As athletics stumbles around in the dark, or should that be stumbles because they’re wearing a blindfold, it’s different watching another sport get the treatment normally reserved for cycling. In fact so far this year we haven’t had a major doping scandal, to the point that the sport almost invented one in a reflex action.
Not that cycling should gloat or enjoy the Schadenfreude because it’s still in the shadows. On Russian doping alone Katusha’s actually been stripped of its licence before, a greater fall than Astana, the Rusvelo team was the first to self-suspend under the MPCC’s voluntary code and more. But of course this is not limited to Russia.
There have been doping cases this year. Frenchman Lloyd Mondory bagged a lot of top-10 places over the years but never really made a name for himself much beyond his native Cognac region. Now he’s infamous as the first ever cyclist to get a four year ban after being rumbled for EPO. Yet this never scored high on the dopage Richter scale.
Ditto Luca Paolini who bought a ticket to ride the white line highway and was ejected from the Tour de France in flash. Tom Danielson’s case rumbles on with talk of a contamination claim but he will need strong proof to escape this, beyond him the case was humiliating for the team but not fatal despite previous throwaway claim that the team could fold. That’s it for the World Tour and there have been more small fry cases, think of the minnow Francesco Reda challenging Vincenzo Nibali for the Italian championships before the inevitable catch and Southeast may have changed its name for 2015 but the annual EPO roust doesn’t. So far, and there’s still time, there’s not been a noted scandal that’s earned an “affair” label, à la Festina nor a story worthy of the -gate suffix.
In fact the closest we’ve come to a big scandal is the Astana licence saga. At times it looked as if some people almost wanted this to be a big deal, adding up the positives from the Astana development team to the World Tour team in a bid to amalgamate it all into a doping high score with bonus points for La Gazzetta saying Michele Ferrari had been spotted at an Astana camp but without supplying any evidence. Even the UCI President Brian Cookson got carried away when the UCI went public in saying it found something inside the team so horrible that the team had to stop:
“UCI strongly believes that it contains compelling grounds to refer the matter to the Licence Commission and request the Astana Pro Team licence be withdrawn”
Not stripping one or two individuals of accreditation, this was the governing body saying the audit had thrown up something so grave the entire squad had to be taken down. Sure enough the Licence Commission proved its independence and let the team ride on and in the wake of it all we learned the team’s problems were cultural concerns like language barriers, poor training supervision and other factors that could leave riders feeling marginalised and by extension vulnerable to the siren calls of “doctors” or dealers. So no doping, just a bad workplace but this would show up if they audited more teams as close. Astana should have treated their ISSUL audit more seriously but the UCI’s public shaming compounded the team’s pantomime villain image.
At times we’ve seen 2+2=>4 moments. Fabio Aru’s reported illness before the Giro was cited alongside his former U23 manager The Tour de France as a sign that something could be suspect. The Tour de France saw a battery of allegations following Chris Froome and Ritchey Porte’s 1-2 at La Pierre St Martin but it was a very unsatisfying moment. If you think think they’re clean this was a muckspreading exercise; if you think they’re doping it’s probably not the proof you crave. Team Sky took part with a small data release but it was inconsequential and rather like a combat helicopter firing a decoy flare to lure away an incoming missile. Sky dodged the heat but it was a handful of data points rather than a scientific rebuttal. Still it’s spurned Chris Froome into lab tests, the results of which are due out in early December. Meanwhile Lance Armstrong’s woes are legal issues that don’t touch on sport and therefore it’s easy to avoid.
The “war on doping” is a silly phrase but its battles continue and one side combat is the tension between the UCI and the MPCC. The voluntary group gets terrible PR despite its good work. It keeps pioneering new ideas like the no-needle policy, rest periods for cortisone and the UCI ends up importing the policy. The MPCC bans Tramadol and now the UCI want to follow suit too, if only WADA would cooperate. So far so good but when a governing body, in other words the rule-setter, looks lite compare to a voluntary code it grates with the “we’re doing all we can” vibe.
Another proxy war is over the ISSUL audit with some teams pushing back against the intrusion. It’s said to be over trade secrets, to ensure a consequential deterrent should ISSUL staff leak details to rival teams but the risk is this is seen as rejecting the costly audit.
The UCI has also set-up it’s new “independent” anti-doping body. Good but the CADF is funded by the UCI and is based in the UCI’s HQ making it rather dependent. Still it gives more space operationally. Another promised reform is the turbo tribunal which the UCI is setting up to resolve doping cases faster than national federations or agencies. There’s no word on this but it should be ready.
There are squabbles but things are heading in the right direction. Even teams that don’t want to join the MPCC – Dave Brailsford says no, citing the MPCC’s refusal to adopt zero tolerance – should be asked if they’d sign up at least to voluntary cortisone rest periods and Tramadol testing.
There’s been no major doping scandal in the sport this year, a remarkable point. But is an achievement or just a statistical blip? The time to draw conclusions is several scandal free years. Doping of course hasn’t gone away away and there’s been a slew of positives across the lesser ranks. It’s just that there’s not been a big scandal. The biggest story turned out to be a non-story, the team of the reigning Tour de France winner was at one point considering its future only to be cleared to ride. Still, it’s only November.