Four year bans: prevention or exclusion?

Vino wins
Banned for four years, Vino would only come back in August 2011

I’d in favour of the UCI exploring the idea of four year bans. But I’m not sure if it will help clean up the sport that much. Instead, perhaps it just removes some of the cheats from circulation for longer?

Just as lengthening prison sentences doesn’t seem to correlate very well with reducing incidences of crime, a longer ban might not deter many dopers. After all, if the cost of getting caught goes up then all the more reason for the doping rider to employ sophisticated methods, to hire the best “doctors” in a bid to ensure they get away with it. There are tales of suspicious riders circumventing tests by constantly screening their blood to check for banned substances, to control haematological parameters and masking of an EPO misuse. By adjusting the dosages and methods apparently some ensure they can slip under the radar of detection. All this costs more but faced with a lengthy ban, the investment becomes more worthwhile.

Let me call my lawyer
We’ve also seen riders appeal in desperate all-or-nothing bids to clear their name. Even despite overwhelming evidence and a weak case some have not hesitated to call the Court of Arbitration for Sport. A longer ban would encourage more to think about exhausting every possible means to stay in the sport. This is fine, after all justice has to be done. But any moves to a longer ban would need to see the UCI and WADA make provisions for the legal fees and the sheer time spent sitting in Lausanne.

This isn’t to say long bans are wrong, more that they simply up the stakes and incentive a cheat to plan very carefully. But at the margin a longer ban could well make some riders think “I can’t afford this” and it helps.

For me the best advantage is that it simply pushes cheats away from the sport. Anyone caught “red-handed” in some serious cheating where there’s little ambiguity – ie no debate over contaminated foods – doesn’t come back for a while. It might give them the time to take up a new activity. This way the peloton would see fewer comebacks from cheats and the older generation of riders might not be populated with so many question marks.

The real key to preventing and catching the cheats is detection. A rider who knows he is very likely to be caught will not cheat. But the sport is already spending a small fortune on bio passports, regular testing, out of competition tests and more.

Four year bans can help but there’s an element of pleasing the fans and media. By removing riders from the sport for longer we remove painful reminders of their doping activities. But the ongoing anti-doping efforts must continue, especially if the ban length is not a great deterrent.

15 thoughts on “Four year bans: prevention or exclusion?”

  1. I have no problem with four-year bans, but i think the UCI (and WADA) need to get far more sophisticated in testing to avoid innocent riders copping unfair bans. The strict liability policy is now more difficult for a rider to manage than ever, given the ability to test for micro-amounts of substances found in everyday products. It would be shame for an accidental positive to get a four-year ban.

  2. The Pelican: yes, I’d like to see this for riders caught “red handed” with blood bags or evidence that is not in doubt. Easier said that actually defined for legal purposes but you know what I mean I hope.

    david b: thanks. I covered the subject of four year bans before at and my view, taken to the extreme, is that a one day ban is ideal so long as we can be sure of catching a rider every time they do something wrong. That way they’d never be able to start a race with so much of a single prohibited molecule inside them. As I say detection is the key, not the ban length. A long ban simple keeps the shady ones away and maybe lets us watch the sport without having to see “infamous” riders take wins.

  3. IR, a very good analysis. But it seems to me that under a proper system, WADA or an independent body should be making sentencing guidelines, not the governing bodies. Fix the system first, set the punishments second.

    A principle of criminology is in order for there to be a viable deterrent, punishment needs celerity; it must be severe, quick, and certain. This is hardly the case with the death penalty in the US, nor is it the case with doping violations in cycling.

  4. “The real key to preventing and catching the cheats is detection.” No, that’s absolutely worng. The best and perhaps only way to prevent cheating is to is to change the rules and make it more real and logic, for example banning auto-transfusions of blood is stupid: it makes a harmless, safe and common procedure dangerous. And if every rider could use his own blood to always have a high, healthy level of hematocrit legaly with the supervision of a doctor… there will be no point in using EPO, becouse the benefit would be very little.

  5. I completely disagree with the shorter bans. If you look at the NFL, it has done nothing to stop the use of PED’s. You need something punative that “scares” the cyclists from cheating. Shortening the ban does little to cause there to be a disincentive for doping, but will cause more sponsors to flee the sport (under the idea that more riders will feel the risk of doping is worth it).

    Unfortunately, the only way to tackle this is a two prong approach:

    A) UCI overall regulations on teams themselves as to who they can hire (Team Sky’s decision to hire former coaches/trainers with ties to past doping for example is something the UCI should phase out).

    B) Scare the hell out of the riders, especially the younger ones who have their entire careers in front of them.

    C) I guess the one issue with this approach is that as riders get older, they can become more brazen since in the impact of a ban from cycling is not at sever. A 34 year old rider is already in his golden years in the sport, and if the sees himself retiring after 2 more seasons, the ban is effectively reduces as he nears his own internal retirement point.

    However, the way to deal with this is to mandate that ALL past results will be wiped out. In this case, Contador is convicted by CAS would revert to a zero time winner of the Tour, a Zero time winner of the Giro and Vuelta as well. You need to wipe the rider from the books, to ensure that the impact from a doping infraction is more than just a two year extended training period.

  6. Visko:

    What you are proposing is asinine, and violates the spirit of the sport. Once you allow pharmacological and medical procedures to make-up and supplant natural born genetics and work effort, you are taking the sport down a bad path.

  7. Touriste-Routier: yes, the death penalty is the ultimate “ban” yet it doesn’t prevent that much crime. A lot of its existence has to do with signals, the emphasis society wishes to place and more.

    Visko: we’ll have to disagree. The trouble with legalised blood doping is that some riders would “top up” by too much and still find ways to gain an advantage on others. It’s not natural.

    ColoradoGoat: my short ban preference is based on a logic that that says no rider would ever cheat if they knew the chances of detection were 100%. Not 99% but 100%. That’s very different!

  8. “we’ll have to disagree. The trouble with legalised blood doping is that some riders would “top up” by too much and still find ways to gain an advantage on others. It’s not natural”

    Training and racing is neither natural nor healthy. Anyway, what i propose is a system that’s cares for the health of the rider, not some philosophical thought about what’s moral or not. You test the rider to have a hematocrit level below 50% (for example, it can be higher like in track and field), and supervise the use of auto-transfusions from doctors. That would improve the health of the riders while at the same time disencourega them of using other drugs. The same can be said about EPO, that’s harmless (i think) when it’s used in little dosis.

    “What you are proposing is asinine, and violates the spirit of the sport. Once you allow pharmacological and medical procedures to make-up and supplant natural born genetics and work effort, you are taking the sport down a bad path.”

    Well yeah, it’s much better to see a healthy young human being almost dead because a perfectly fine and secure procedure it’s outlaw (Ricco). Anyway, what “natural” means? Training is “natural”? Massages are “natural”? All the legal drugs and medicine in the sport is “natural”? Have we need to ban them all? Your ideas remind me a lot about witch-hunts and the prohibition.

    ColoradoGoat, what do you think of Merckx, Coppi, Anquetil and the likes? You know, all that cheaters and dopers, that even defended that doping isn’t bad at all. Do you want to erase them from the books as well?

  9. Visko,

    first of all – natural substances ingested through normal means is not doping. So protein supplements, herbs, vitamins etc… are natural, and for the most part, are not dangerous to one’s health. Once you need elaborate medical oversight, that is where I draw the line. Certain stimulants (such as caffeine) I can accept because the effects are benign and overall, financially this is not a burden for less wealthy teams or lower-level UCI riders.

    As for defending doping, not sure they were defending HGH and EPO use.

  10. Just my 5 pc worth of an opinion. In a very brief version.

    1. Education. The old are lost. The focus must lie on the youth not even getting the idea of cheating. Like giving them Aspirin or vitamin pills is already the wrong sign.

    2. The penalties for doping or the doping itself must hurt the riders financially. It must be too expensive to be worth the risk. There would still be some that would dope because of the fame or “higher” stuff than money, but in the end that is the point most people will finally hear.

    @ColoradoGoat: No, they were defending stuff with probably less effect and bigger health risks than EPO and HGH.

  11. Your assumption is that it is only a few people who are cheating and that by busting them, you can clean up the sport.

    However, if Landis’s interview with Kimmage reveals anything, it is that doping is very wide-spread in the pro peloton. Let’s game out what happens in such a case.

    As long as a significant percentage of the riders dope, there will be pressure on the rest to dope as well – and most of them will succumb to the pressure (if you busted your nuts your entire life to get to the top level, are you likely to just sit back on principle or are you likely to do what is commonplace in order to succeed? Maybe a few riders are willing to take the moral high ground, but most of them will simply *do what everyone else is doing* (never underestimate the power of this).

    So then again, doping only catches the few who are unlucky/make a mistake/whatever. Is that equitable? Not really. It will simply be one of the risks of the game, along with teams folding and career-threatening injuries that riders accept as part of being a pro rider.

    The only people who feel good about this are those who think that somehow doping is limited to only a handful of rogue riders.

    Btw, I see that the Dutch MTB pro who was busted for clenbuterol has been cleared as well. No shocks of horror at miscarriage of justice there?

  12. Correction – I didnt mean to imply a lack of reaction on YOUR part. I was just referring to the general lack of reaction from the typical English-speaking cycling fan on this.

  13. it’s nice to see another david b referencing my scribblings on the scientists website. obviously all of my proposal was not included in their post (they did suggest that i should post all my ramblings, but i felt they had already captured the essence. for this post i would just like to pick up on one further related item – the cycling fan. the issue is that their is clearly a fair proportion that are self righteous to the point of being puritancal. inrng – are you saying that you would have welcomed vino back this august with joy had he been given a 4 year rather than a 2 year ban? i have my doubts. and herein lies the problem.

    the fact is the doping tariff system is too rigid and uncompromising in its current form. the situation that i would like everyone to consider is that if you were to transgress a law today – say you were prosecuted and jailed for shoplifting. you then wake up tomorrow in your cell to find that you are sharing it with a psychotic mass murdering man-raping thug. in the eyes of reformers you are clearly considered the “same”. is that right? exogenous testosterone, HES, EPO, clenbuterol, HGH – all give rise to a 2 year ban. is that right? are they all the same?

    time to make the punishment FIT the crime, and time for the cycling fan to accept a punishment as final and move on. to err is human….

  14. beev: on Vino, no all I’m saying is that longer bans just delay the return so fans don’t have to confront the return of a cheat for longer. It takes the problem out of circulation but it doesn’t fix anything.

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