The Explainer: Are we better off now than we were before?

Dear Explainer,
I am probably as sick of it as you are when it comes to doping, but given that you’ve been writing about nothing but for the last few weeks, I thought I might ask one more question on the subject.

A look back at the most recent big-time doping cases, especially what you’ve written about, pretty much involves old-time stuff: Ullrich, Armstrong and even Contador’s case was from two years ago.

What has me wondering, though, is after all of this noise, do you think the sport is any cleaner? I mean it was pretty open back in 1998 when the Festina scandal hit, but is it just hidden now? I’m betting there was a lot of money spent on the effort. Was it worth it?
— Steve

Dear Steve,
I really am sick of the subject, Steve. Indeed, I was reluctant to even answer this one, but I’ve been doing a bit of thinking about the same questions, both tied to the costs and benefits of an international effort, so I thought I’d throw this out as a last comment after writing about the Armstrong, Ullrich and Contador cases. Hopefully, this will be it for a while.

Is the sport of cycling any cleaner now than it was in 1998? You or others might accuse me of suffering from a chronic case of Pollyannaism, but I have to believe it is.

Of course, I have to admit that I was one of those who also said that the 1998 Festina scandal would do a lot to clean up the sport from that point forward. It was a question that the four passengers in our press car at the 1999 Tour — John Wilcockson, Rupert Guinness, David Walsh and I — debated for three solid weeks that year. If history is the judge, then my guess is that Mr. Walsh won that round.

At best, the changes have at least taken a lot more time than I would have every thought. What has changed is that the creation of the World Anti-Doping Agency has accomplished much of what it originally set out to do: namely, to provide a coordinated testing effort, equalization of penalties and an investment of resources into research, testing and enforcement. I think they’ve pulled that off, but the price tag has been pretty high.

Cleaner or just a narrowed opportunity to cheat?
When it comes to the question of whether cycling is cleaner now than it was 14 years ago, I have to maintain that it is significantly better. No, I do not believe that there has been some sort of moral epiphany in the sporting world in general or in cycling in particular. There have always been and will continue to be those whose egos, bank accounts or both push them toward trying to find an edge over the competition.

To see how far we’ve come, let’s look back to 1998 and before. First, though, let’s make a couple of observations about doping and cycling. One, because of its physical demands, cycling is the sporting world’s prime candidate for doping. Two, doping in sport really “came of age” with the development of drugs and methods designed to enhance the body’s ability to transport vital oxygen to muscle tissue. In other words, EPO and blood doping. Before that, amphetamines, steroids and other drugs were fairly crude and marginally effective ways to enhance performance. With an amped hematocrit level, though, you could make a real impact on performance, especially in a sport like cycling, where endurance and recovery over the course of a three-week grand tour count for a lot.

Now, it wasn’t until late 1996 that the UCI took even the most moderate steps to address the wide-spread use of EPO and blood manipulation methods, when it imposed a 50-percent limit on hematocrit levels. Before that, riders were said to be raising their levels to 60 and beyond. The 1996 limit basically provided everyone with a license to cheat within “reasonable” levels. It was another four years before the urine test for isoforms of recombinant erythropoietin was approved for use. Again, sophisticated users came up with a host of ways to beat the test.

To its credit, it was the UCI which really set a higher standard when it led the way to the development of the Biological Passport (see “The Explainer: The biological passport revisited) The bottom line for me is that this sequence of developments has continued to shrink the benefits a cheater could derive. Back in the mid-1990s, a doped-to-the-gills rider could see a 10- to 15-percent performance benefit from taking EPO. These days, with even the most subtle manipulation triggering alarm bells, the benefits are considerably less. Weigh that against the potentially career-ending costs of being caught and the incentive to cheat is diminishing.

Keep in mind that the Court of Arbitration for Sport didn’t find an element of intent—or even negligence—on Contador’s part in the recent clenbuterol case. The guy was nabbed for 50-trillionths of a gram of clenbuterol per milliliter of urine. That is hardly the stuff of major performance-enhancement. The Court even dismissed some of the theories that many of us had at least considered, namely that his contamination was the result of a transfusion of blood stored from a time when he was using larger amounts of the drug. Without debating the merits of WADA’s strict liability approach to even the smallest levels of PEDs in an athlete’s system, no one can argue that Contador’s offense is the moral equivalent of his team director’s Tour win in 1996, when Bjarne Riis purportedly earned the nickname “Mr. 60 percent” for purely hematological reasons.

Another indicator of the sport’s gradual move away from enhanced performances is the gradual decline in those very performances. Case in point, the times of riders covering those famous 21 hairpin turns on Alpe d’Huez. The record – Marco Pantani’s 37:35 in 1997 – may stand for some time to come. Last year, the winner of stage 19 at the Tour, Pierre Rolland, took 41:47 to cover the same distance. Indeed, when he won the stage in 2006, Fränk Schleck became the first Alpe d’Huez winner since 1994 to cover the climb in more than 40 minutes.

Proof that doping is gone? No. But the trend is such that we may be seeing an improvement. Indeed, we may have crossed a critical psychological tipping point in recent years in that riders no longer feel like they have to dope just to compete. Yeah, yeah, I know, I do sound Pollyannaish, but I am—despite my often grumpy and cynical demeanor—actually something of an optimist.

At what cost?
This improvement—if there is one—has come with a significant price tag attached to it. The 2011 budget for the World Anti-Doping Agency alone was (drum roll, please) a whopping $28,396,856. Twenty-eight million bucks. That doesn’t include the respective budgets of the anti-doping agencies in individual countries, nor does it include the anti-doping budgets of individual governing bodies, like the UCI.

WADA’s budget has grown from around $18 million in 2002, when the bulk of its funding came from the Olympic movement and the governing bodies that make up the International Olympic Committee. These days, the load is shared about equally between IOC members and the governments that have signed on to the 2005 UNESCO International Convention against Doping in Sport.

Before the 2002 creation of WADA (the concept was approved at the 1999 World Conference on Doping in Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland), testing and anti-doping enforcement was made up of a patchwork of rules, testing and enforcement methods that differed from sport-to-sport and from country-to-country.

The biggest benefit of the coordinated effort and increased funding is that it’s probably getting to be just as profitable for a smart biochemist to devote his efforts to developing tests in an open and legal laboratory setting than it is to do the opposite in secret.

Again, call me optimistic, but I honestly think we’re making progress … and, yeah, despite the enormous cost involved, I think it’s money well spent.

Now, can we please get back to bike racing? Or maybe a discussion of a lawsuit or two?

Don’t hesitate to drop me a line if you have a comment, an observation, a complaint or—better yet—a question to be answered in next week’s column. You can write me directly at [email protected].

Have a good week,
– Charles

The Explainer is now a weekly feature on Red Kite Prayer. If you have a question related to the sport of cycling, doping or the legal issues faced by cyclists of all stripes, feel free to send it directly to The Explainer at [email protected]. PLEASE NOTE: Understand that reading the information contained here does not mean you have established an attorney-client relationship with attorney Charles Pelkey. Readers of this column should not act upon any information contained therein without first seeking the advice of qualified legal counsel licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.

Follow me on Twitter: @Charles_Pelkey

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. David Hendry

    Way back in the Seoul Olympics Canada’s Ben Johnson got caught and busted for doping in the hundred meter dash. The inquiry that was called then came to the conclusion that with huge prizes both monetary and social accrueing to the winners there was always going to be huge incentive to cheat to win. THat fact is still there. A few stars in any sport make huge piles of money and everyone else looks on and wishes. The guy running second finds himself in a spot where the differences between him and the winner are miniscule but the rewards are monstrous and so he cheats. At every level, making the local school team as opposed to sitting in the stands, getting a scholarship to university or going to a mcjob, turning pro or retiring, winning the TDF or finishing in the peloton the reward for success is huge and so it continues and will continue. Criminals of any sort never commit their crime thinking about the punishment, they don’t expect to get caught and they know th rewards are huge. No one remembers for long who came second or for that matter even who came first. Who was the last winner before Armstrong started his string?, but the winner made a pile of money.
    Johnson got stripped of his Olympic medal but when he got home he still had to chose between driving the Ferrari or the Porsche he had in the garage of the mansion he had built. I don’t have that problem. Oh and by the way the history has shown that every other racer in that final at Seoul has doped during their career and they all suffered the same problem of dealing with the excess wealth they gained by doing so. SO I see no reason to believe the cheaters have done anything but move on to other ways and means to hide their cheating and some time in the futer we’ll have another go around with possibly another method of medically spiking the performances.

  2. randomactsofcycling

    Charles, thanks for explaining some things. I honestly thought WADA’s budget was much bigger than this. I do realise that other Agencies contribute to the anti-doping effort but when WADA’s budget is not much more than some Pro-Tour teams, no wonder progress in the fight is slow.

  3. Dr. Maserati

    While I do agree with Charles that it is certainly cleaner now then say, the 90’s, he has highlighted cyclings current difficulty.

    It is because of WADA (who incidentally were set up because of Festina) that it is cleaner – not because of cycling or the UCI.
    Until anti-doping is taken away from the sports governing bodies the question about doping and indeed the sports credibility will remain.

  4. John Borstelmann

    Thanks for your insightful, thorough reporting and analysis, Charles. I hope you don’t shy away from doping issues, because they probably won’t go away. I’m hoping there’ll be progress in measuring plasticizer levels in blood to be able to say whether blood packing has occurred. I agree with you that there has been real progress, and I expect more. But it will always be a challenge to stay up with or ahead of the cheaters.

  5. WV Cycling

    To have a simple play on words, are we better off now than we were before, in terms of the advancements in bicycle/racing (communications, etc) technology than we were in the mid 80’s?

  6. Rod Diaz

    Considering the analyses on winning times up notable climbs, and w/kg benchmarks – definitely there have been changes.

    I don’t think, in absolute terms, that cyclists are “cleaner” as a lot. There are still numerous athletes that enhance their performance through illicit means. As mentioned above, the incentives are simply to large… do you cheetah, Ben?

    BUT the level of supercharged engines has diminished. No longer there are whole teams pacing up two or three climbs, or half a team driving up the break unopposed where the team manager has to decide who takes the podium. And to a large extent, this is due to better antidoping measures.

    Science in Sports has analyzed the effects of the bio-passport and the winning times uphill. Shocking, after effective EPO tests were introduced times have gone down. So yes, cheaters will still cheat – but you can get away with less now. And “inhuman” performances now stand out more (maybe we’re more cynical and/or skeptical too). Rember Basso when he was “trying” to dope in the Giro, or Piepoli and Ricco.

    So, I think we’re on the right path. Not because there are less cheaters necessarily, but because the effect of cheating has decreased.

  7. Jesus from Cancun

    Athletes will always try to use any means to get the most out of their body.

    Better training, better gear, a new diet… which will probably lead to taking a vitamin supplement. Then you see an improvement, and you get an iron supplement too. Then someone tells you that you can take this aminoacids to improve your recovery.

    And little by little, you get yourself one step closer to the edge.
    You know that there are doping tests and of course you don’t want to return a positive, or maybe you are not subject to testing but you still don’t want to cheat. Still, you might be tempted to try this other stuff that gives you a little extra but won’t give you problems at the doping test.
    You want to stay clean, but you start to explore what else you can do to help your effort and recovery, without turning on the alarms.

    Where is the limit? When you have a lot at stake, that’s the point at which a team doctor might ask if you want to do what the rest are doing. He says it’s not doping because you won’t show a positive. He assures that if you do it the right way, you won’t get caught, so you are OK.
    You are dancing on the blade, you know that your competition is also getting “medicated”, but the doctors are making sure that nobody goes far enough to give a positive.

    You ask yourself… Will I be doping, even if I am not caught? I have been taking stuff that is not on the WADA list, and it helps anyway… have I been doping already, but not illegally? What has this doctor done for other racers? What are the other doctors and racers doing? Can I get away with just a little bit of this? Who else can I talk to about it?

    Those were choices that I and everyone else I knew had to go through many years ago. In Italy in ’91, to be more precise.
    I chose to stay on the safe side, and that might be one of the reasons why nobody out of my circle ever heard anything about me. But I saw first hand what many famous names took back then. Nobody there was shy about it. It was frightening. And nobody returned a positive… back then.

    WADA and UCI have tried to make it either black or white with their list of forbidden substances and methods. But doctors have always found a gray area for some people to play the russian roulete at.

    My hope is that the latest doping suspensions will push those that are dancing on the blade choose to stay on the safe side.

    I think that Contador’s penalty was too heavy considering how the experts proved that the blood doping theory presented by the UCI was wrong. But if something good comes out of this, it has to be the message sent to those just about to fall in the temptation: Even if it’s only 50 pictograms, even if we have no clue of where they came from and even if they didn’t do any good to your performance, we can find it. And you will get busted.

    I might be suffering from Pollyannaism too (I love when I can expand my vocabulary), but I want to believe that we will see less and less high profile doping cases in the future. For those who make millions for winning without getting busted, it might not be worth the risk anymore.
    Maybe we will still hear about domestiques or riders desperate for a contract next year, but hopefully the big guns will step back a bit if they were already on the edge.

    I hope.

  8. Khal Spencer

    Twenty eight million bucks actually doesn’t sound like all that much money, but I don’t know how expensive those labs are to maintain or who cost-shares the bills. Not to mention, paychecks for the administrators and lawyers in the organization.

    Good analytical labs cost major bucks. But the money buys standardization in testing, QA/QC protocols, competent analysts, and cutting edge advances in analytical chemistry. Those provide two important things. One, increased risks and therefore deterrence aimed at those who want to cheat and their teams and sponsors (being able to measure 50 picograms per ml of a PED is probably intimidating to cheaters). Secondly, confidence that the testing labs are getting it right when they issue a finding.

    The temptation to cheat will be there as long as money is to be made. The drug police, therefore, will have to stay in out in front of the dopers. Like any other breakaway, that takes extra effort.

  9. Eric W

    It’s not the TDF guys I worry much about. It’s the kids in High School trying to find a short cut to winning. They’ll try what the pros try. And that’s not a good example. So we need to spend some effort to eliminate doping in racers. Or we’ll get another generation thinking they can buy they’re way out.

  10. Dave

    David Hendry said: “SO I see no reason to believe the cheaters have done anything but move on to other ways and means to hide their cheating…”

    This perfectly summarizes my feelings on the subject. Since the entire history of our sport is tainted with cheating (of lesser or greater effectiveness), I don’t think that there is any reason to think that somehow things are different now. I just asume that every professional cyclist is doing all that he can to cheat while avoiding detection (whether it’s autologous blood doping or microdosing of EPO). To assume otherwise is really looking at the world through rose colored glasses.

  11. Big Mikey

    Charles, you raised a point that isn’t discussed much, but is meaningful. Namely, that the current benefits of doping aren’t as significant as those enjoyed by riders in years passed. Which is an interesting thought, because the decreased gains and increased penalties, the cheat/don’t cheat decision becomes more balance. So, from a sporting fairness perspective, the sport almost certainly has improved.

    But to Jesus’ point, it’s not just cheating in sports, it’s cheating at life, and today’s society glamourizes both. It’s a slippery slope, and the thing modern humans are best at is rationalization. So, it will never go away, and as cycling tests more rigourously than most sports, cycling cheats will be discovered.

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