I don’t know much about Lawrence County in South Dakota but I bet they have a drugs problem. The idea of “zero tolerance” sounds good, no? But in fact the risk is that it only entrenches a problem rather than addressing it. Only forget narcotics, this is a cycling blog so let’s think EPO and steroids.
Team Sky have announced they will comb through their rider and staff list and ask them to sign a document stating whether they have had any past or present involvement in doping. It sounds right but could end up achieving the opposite of what’s needed, leaving the cheats in place and the team looking stupid.
Start with the obvious. If someone has avoided being caught do we think they will confess when presented with a pledge to sign? If they’ve been wiring money, transfusing blood and lying to their mother then a Sky-branded investigation might not flush them out.
There’s no incentive to step forward today. Should someone emerge with evidence to link them to doping in a few week’s time, they’re doomed but at least they’ll banked another month’s salary. So clean rider and arch-cheat alike will sign up to the declaration. This just leaves Sky with a mess, they told the world about pledges and investigations but risk a scandal.
In fact we’ve been here before. In the wake of the Puerto scandal, the UCI tried to get riders to sign up to a pledge called “Riders’ commitment to a new cycling“.
I do solemnly declare, to my team, my colleagues, the UCI, the cycling movement and the public that I am not involved in the Puerto affair nor in any other doping case and that I will not commit any infringement to the UCI anti-doping rules. As proof of my commitment, I accept, if it should happen that I violate the rules and am granted a standard sanction of a two-year suspension or more, in the Puerto affair or in any other anti-doping proceedings, to pay the UCI, in addition to the standard sanctions, an amount equal to my annual salary for 2008 as a contribution to the fight against doping.
Over 600 riders signed up but again if it sounds nice it doesn’t stand up. If a rider had managed to avoid being caught in aftermath of the Puerto investigations they’re not going to say “whoah, I cannot sign this because I am secretly involved with Puerto”. No, if they’ve been lying, avoiding detection in anti-doping controls and all the other deception then one extra signature on a sheet of paper is no worry, hey it’s just an autograph for the guys at the UCI. Worse, a cheating rider can even boast of signing this declaration to show the world just how clean they are, all whilst lying.
Which brings us to the second point, the matter of law. The UCI’s pledge included a promise to pay “my annual salary for 2008” if rousted. Pause for a minute. The full pledge is one sheet of paper and in no way resembles a binding contract. It doesn’t mention under which law the contract is governed, it doesn’t define salary and so much more. As such it is worthless, a PR stunt but one that could be exposed within three seconds. Hilariously the UCI actually went to the Court of Arbitration for Sport to get Alexandr Vinokourov to pay up a year’s salary but lost. If you think I’m being a bit harsh on the UCI here, here’s the CAS verdict:
The Panel concludes that the “Rider’s commitment for a new cycling”… constitutes an action directed to the public, the media, sponsors and the Tour de France organizer in order to regain public credibility and esteem for the sport of cycling
There’s also a second point of law to consider. If someone did dope in the past should they lose their job today? I depends if someone has hid this news before. When Team Sky “investigated” Michael Barry before he lied to them so when he confessed recently he had to go. But what if a team had not asked a rider or member of staff before? Take Levi Leipheimer who was sacked from Omega Pharma-Quickstep a couple of days ago after his admissions of doping were made public. Only he didn’t confess to breaking the rules whilst a member of the Belgian team, only to offences years ago when he was employed by other teams. Now in an ideal world Leipheimer would have been ejected from the sport years ago… but pro cycling and idealism? Leipheimer’s past was not hidden, it was an open secret that he was working with Dr Ferrari for years after leaving US Postal and even the UCI knew what he was up to, they just could not stop him. Perhaps there’s more to the story but until that’s revealed, ll the decision by OPQS does is incentivise tomorrow’s cheat never to confess because a mistake that’s been buried for a decade could come back and cost your job if you suddenly decided/are forced to do the right thing.
Another area of “zero tolerance” to explore is recruitment. New Swiss team IAM Cycling are building an exciting project for the future. In order to avoid being sucked into the vortex of dopage they say they won’t hire anyone with a scandalous past. Again it sounds good but in fact it just means they could hire a rider who has successfully avoided being caught for years. If a rider is then caught then the team looks stupid. Instead it should be saying “we’ll offer everything support to help riders compete clean”, from training to nutrition to the legal edges like mountain training camps or even team-branded altitude tents.
Whether it is Team Sky, Omerta Pharma-Quick Sack or new kids IAM Cycling, “zero tolerance” sounds good but it’s probably not the solution. There’s a grey area in the sport because for years riders and managers have got away with doping. This isn’t to say we get tolerant though. I don’t think Alexander Vinokourov should be given a big management job. I don’t want to single him out but he’s a handy example since he was caught blood doping in the Tour de France and has employed the services of both Dr Fuentes and Dr Ferrari. We should be intolerant of people like this.
So what do you do?
Let’s understand that written pledges are PR gimmicks. The CAS laughed at the UCI’s pledge, people are questioning Team Sky’s approach. Instead let’s admit that people make mistakes in the past but we can support them today. If people made the wrong choices at the wrong time, help them to make the right choices today.
The obvious exemplar is Jonathan Vaughters and his band of zealous anti-dopers. Before you leap to the comments, yes several riders are currently suspended on the team. But that’s the whole point. Riders like David Zabriskie and Christian Vande Velde have confessed to doping in the past but have since committed to cleaning up since they joined the Garmin team. The same is true for David Millar. And Thomas Dekker is the most provocative example. But as much as this team gets praise, let’s not forget the others.
In the late 1990s a team camper van belonging to FDJ was raided and vials of EPO were found sitting in the fridge. They belonged to a high profile rider on the squad. The sponsor was horrified but sat down with team manager Marc Madiot and agreed they’d fund the team so long as they kept it clean. No pressure for results, just the support to do it right. There are others too.
Transparency is the answer here. Teams should be open, welcoming journalists day or night. Now this doesn’t mean anyone can walk in all the time but if a few writers want to spend a week on Tenerife’s Mount Teide getting bored senseless watching riders log data into their powermeters then great. British journalist Lionel Birnie was “embedded” with the team for the 2011 Dauphiné. Team Sky in particular can win the PR battle with all their talk of rider support and sports science, if only they’d put this ahead if investigations.
Similarly the UCI could improve things here. It could publish its bio-passport data under anonymous names so those interested could review the data to look for patterns, effectively crowd-sourcing the job. Especially if coupled with a lot more testing we would have a valuable database to review. This is only one suggestion, it does not fix things but it helps. Similarly the UCI could try to learn from a scheme run in nearby Lausanne University. Called Windop, it was funded by WADA to help those caught find some redemption and recovery. Again it doesn’t fix everything but it breaks with the repressive stance and helps riders who are caught to come back, perhaps with a new attitude.
We know doping exists and should not tolerate it. But a zero tolerance policy risks being one that’s intolerant of people who got caught. As recent events have taught us, riders can complete a career of doping without detection. Therefore zero tolerance has the reverse effect, it incentivises extra deception.
Team Sky are caught, they are trying to do the right thing all whilst other teams don’t appear to give a damn, other teams merit much bigger scrutiny. But it feels worthwhile to point out how internal investigation will only the catch the obvious cases whilst others can got to ground.
Beyond Sky there are ideas for all. Instead of paper pledges we need structural ones. Instead of written statements by riders, a progressive team should be getting written statements… from journalists in their columns who praise them for the openness, whether sharing power data, discussing haematology or allowing full access to training camps and race hotel rooms. Paul Kimmage has done exactly this with Garmin. The good news is that this is all within the realm of the possible. It costs next to nothing and a small effort here can transform Sky’s PR from catch-up to leadership. Cynically it means the media wolf-pack heads off in search of others.
Finally none of this will clean up the sport. But let’s just start by admitting that zero tolerance and written pledges are a nice idea that actually risk backfiring.