What (not) to say when doping accusations come knocking

22 Oct 2014 Posted by
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What to say in response to doping allegations

An interesting Twitter survey today informs this article.  I went on this morning and asked you (those following on Twitter, anyway!), this question:

You’re a coach or manager, wrongly accused of doping your athletes.  Given the cynicism and mistrust around sport these days, what is the best response?  The reason is that the usual denials and strategies – shoot the messenger, claim ignorance, “I never failed a test” – that may have been accepted by many people twenty years ago are no longer valid.  We have been made fools of too often.  So…what do do?

This is a question I often wonder.  Even in the last few months, Astana have produced three positive test results, cycling a few more, and every time, it’s the same movie running on repeat.  Outrage.  Denial.  Ignorance.  Justification.  Excuse.  And it seems sometimes that if the athlete or manager can just stretch the process out long enough, it’s a matter of time before it is replaced with another case and the heat is off.

I’ve often wondered what the best response would be to an accusation.  A positive test is different – it’s “hard evidence”, although many may point to the imperfect testing process to refute even that.  But when an accusation is made, or suspicion exists based on performance, based on team-mates doping, based on investigative journalism, then what should be done?

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Validation vs vindication

Some would say nothing, that the burden of proof lies with the accuser, and that it’s impossible to prove a negative anyway.  This is all true, but in the real world, carrying an allegation can be almost as bad as carrying a confession, because once the perception of cheating exists, it’s difficult to shake.  So the reputation of that coach, manager or athlete is tarnished and I do feel that requires some response.  Doping is serious enough that it would be justified to push back.

However, one can also push back to the point that it actually validates or legitimises the accusation.  People love to assume that smoke equals fire (sometimes true, sometimes not), and so he who protests too much must have something to hide.

More to the point, though, what would you say in your defence that is even credible in the current climate of mistrust?

Here are some of your thoughts, shared on Twitter earlier today (from most recent to oldest, so read up).   My thoughts to sum up follow.

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My summary: Transparency & history matter

Ok, so that’s a lot to get through, sorry!  But if I can pick out the two common threads, they are:

  1. Transparency – this is something I’ve written about often.  When people want to believe something, then half-truths will only ever fuel their belief.  They cannot change it.  So if I want to believe in doping, and you only offer me certain reassurances, then my perception is only ever going to be reinforced.  I will see what is NOT offered as far more important than that which is, and the result will be worse.  For both of us.  That’s the reason that for the last five years, the Tour de France has been in the spotlight for analysis – people want to know what is happening beneath the surface, and that requires more transparency than we currently have.

    Managers and coaches should make available EVERY possible item that helps to establish their innocence – after all, if there is nothing to hide, then why hide it?  The response to this is that some data is important and crucial to a competitive advantage – we can’t tell you our numbers because you’ll know how to beat us.  This is a convenient excuse – actually acting to turn data into an advantage is not the same thing as knowing the data.  And they all know anyway – Usain Bolt’s rivals know that to beat him will require a time faster than 9.70s.  Doesn’t mean they’re going to do it.  So I don’t buy it.

    Bottom line – transparency buys some degree of trust.  And thus, half transparency is far worse than none.  Rather stay silent than try to spin the truth with the selective use of facts (remember that numbers are not the only facts, and for some sports there may be no numbers – it’s not all cycling and power outputs).  That’s what Sky did in 2012 and 2013, leading to my (and a number of others) skepticism of them.  Put everything out there, co-operate with the independent authorities and intelligent people will come to the truth.  If you’re not doping, then that’s where you want them, right?

  2. Track record – you can’t ask for trust when you haven’t shown your detractors that you are in the trenches with them.  If you’re a doper, or a former doper, and if you defend dopers rather than condemning them, then how can outsiders accept your denials when you’re implicated?  This is tricky, and I can understand, for a sport like cycling there is so much history that few people are not linked.  But from the perspective of those outside the sport (and yes, they do matter), a fraternity is disastrous.  The only way to break that frat down is to be outside it, and that means being anti-doping, not merely silent.  That’s easier said than done, and I have some degree of understanding with those people in the sport who feel pressure to be diplomatic with their thoughts.

    But if a false accusation is levelled against you, and you have a history of denying, downplaying or defending doping, then why should anyone believe your defense?  On the other hand, if you’re outspoken and staunchly anti-doping, you’ve banked some trust.  Facing unfair accusation is when you spend it.  Unless, that is, you’re a total psychopath and you can condemn doping publicly and then shoot up in your hotel room when the cameras stop rolling.

So that’s it.  Thanks for your thoughts.  It’s a really interesting exercise, because we’re often critical of people’s responses in the face of doping allegations

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