‘Dopers’ and the rest: a case for splitting professional cycling

What should the UCI do to move cycling on from the Lance Armstrong affair? EPA/Guillaume Horcajuelo

More than a week after the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) published 1,000 pages of testimony and anecdotal evidence implicating Lance Armstrong in a controversial doping scandal, the saga is still far from over.

Several long-time Armstrong sponsors, including Nike and bike company Trek, announced overnight (AEST) they would terminate their support for the seven-time Tour de France winner.

In the face of the Armstrong affair, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) – cycling’s governing body – is confronted with the issue of how to proceed with the least damage to the sport of cycling. Quite simply, how can cycling (and sport more generally) move forward from the Armstrong affair?

An endemic problem?

The Armstrong case, perhaps more than any other episode in the past decade, has shone a light on the issue of systematic doping in professional cycling. Former Armstrong teammates – including recently sacked Australian selector Matt White – and prominent cycling greats – such as Michael Barry, Floyd Landis, George Hincapie and Tyler Hamilton – have in recent years also admitting to doping.

Why, then, has the UCI been reluctant to join USADA in punishing Armstrong?

Could it be that the UCI recognised Armstrong as a great athlete who raised the popularity of the sport, and who simply did what everyone else in cycling was doing (doping), only better (systematically and without getting caught)?

On ABC TV’s 4 Corners program on Monday night, Dick Pound, former president of the World Anti-doping Agency (WADA) suggested former UCI president Hein Verbruggen once told him doping in cycling is a necessity because spectators expect thrilling and incredible athletic performances.

Assuming the UCI’s main motivation is to attract fans and protect cycling’s brand, and not to embark on an anti-doping crusade, how should the organisation proceed?

Moving forward

Cycling Australia President Klaus Mueller has suggested there are many options, including criminalising doping offences. Another option, according to Mueller, is to offer an amnesty for athletes “who have cheated in the past to own up to any wrongdoing and have their confessions mitigate any subsequent penalties.”

(This, as discussed by Martin Hardie on The Conversation previously, is not the first time Mueller - or other cycling officials - has seemingly taken conflicting stances on anti-doping matters.)

The Australian Sports Commission (ASC) chief executive Simon Hollingsworth has responded to Mueller, arguing that calls for an amnesty are premature and that such a move would undermine the “message that any doping is unacceptable.”

Hollingsworth might be right in that amnesty may at first seem like a soft response to doping. But participants seeking amnesty may provide more robust information about the incentives and networks that contribute to doping.

Benefits of amnesty

Of course, this process has its shortcomings, just as current methods of punishment do. For instance, amnesty alone may not provide enough incentive for those who don’t think they will get caught – arguably like Lance Armstrong – to come forward.

However, if used in the future as part of a clearly articulated and tiered process – that is, one in which more severe punishments and sanctions are used only after other tactics are exhausted – amnesty or another form of reduced punishment could offer a step for regulators to employ before mechanisms applied in the Lance Armstrong case become necessary.

These tactics (or, as Lance Armstrong puts it, a witch hunt) have been criticised as unfair and questionable in motive, not to mention costly.

Including an amnesty-style truth and reconciliation process would provide a way to actively address a doping rider’s - and accomplices’ - actions while also eliciting information that could enhance future regulation.

Testimonial evidence could lead to the punishment of repeat offenders and suppliers or even prompt other athletes to come forward. It would also give sport participants the opportunity to come clean rather than being found dirty.

But an amnesty may have a huge impact on the brand of cycling.

Puritanical fans may turn away from the sport in disgust at the tell-all exposé. Hardcore fans hooked on heroic, drug-fuelled performances may not care about the extent of doping, but may leave the sport when those heroic performances become fewer and further between.

Finding a better way?

One way forward may be to look at what other sports have done. In response to the widespread use of performance-enhancing substances and methods (PESM), bodybuilding has developed two streams for athletes: a “natural” camp where athletes are tested for drugs; and another “excellence” camp where athletes are not tested for drugs and are free to use (or not use) any PESM.

Adopting a similar two-stream approach for cycling may appease both camps of cycling fans. A two-stream system may provide athlete peer-pressure for cyclists in the “natural” camp to stay clean. A “don’t-ask, don’t-tell” policy in the “excellence” camp might also result in less damage to the sport’s brand.

There may be many reasons why doping in any sport occurs, from financial factors to spectator expectations to other cultural norms. Regardless, until we have a better understanding of the phenomenon and an evidence-based approach to deal with the issue, the current anti-doping regime is largely inefficient and possibly doomed to fail.

Under current regulation, there are notable and problematic extremes. Sanctioning minor offences – such as inadvertent doping and nonperformance-enhancing recreational drug use – is unfair to well-intending athletes, while expending huge resources on a selected few athletes risks missing many others and is not a judicious use of resources.

Further, while criminalising doping in sport may seem appealing, WADA’s required application of the Strict Liability Standard, whereby a guilty mind (mens rea) is not a necessary component of the guilty act (actus reus), places an unfair burden on the athlete.

If inadvertent doping in sport is a criminal act, imagine the insurance premiums for participating in such high-risk activities!

Benefits of a tailored system

Developing a two-streamed and tiered system for doping regulation is a significant task, but it may be necessary for sports such as cycling.

Regardless of the specific form it takes, a tailored approach could have the capacity to:

  • treat athletes as participants in the process
  • better address minor offences as distinct from more severe ones
  • target a range of actors, including individuals and organisations
  • reward offenders’ honesty, and
  • provide space to evaluate context and the limitations of scientific testing.

All of these factors would improve regulation.

At this time it may be prudent for everyone to stop and contemplate the larger issues surrounding cycling and sport more generally. Professional sports are fuelled by their entertainment value, and rules exist to enhance sport, not undermine it. When rules are introduced, the reasons need to be carefully considered.

Perhaps it is time to stop focusing on all the smoke around doping and to look more closely at the various forces in the background fanning the flames.