Having been away for two glorious weeks without internet I missed the news of the UCI’s independent commission, UCIIC, being set up to investigate issues and allegations arising out USADA’s verdict on Lance Armstrong.
Now this body is seeking evidence here some evidence to suggest the UCI publicly rejected an obvious and easy method to catch cheats.
Here’s a story to chew on.
Amongst the terms of reference for the UCIIC is the following:
3. Whether, and if so, to what extent the UCI’s anti-doping policies and procedures between (i) 1998 and 2005 and (ii) 2005 and 2012, were inadequate or were not enforced with sufficient rigour; and if so, whether the UCI was at the time aware, or ought to have been aware, of such inadequacy or lack of enforcement.
The UCI likes to say it led the way in anti-doping. For example:
- introducing a haematocrit test before other sports ahead of an EPO test
- extensive testing, often far in excess of any other sport whether in absolute or relative terms
- establishing the bio-passport
Only there’s a pattern here because each time the UCI had to take these measures because things were out of hand. Doping was endemic. It’s why we’ve seen blank results for the Tour de France after Lance Armstrong was stripped of his results, you have to dig down into the results to find a clean winner.
So the question for the UCIIC is whether the UCI was taking reasonable steps to prevent doping. Yes testing is a part, the toxicological process of searching for banned molecules is essential. But we know the cheats are often one step ahead of the testers. Within no time of an EPO test emerging Michele Ferrari found a way around it by injecting the hormone direct into the veins rather than the recommended subcutaneous route. And once the bio-passport was launched others discovered ways to game the system with microdoses and altitude training.
So if the UCI was always playing catch-up with the cheats what could it do about this? Well it could wait and play catch up. How? Just let time pass until a test is available and then go and test the stored samples from past races. Only the UCI explicitly rejected this. In an interview with the Associated Press in October 2008 President McQuaid ruled out retrospective testing:
“From the UCI’s point of view, we prefer to look forward rather than look backward. To randomly say ‘OK, let’s take all the samples from 2007 from the Tour de France and put them all through testing processes’ … it’s futile, it’s expensive and it’s not going to serve the purpose in the anti-doping fight of today.”
“If we’re going to start rejigging the podium of every major international race over the past two or three years, by finding new tests for new products, and going back to the organizer and saying ‘you’ve got to rejig your podium’ .. it makes a complete mockery of sport.”
I remember the quote from the time caused a storm. Time after time the UCI has said it wants to look forward rather than backward, in fact at the last annual congress in October passed a motion to this effect. But this is the procedural equivalent of sweeping dirt under the carpet, of letting dirty dishes stack up in the kitchen.
Indeed the story caused a fuss and McQuaid had to clarify his point. Speaking to cyclingnews.com he said he was asked about testing all the samples from, say, the 2007 Vuelta and rejected this because it was too much – although his original quote referred to the podium and not everyone – and also that you cannot retest samples stored in a lab for research purposes, there must be proper protocol with sealed B-samples and all that. But whilst McQuaid cleared up the need for protocol and other details he still came out and rejected the principle again:
“The reason I said it would make a mockery of the sport is that if a new product comes on the market, and because of that you decide to do all the tests you did last year and the year before. If you find some positives you are suddenly going back to the organiser and telling them that they better re-jig their podium…. …At some point in time you have got to take a pragmatic decision. That is why the UCI’s view is that we want to look forward, we want to progress. The scientists that are working on the biological passport tell me that this is the way forward and this will greatly assist us in the fight against doping. That is more important than retesting all of the samples of last year’s Tour de France for a product which, to the best of my knowledge and going by all the information we have on the field, wasn’t even available last year”
In short if you can retest for a new banned molecule you should not and busting dopers was still something to be avoided in case it embarrasses the UCI and the big races. So much for the clarification.
Yet, along with prevention, catching cheats and stripping them of results is what the anti-doping mission is all about. The UCI knew it was behind the cheats but here is the President rejecting the chance to at least try and get them after the event.
Now McQuaid’s right. It does cause trouble when you kick riders off the podium, it does make a mockery. Just ask Christian Prudhomme, Javier Guillén and Michele Acquarone who have seen the final podium changed in each of their grand tours thanks to positive doping tests, it’s the last thing you want. But the villain here is not the UCI for telling a race to re-engrave the trophy, it’s not even the sport which looks silly. It’s the cheats.
You can also wonder about one line within McQuaid’s statement. Here it is again:
If we’re going to start rejigging the podium of every major international race over the past two or three years
Every major international race? He seems to imply that retests could expose widespread doping. Now let’s not get too forensic on the quote, I’m more interested in the conceptual idea of rejecting retrospective test rather than guessing scale of the problem and the number of races involved. But it does suggest the UCI might have feared the scandal was so scary it didn’t want to start asking too many questions.
Still whether it’s one race or all it causes problems but McQuaid’s refusal here is an implicit green light to riders to experiment with cutting-edge doping practices because cycling’s most senior official broadcasts they’ve got a window in time to exploit it. On a strategic level McQuaid should have said the opposite and scared dopers with talk of banks of lab freezers humming the night as they store a rider’s blood and urine until the day every molecule and marker can be detected. Even only a few select samples were stored it might have deterred a marginal case or two.
Finally retrospective testing is neither new nor unavailable to the sporting authorities because of law or science back in 2008. As the UCI President spoke out against retroactive testing, somewhere else samples from the Beijing Olympics were being stored on behalf of the International Olympic Committee for the specific purpose of retests, and all with the accord of WADA too. In fact it caught a big name cyclist as six months later road race silver medallist Davide Rebellin (pictured) was caught, along with Bahrain’s 1500m gold medal winner Rashid Ramzi, German cyclist Stefan Schumacher, Greek walker Athanasia Tsoumeleka and Croatian runner Vanja Perisic. It could be done, it was done.
Indeed it was later done by France’s anti-doping agency on the samples of 17 riders from the 2008 and everyone got the OK. The good news is that this practice is now accepted and the UCI seems to have dropped its objections.
Doping was rife and often the UCI did the best it could. The UCI gets flack yet often it was powerless: with no test for EPO how could it catch those abusing the hormone? In fact the UCI dedicated a sizeable amount of money to funding research into a test. Short of hiring private detectives to put riders under covert surveillance the only practical policy is one of sit and wait, banking samples until the day arrives when a test is ready.
Retrotesting is imperfect. In an ideal world a system would detect banned substances immediately. But since that doesn’t exist, retrotests have a role and the WADA rules allow for the authorities to test up to eight years backwards although science probably means storage is an issue.
Such tests are not a binary option, you don’t have to reject the principle outright, nor embrace it in full and store every sample every collected. You can opt to discreetly store a few samples for example the top-10 in a grand tour. You can even scare riders by the threat of storing samples. But telling the world you won’t act was a strange choice.
If the UCIIC wants to explore whether the UCI’s policies were inadequate, here’s a public example. I’m sure they’ll get confidential submissions and insider accounts but here’s one case that’s still an uneasy read. Whilst others were storing samples the UCI rejected this in such explicit terms that it might even have helped the cheats sleep better at night.