Denials, acceptance and anti-doping progress  //  Finger-pointing, a catch 22 and a reaction to move cycling forward

27 May 2010 Posted by

The aftermath of Floyd Landis’ allegations have continued to dominate the cycling news of late, and have produced some lively discussion here, in response to Jonathan’s post regarding the pressures faced by cyclists.

In those discussions, I’ve seen what I believe to be a great deal of rationalization taking place from those who defend cycling as a whole, or individuals within it, against these latest allegations.  I call them rationalizations under-advisement, and perhaps I should begin by acknowledging that in some instances, perhaps many, rationalizations are in fact true.

But there are two main responses that I believe exist, neither of which moves cycling forward.  The first is the finger-pointing at other sports.  It is pretty widely accepted that cycling, by virtue of its history, perhaps beginning with the Festina scandal of 1998, has had the spotlight cast squarely on its doping problem.  One scandal after another, every major champion tainted, many confessing or being caught, and cycling was eventually at a precipice.  Police took over and raided hotel rooms.  Media began to refuse to cover the sport, focusing instead on doping stories.  Sponsors threatened to withdraw (and some did in response to doping scandals).  And as a result of this turbulent, harshly exposed environment, came the biological passport, more ‘Draconian’ anti-doping measures, and sport that many have defended as being the most tightly controlled, scrutinized in the world.

My objection to this is that cycling’s anti-doping status in relation to others sports is utterly and completely irrelevant to the current problem.  Imagine a criminal court where the judge is about to rule on a man convicted of robbery.  In the robber’s defence, it is argued that other men are getting away with murder, and hence the robber should go free.  Each situation should be treated on its merits, and it is NOT a defence to point out the failures of others!   It is widely acknowledged that other sports have doping problems, and yes, some of them (NFL and MLB foremost among them, it seems) are doing little to clamp down on it.

One can argue whether the problem is as bad in athletics – I would argue that it is not, for a variety of reasons, but the main drivers are the calendar, the team environment, the culture of the sport, and its socio-economic status and “meritocracy”, which I think add up to create a “perfect storm” for doping.  Doping no doubt exists, but I think there’s a reason cycling has been exposed, and that reason is that cycling had (or has) the worst problem.  And, according to some, it still does.  In the words of David Walsh, who I agree with 100%, cycling needs to be torn down.  And also, don’t forget that athletics has gone through its fair share of scandals – Marion Jones, THG, BALCO, Victor Conte, Ben Johnson and Charlie Francis, so is not devoid of the same media attention and focus.

But to use cycling’s “more stringent” controls as justification for leniency on cyclnig is precisely the attitude that will keep the sport from moving forward and making progress.

And make progress it has – we got a few really good comments regarding the Giro, and Ivan Basso’s stage win on the Zoncolan the other day.  It turns out the Basso rode the climb 1:45 slower than the stage winner in 2007, and that the top 7 on the day were on average 1:30 slower than the top 7 three years ago.  Basso’s average power output was estimated as 395 W, or 5.7 W/kg.  Compare this to values in the Tour in recent years, where much longer climbs were done at 6.5 W/kg or higher.  Basso’s own coach, Professor Aldo Sassi, has said that he believes that a power output above 6.2 W/kg on a long climb at the end of a stage is an indication of doping.  

I agree with him on this, and it’s possible to show this principle using physiological concepts.  This is something I worked on last year during the Tour, and will post on during this year’s Tour again, when it is relevant.  However, the point is that cycling has slowed up, and while there are numerous factors (race situation, conditions etc.) that contribute to this, the suppression (not the removal) of doping is one strong possibility.

At least someone is listening – the biological passport and Floyd Landis

On another positive note, it seems that some of Floyd Landis’ claims are inspiring action.  The following two pieces detail the response of Mike Ashenden, a scientist involved with the biological passport, to Landis’ claims.  The first article by ESPN is interesting because it reveals some of the tricks behind how Landis claims it was easy to avoid being caught.  And if you’re looking for high-tech science and deception, look no further than the simple fact that the team knew when the testing would happen, so they could take steps to avoid detection.  It’s not rocket-science, in some regards.

The second article explains what Ashenden calls the “missing piece of the puzzle”.  This is exactly the response that is required, because scientists involved in actually preventing cheating often do so without full information.  Landis offers them a hypothesis to test and that can only be a good thing.  What should be of concern is that Ashenden recently did a study where he injected subjects intravenously twice weekly with microdoses of EPO over a period of three months, then ran their blood values through the biological passport software. “Not one of them failed,” he said.

That doesn’t make the biological passport “a joke” as Landis has called it.  But it does raise some serious question marks, and to all those people who bluntly defend cycling by saying it has a biological passport system, the response has to be “so what?”.  A lot of houses have very fancy alarm systems, but they’re still broken into.  It may be a deterrent, but it’s naive to think it’s preventing doping altogether, and it’s good to see that Ashenden is realistic enough to know this and that hopefully it will improve as a result.

Cycling’s Catch 22 situation and the ease of denial

Then finally, the second problem for cycling (and indeed in any sport, as Dwain Chambers showed two years ago), is that it’s very easy to dismiss “tell-all” confessions because the people they come from are by nature “untrustworthy”.

It occurred to me (and no doubt to many others) that cycling has a deniability problem, in that the people who are credible and trustworthy don’t know about the doping problem and how doping is done, whereas the people who know about the doping procedures are deemed as untrustworthy and lacking credibility.

Floyd Landis is too easy to dismiss as lacking credibility – he cheated, lied, spent a fortune of other people’s money to defend himself all through denials of ever having doped, and then promptly turned around and admitted to doping.  Of course, the obvious tactic, even if you hadn’t perfected it on half a dozen people before (ranging from a mechanic to a few journalists to a masseuse) is to attack credibility.  “I like our credibility” was Armstrong’s response to Landis’ claims – as one would when the person making the allegations is, by making them, incriminating himself as a liar.  The only problem is, he might be telling the truth.

And on that note, one of the best comments we’ve received, in three years on this site, came from Steve, and it deals with exactly this point.  I know that a lot of people don’t read the comments and so I am pasting his comments, in their entireity, below.  You can also read them at this post.

I’m not a scientist; but I have received law enforcement interrogation training. Landis’s initial denials of doping in 2006, when interviewed immediately following the revelations of his positive test from the TdF (and before being lawyered up), showed many of the classic signs of deception: unable to muster an emotional denial, assumed belief that no one would believe such a denial, and, most particularly, misplaced outrage–his most emotional response was directed to comments about his mother. “Leave her out of this,” he said (as memory serves). “She’s a saint. She would never get involved in stuff like this.” She wouldn’t; but he would. That Landis couldn’t muster outrage on his own behalf (“Hell no I didn’t!”) but could for his mother was a clear indicator of deception. Even in his colloquy with Greg Lemond, Landis reportedly said, he was concerned that a confession would only “hurt innocent people.” Tellingly, in the Bonnie Ford interview, Landis now says that the hardest part of his confession was calling his mother to tell her the truth.

So I believe that Landis was lying then, and that his confession regarding his own doping is truthful now. And I feel sorry for those who staked their own beliefs, and money, behind his defense. I also believe that the accusations Landis makes against other cyclists (he primarily names Americans in his emails to USA Cycling, as I understand it, because that body is responsible for the licensing of the American pros) are sufficiently credible and specific to merit serious consideration and investigation. I agree with the other posts that note that the details regarding the techniques of doping appear to be corroborated by the available public details of other confessed and contemporaneous dopers such as Patrick Sinkewitz. Any such accusations will, by and large, consist of one person’s detailed oral history–mob families have been brought down with less. Contemporaneous training diaries, as Landis suggests he has, could be very powerful evidence.

The sport of cycling has all the financial incentives in the world to push past practices under the rug and try to move on. But the fact that many riders of a dirty past continue to ride in the pro peleton, and have success, points to serious unanswered questions. Just ask the riders who compete against the Vinokourovs, Valverdes, and others of the world. It’s time for the sport to clean house.

About a top cyclist riding clean speaking out about suspicion of others’ practices: the history of omerta (the “code of silence”) and accusation in the sport suggests otherwise. For example Christian Vandevelde was asked a similar question about his strong ride at the 2008 TdF and the nature of his competitors. Vandevelde said that he didn’t know about other riders, he knew that he was riding clean, and so therefore assumed that others around him on GC were, as well. Vandevelde’s team published and allowed independent analysis of his year-long profile, to establish Vandevelde’s bona fides.

Of course, several of the performances around Vandevelde were not clean–including Bernhard Kohl, who finished ahead of Vandevelde on GC, as well as those of Stefan Schumacher, Leonardo Piepoli, and Ricardo Ricco, among others. But Vandevelde wasn’t in position to have evidence of those others’ practices. One can imagine the difficulty that a rider might have to make such accusations without proof against a competitor. Given the sordid history of the sport, one might also well imagine how difficult it would be if, say, someone were demonstrably riding clean now, but was aware of questionable practices in one’s own past. The riders and professionals associated with the current Garmin-Transitions team, which appears to be among those making the most effort to practice and demonstrate clean riding, are pointedly mute about their own past practices while on other teams. It’s the glass houses effect.

Even if always clean, throwing stones would damage the sport, reduce one’s own standing as a competitor, and yield little in reward. Ask, among others, Gilberto Simoni, who famously accused Ivan Basso of riding “like an extra-terrestial” at the 2006 Giro di Italia. While not accused of doping himself, Simoni was heaped with scorn and tagged as a sore loser; little was said or done to Simoni’s benefit when, just months later, Basso’s involvement in the Operation Puerto scandal became clear. Infamously, too, Fillipo Simeoni accurately accused Dr. Michele Ferrari in 2004 of being involved with doping; for his trouble, Simeoni’s presence in a break at the TdF was chased down. Simeoni was not rewarded for his accurate accusation.

Typically, knowledge of doping practices appears to come from first-hand knowledge–to know for certain what happened and where, one had to be directly involved. To accuse others with substantial evidence therefore typically means indicting oneself. The track record of cyclists who admit to doping regaining high-level employment in cycling is very poor–they have typically been shunned. The few who have gained some measure of a restored career are the exceptions that prove the rule. Most riders or team professionals with knowledge of doping practices–and there must be many, given what is confirmed about, just as examples, the old T Mobile team, Phonak, Saunier Duval, Festina, and many of the former members of US Postal-Discovery–must weigh the likelihood of ending their gainful employment in their chosen profession, and quite likely risking ruining the careers and endorsements of all of the people with whom they have been associated. Even, and perhaps paradoxically particularly, teams committed to “clean racing” such as T-Mobile-High Road, when faced with the Patrick Sinkewitz revelations, risk sponsor withdrawals over positive tests. The risks are high and the individual rewards are few.

In sum, the nature of the cycling community creates strong disincentive to defect from omerta and to display what one knows about doping practices, even if those practices are in the past, and the defections (those who admit doping practices and supply evidence against others) are, typically, those with nothing left to lose.

Those dynamics are little different from many criminal conspiracies, from drugs to racketeering to white collar crimes like price-fixing. As a prosecutor with the US Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division, I worked with agents and fellow prosecutors to encourage witnesses to defect from price-fixing conspiracies and cooperate with government investigations. There, too, the incentive to defect is low and the risks are high–those who admit to price-fixing subject themselves and their companies to criminal fines and imprisonment, as well as treble civil damages. Like in cycling, those individuals who “turn state’s witness” can be assured that they will never work in their chosen field again, and that they will be contributing to the ruination of everything and everyone around whom they have worked throughout their careers. The Antitrust Division offers an amnesty program to incentivize defection: immunity from criminal prosecution, de-trebled (single) damages for wrongdoing, legal protection for whistleblowers–even the opportunity for whisteblowers to share in the recoveries of certain ill-gotten gains. The system isn’t perfect, but it at least begins to provide incentives for conspirators to defect.

Until cycling properly incentivizes those with knowledge to come forward–for example, with protection from suspension, guarantees of employment on clean teams, and harsh penalties for teams and individuals that do not cooperate–the incentives for those who are dirty, and even those who are clean, to keep what they know silent will remain strong.

It could not be said better!


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