a 162 game season for a first offense compared to 2 years for the UCI.

    Still with these measures in place we’re only likely to catch cheaters incidentally. I’m with Padraig and support the amnesty or guillotine approach.

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