Saturday, October 9, 2010

How can Doping in Cycling be Cleaned Up?

I had a reader recently ask me why I don’t blog about ways to clean up pro cycling. Unfortunately, I have not seen a lot of news about ways to clean up cycling. I’ve been looking for ideas and thinking about how to prevent other forms of fraud and decided to throw together a few thoughts. I’m sure my thoughts are initial ideas at best so, in doing so, I hope the rest of you will add comments below or send us an email if you have other ideas. Here are my initial thoughts...

One of the key changes that I would like to see is to the organizational structure of pro cycling. A main problem results from the fact that the UCI is currently trying to fulfill two conflicting roles. One role is that of promoting the sport and the other is that of disciplining cheaters. The conflict of interest results because disciplining cheaters can cause the sport to lose respect. Thus, the UCI does not want someone like Alberto Contador or Lance Armstrong to be found guilty of doping. We have allegations that the UCI has not handled these dual roles very well in reports that Contador was told by the UCI that his clenbuterol was caused by a steak and that they wanted to keep his test results under the radar if possible. 

Allegations against the UCI related to Lance Armstrong are even more serious with documented cases of preferential treatment where riders on Armstrong’s team were given a warning and even extra time which allowed them to conceal their doping. The most serious allegations include bribes in the form of payments from Lance to the UCI in order to make doping tests go away.

This dual role of the UCI needs to be changed such that an independent agency is given full authority to investigate doping charges and report their findings publicly. The agency could be funded by charging fees from each pro team and should be accountable to a pro cycling rule enforcing agency who has the sole charge of cleaning up the sport. Funding for this agency would come from the teams that want to race with pro licenses and would be guaranteed. The teams would have no role in governing this agency.

Another key change that I think needs to happen is that the Sporting Directors (or Directeur Sportifs in French—hereafter DS) that have managed the athletes for the past decade need to be retired. We need a new breed of management who has not been involved in this current, corrupted, culture. I would like to say that only those who have ties to doping should lose their jobs but I don’t think we can safely determine if any of them have been innocent. I think they have collectively failed the sport. They all knew or should have known that doping was widespread and they should have spoken up and vigilantly fought it. Instead, we see DS's coming to the rescue when a top athlete is found doping. Since they didn’t fight the doping, they all need to go. Until they go, there will be an element of a corrupted culture that will likely come back to life in future doping.

From a practical perspective, this may be hard to do. So, as a more practical alternative, they should ban any DS from the sport if he has ever had any athlete on his team caught doping. Also, in the future, whenever an athlete is caught doping, the DS should be banned from the sport unless the DS is instrumental in helping catch the athlete doping. This would make the DS focus heavily on only hiring athletes that he trusts and making sure he is looking closely at any signs or allegations that an athlete may be doping. It would also make it hard for an athlete who has been caught doping to get back into the sport since most DS’s would be hesitant to risk their career on a former doper.

This gets to the third change I would like to see. Essentially, I would like to see the penalty for doping be more serious whenever the evidence is clear cut. For example, if an athlete fails an EPO or CERA test, they can’t blame it on a steak so, they should be done for the rest of their life! Not only that, but they should lose every award they ever received. From every yellow jersey and olympic gold medal to every top 20 placing in any local race should be wiped out of the record books and an annotation should replace it that says something like: "Johnny Doper was caught using EPO and therefore his placing in this race has been rescinded." Essentially, if an athlete who is caught doping won any races in the past—even if it was a decade or two prior—they should be stripped of any awards since we don’t know if they were doping back then.

Last, I like the fact that they test prior samples as they develop new tests. This should remain and the sport should use more resources to find new ways to detect doping. They should constantly be looking for new tests and springing them on cyclists without warning. They should also be thinking of ways to detect concealed doping from prior years. One key to finding fraud is maintaining an element of surprise. Athletes should be given no warning that they are being tested and anyone who stalls at taking test (e.g., like Lance Armstrong did in March 2009 when he disappeared for over 20 minutes) should be considered guilty and given a maximum penalty. Whenever the detection method becomes predictable, a fraud perpetrator can find ways to conceal his fraud. Cycling needs to work harder at being unpredictable.

These are my initial thoughts. Some will think they are extreme but I believe extreme corruption calls for extreme correction. I think the daily revelations of new cyclists being caught doping and the numerous pro cyclists (since Floyd Landis first brought a lot of it to light) who have reported that the culture is corrupted are clarion calls that something drastic has to change if we who love this sport are to have any hope that the pro ranks will be cleaned up. Furthermore, I haven't even mentioned the doping that appears to be happening at the amateur levels as we are learning from the Joe Papp investigation where amateurs are being implicated in doping charges. It all starts at the top of the sport and if that isn't cleaned up then the pressure will percolate down to those trying to make their way up. 

Let me know what you think in the comments or send me an email:


  1. I think the team of a rider caught doping should be suspended and not allowed in races after the fact,Peer pressure is a powerful force.
    I would be very pissed if my lively hood was at risk by a fellow rider.
    also sponsors need to threaten legal action against team owners doctors and DS and the rider caught.

  2. I see that we now have the "ability" to test frozen/preserved samples, but are we actually DOING retrospective testing? I know that riders must now agree to retroactive testing with their current contracts, but the organizing bodies need to actually request it (and I presume, pay for it), don't they?

    I'm not sure what year the retroactive testing hit the books, but it's been fairly recent.

  3. Unfortunately, the current state is sad. The UCI is the absolute authority at the top levels, and their past behavior is clear. They do not care to make doping go away as much as they want to make doping "positives" go away. When Dick Pound was in charge of WADA, he used to openly challenge their resolve (because it was so obviously poor).

    What makes this so frustrating is that we can all have really intelligent and lively debates on how to best solve this (and we can come to some really potentially effective conclusions), but we all know, deep down, that the UCI really has no interest in listening to us or really "doing" anything. The UCI only feels pressure from 3 main sources: 1) The media, 2) The IOC, and 3) Sponsors of the sport and organizers like the TDF, Vuelta and Giro.

    Perhaps what we really need here is a hastened "death" of the sport, so that the UCI can be eradicated and a new organizational structure can emerge. Most of Mark's suggestions are fantastic. I also agree with co-punishing a doper's team (they used to do that, what happened?). But (unfortunately) none of them will be adopted. We'll never get rid of DS's like Bruyneel and Riis, as the UCI is merely a large collection of interests such as theirs. The UCI must "want" significant change, and I think we all know that they like things just the way they are.

    The UCI believes that "we" (the public) believe that they're doing a lot to catch dopers these days, that they have them on the run, and that recent events such as the Tour, are now mostly clean events. Each year, they throw a few lower-tier riders under the bus, go back-and-forth a few times, and move on with the fraud that they're perpetrating.

    The UCI is holding our sport hostage, and we need to either find a way to take it back, or we need to "break" it and start anew.