Thursday, May 20, 2010

Fraud, cycling and Floyd Landis

This one is hot off the press. Last night, I received a news alert from the Wall Street Journal (of all places) that Floyd Landis finally admitted to have used illegal performance enhancing drugs as a cyclist. Because I race bicycles as a hobby, this was of interest to me. Not because it shattered any of my beliefs but because he finally admitted it. I posted a link to this news on Facebook and had a former student friend ask me what I think. I thought I'd share it here since it definitely is fraud relevant.

I've been 99.9% sure that ALL the very top racers have been doping for the past 15-20 years. Actually, I wouldn't be surprised if fairly widespread use goes back nearly 50 years. This includes Lance in the past 20 years and Eddy Merckz in the past 50 years. In fact, books have been written about drug abuse in pro cycling going back to the beginning when athletes used cocaine to race. (Wikipedia documents allegations going back to 1886!) The 0.1% chance is that Lance is such a freak of nature that he could beat all the dopers!

As you might guess, I've thought about this topic in terms of the fraud triangle. The fraud triangle is like the fire triangle which says that if there is heat, oxygen and fuel you have fire. In fraud terms, if there is a perceived pressure or motivation to commit fraud, a perceived opportunity to commit the fraud and the person's character allows them to rationalize the fraud then you have fraud.

We might ask: Is there pressure: absolutely--huge pressure. Winning even a stage in the Tour de France can be huge for a pro cyclist's career. It's like being the MVP in one of the NBA finals games. The pressure is great in America but probably even higher in Europe where being a pro cyclist is about like being in the NBA in America. In less developed countries like Columbia or the former Soviet bloc countries, the pressure is even higher.

Now, combine these incentives with the fact that others are using drugs and the pressure becomes a decision to either be a pro and use drugs or don't use drugs and forget about being a pro. As evidence that this pressure exists, Floyd Landis allegedly said:

“I did what I did because that’s what we (cyclists) did and it was a choice I had to make after 10 years or 12 years of hard work to get there; and that was a decision I had to make to make the next step. My choices were, do it and see if I can win, or don’t do it and I tell people I just don’t want to do that, and I decided to do it."
Moreover, we know large groups of the peloton have been caught before. Recently, there was the huge case where nearly all the top-level racers were implicated in what is now known as "Operation Puerto." This case involved a Doctor Fuentes who was reported to run a clinic that provided illegal doping to over 200 athletes.

Just like a smart fraud perpetrator will conceal his fraud from a typical audit, Fuentes was quite careful to not keep detailed records of his athletes. Instead, Fuentes used codenames when he recorded what the athletes were using. For example, I remember reading that Tyler Hamilton's codename was the name of one of his beloved dogs. Because Fuentes was careful to "doctor the books," some athletes were able to defend themselves against the charges because of spotty evidence. Others just resigned and didn't try to fight it. For example, after Jan Ullrich (the man Lance Armstrong said he feared the most and who finished 2nd to Lance multiple times) was implicated in Operation Puerto he retired from racing.

There have been numerous other instances over the past few decades where professional cyclists were found or admitted to have doped. For example, former American Pro cyclists Greg LeMond, Andy Hampsten and Frankie Andreu have come out in public and said that doping was widespread in the pro peloton going back into the early 1990s. Greg Lemond said that when EPO came out in the early 1990s he came back from the off season and the peloton was flying so fast that he couldn't keep up with them. This was after he had won the Tour de France a few times! Thus, I believe the pressure is immense and necessary in order to be at the top of pro cycling.

Is there opportunity: also an absolute yes. We have evidence of abundant opportunity in other sports with clinics set up for the sole purpose of giving athletes performance enhancing drugs. For example,
the California clinic that supplied steroids and human growth hormone to track stars and professional baseball players. The Mitchell Report documents much of this. As for cycling, Operation Puerto comes to mind along with other doctors who have a reputation for providing drugs to pro cyclists such as Michele Ferrari who worked with Lance Armstrong and other top pros and once said publicly that: "EPO is not dangerous, it's the abuse that is. It's also dangerous to drink ten liters of orange juice."

I'm almost certain that athletes can easily find many opportunities to obtain performance enhancing drugs. According to Landis, the teams he raced on made them available. This combined pressure and opportunity puts the weight of the decision all on the athlete's character or his ability to rationalize.

In addition to opportunities to obtain the drugs, there has to be an opportunity to avoid detection. Just as in financial fraud, the way to avoid detection is to know what the auditor is looking for and find a way around it. Many doctors have commented that this is not hard to do. Moreover, the tests for new drugs are often lagging the release of the drug by several years. Recently, the pros have had to give permission to have their old blood samples tested for several years afterward. This change was made when they started going back and finding EPO and other drugs when they used new tests in old blood samples. Last year, a test for a fairly new drug that performed like EPO came out and several cyclists were found to have used it. This, after the Operation Puerto scandal was supposed to have led to cleaning up the sport! All the fraudster needs is a doctor who understands the tests and he will be able to avoid detection.

As for character, it would take tremendous strength to resist this pressure and opportunity. Athletes are not generally known for their ability to resist ethical dilemmas! Sports Illustrated did a survey of Olympic athletes a few years back and asked them: If you had the opportunity to take a drug that would guarantee a gold medal but also guarantee your death in five years would you take it? Over 70% said yes!

I personally can't imagine too many pro-level athletes resisting this type of pressure and opportunity. What is somewhat amazing however is when amateur athletes are found to have doped. Recently, Kenny Williams, an amateur cyclist who was one of the very top American masters-level racers admitted to doping. It seems reasonable to me that if Kenny Williams gave in to drug use, many of the pros have also given in. Imagine, everyone is using it, your team manager makes it available to you and you find you need that extra 10% just to keep up. This is your job, your career and you have the chance to make it big. Your doctor says it's no more dangerous than orange juice! What would most pro cyclists do?

Given this analysis, Floyd's confession is not surprising at all to me and his allegations regarding Lance, Levi, Zabriskie, Bruyneel, Hincapie, and Rhis are also not surprising. Sadly, what would be surprising to me is if someone who is dominating pro cycling such as Alberto Contador was actually not doping!

1 comment:

  1. Well put, Mark. I always expected a high-profile cyclist to eventually come forward and tell his whole story. And I figured that such an event would lead to a major cleanup in the sport. But so far, the typical reaction in the cycling world (from the fans as well as the athletes and managers) seems to be anger at Landis and denial of his claims.

    It's true that Landis has seriously damaged his credibility over the last few years, but his current accusations are too specific and too plausible to be dismissed easily, if at all.

    Landis's revelations may end a few careers (though they probably won't), but I don't think they will lead to significant changes any more than Operation Puerto did. And I think that's sad.