Judgement Day

Monday, 22 October 2012

Today sees the UCI hold a press conference to present its verdict on USADA’s reasoned decision. It’s a monumental day as we could see the results of the Tour de France from 1999-2005 overturned, the final pen stroke that strips Armstrong of his wins and maybe his status and dignity too. It’s true, the Tour de France never quite ends on the Champs Elysées, instead the result will be announced in the conference room of a Swiss hotel.

Until the conference begins all we know is that the press conference happens at lunchtime in Geneva, Switzerland and we will have UCI President Pat McQuaid, Chief Doctor Mario Zorzoli and Francesca Rossi the anti-doping official who sadly only appears on set-piece occasions. Ahead of this I wanted to think about the issues for consideration and things to look for and I’ve written a few down.

First let’s cover the basics of why this is happening:

  • USADA’s reasoned decision covers the Lance Armstrong case and if it shone a light on the practices within the US Postal/Discovery team the verdict is about Armstrong
  • The others involved in the conspiracy case have either already been banned or await arbitration hearings
  • The UCI has to validate or reject the reasoned decision regarding Armstrong
  • Note the verdict is not binary, the UCI doesn’t have to accept or reject the 201 page decision in its entirety, instead it can accept some points and reject others
  • If the UCI rejects the decision or points within it then it must take this to Court of Arbitration for Sport
  • The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is also reviewing the decision and will give its opinion shortly too

Probable Outcomes
The UCI can often surprise. But I think they will accept USADA’s decision to award Lance Armstrong a lifetime ban and delete his wins since 1998 because of the extensive sworn testimony and supporting evidence. After all, as The Boulder Report says “if it were appealing to CAS, why not just issue a press release rather than hold a press conference where they’d likely be crucified?” and I’d add why bring the scientists like Zorzoli and Rossi along if you intend to announce a decision on legal issues like jurisdiction and the rulebook?

I suspect they will refute allegations of cover-ups and deploy the medico-science staff to explain how, if Armstrong returned suspicious samples in EPO tests from 2001, this was distinct from an actual positive test where the threshold is higher. They are also likely to present a defensive case to explain why they were not able to catch the cheats but this is tricky because they won’t like to admit the system failed so comprehensively.

But this is just speculation, we’re trying to extrapolate the fact they’ve booked a conference and read info based on the panel of attendees. By contrast some things are certain. During summer USADA and the UCI played email tennis, arguing backwards and forwards about jurisdiction, at times joined by their doubles partners WADA and Armstrong’s lawyers. So the UCI could still try to keep up its challenge although now a verdict has been made public by USADA this would be a technical exercise in time-wasting that could somehow sink the UCI’s reputation just that bit more. We could also see the UCI seek to challenge the statute of limitations deployed by USADA but a CAS ruling has accepted that national agencies can invoke their national laws so the UCI again look bad for no obvious reason.

Journalist Richard Moore has speculated that they could try to appeal the reduced bans given to those who confessed and came forward to USADA and not to undo them but to extend them. This could let the UCI seem tough on doping but reduced bans are allowed under the WADA Code in return for “substantial assistance” so the CAS would have to debate whether confessions by, say, Zabriskie or Hincapie were substantial in assisting with the prosecution of Armstrong.

So Who Wins The Tour de France?
The rules are crystal clear that if someone is caught  then the runner-up is awarded the result. Only as we know, the large majority of overall contenders in the Tour de France and other races were on serious doping programmes. Therefore to award the Tour de France to another feels like we’re giving the race to someone who simply managed to avoid detection. Some are minded to leave the results blank, even Tour de France boss Christian Prudhomme has said this.

But I’m wary of retrospective rules, especially because if we change the rules for 1999-2005, let’s not kid ourselves the winners in, say, 1998 or 2006 were clean. Half of today’s problems stem from the UCI bending the rules to suit. Maybe it could stick to its rulebook and leave us to impose our prejudices? Those who get promoted to the Tour winner can hardly dine out on the news, don’t expect them to have the champagne on ice. In fact they will just feel more heat as the media asks whether they too used more EPO than a ward of chemo patients. Still here’s the list of runner-up riders:

1999 Alex Zülle
2000 Jan Ullrich
2001 Jan Ullrich
2002 Joseba Beloki
2003 Jan Ullrich
2004 Andreas Klöden
2005 Ivan Basso

Beware of promises from the UCI
Each time we’ve had a scandal in the past – and there have been many – the UCI says we need to look to the future and boasts cycling leads the way with anti-doping measures. Only it’s not worked. Bring in an EPO test and riders switch to blood doping. Introduce a stealth test for plasticizers and riders have switched to veterinary blood blood bags with different chemical composition or even glass bottles.

If there’s to be change, the UCI has to drop the old script and admit the polar opposite: the UCI must look to the past to learn as many lessons as possible and also recognise that all the anti-doping tests in the world can’t catch the cheats, they are just one tool to help rather than impregnable shield. Similarly watch out for the UCI calling for four year bans because maybe these help us forget the cheats but they probably only act as marginal deterrent. It’s detection, stupid.

The Sysmex espresso machine

Questions For The UCI
If the governing body is holding court today it is also a chance to put some questions to them. It’ll be interesting to see what they say but hopefully they do some Q&A with the media. As an academic exercise, here are some of the questions I would put:

  • Did they receive the unedited version of USADA’s reasoned decision? As other names are mentioned in the document with their identity blacked out, is the UCI seeking to investigate these people?
  • Similarly some names were not edited, for example information from Italy reveals large payments by Andrey Kasheckin and Alexander Vinokorov? Has the UCI began in investigation into this or instructed the Kazakhs to look into this?
  • It seems the UCI received $25,000 + $100,000 in donations from Lance Armstrong and companies connected with him. Is this the total sum received by the UCI and its officials?
  • If the UCI took $125,000 and bought a Sysmex analysis machine for $88,000 where did the other $37,000 go?
  • Have other riders made donations to the UCI and its officials?
  • As Martial Saugy claims, when Armstrong’s samples from 2001 and 2002 suggested possible EPO use did the UCI contact Armstrong about this? Did they follow up on this with more extensive and aggressive testing?
  • It’s judgement day for Lance Armstrong today but this reflects on the sport as a whole. Given we know the sport was full of systemic doping across several teams both before and after the Festina affair, would the UCI consider an independent investigation into this system problem to learn what went wrong for so long?
  • Each time we’ve seen scandals the UCI promises cutting edge anti-doping tests and expresses faith in a new generation of riders. What can the UCI do to suggest it can turn things around?

If you have any more questions, feel free to ad them below in the comments before the press conference starts.

Stages in the Tour de France begin with a neutral procession called the départ fictif and now it turns out even the finish can be fictional with the result taking more than a decade to be decided. We’ll finally get the UCI’s opinion on the USADA judgement and no matter what happens it will be controversial. Either numerous results from the sport are rewritten or the UCI risks an open war with WADA if it gets picky over jurisdiction, launching an appeal than could drag on into 2013 and beyond. Either way we can expect the UCI to defend itself.

Be careful when the UCI asks people to look the future because in the coming weeks we get the verdict on Frank Schleck and a hearing for Carlos Barredo. There are two criminal investigations in Italy – Padova and Mantova – and there is more to come in Spain with the Operation Puerto trial. In other words Lance Armstrong might be high profile history but big names in the sport today are still caught. Any move to the future has to learn from the past and embrace new methods that go well beyond the collection of urine and blood samples.

As much as we might want them, today’s not the day for sweeping reforms so don’t get your hopes up for massive change. Don’t expect Hein Verbruggen and Pat McQuaid to offer apology and resignations either. Things move slowly in Aigle. However the UCI is often behind the news and has to get ahead as questions on how to fix the sport and reform its governing body grow louder every day. How the UCI performs today will go a long way to setting the tone for the next few months and beyond.

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