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The Explainer – What happened to the lifetime ban?

By Charles Pelkey

Ten years is probably more than enough in Jeanson's case.

Ten years is probably more than enough in Jeanson’s case.

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

Dear Explainer,
I read with interest the story about Tyler Hamilton’s eight-year suspension from cycling. In the article you mention also that Geneviève Jeanson accepted a 10-year ban for her second doping violation.

While I am not necessarily the vindictive type, I was hoping for the full penalty. I’d rather not see any of these people back in the sport when my kids grow up and decide to take up competitive cycling. It was my impression that when WADA started the lifetime ban was mandatory for a second violation. While eight- and 10-year suspensions are serious, wasn’t the life-time ban cast in stone?
Alan Banks
Parma, Ohio

Dear Alan,
You’re correct in saying that when the World Anti-Doping Agency was originally conceived in 1999, the proposed penalties were quite simple: two years for a first offense and a lifetime suspension from sport for a second violation.

WADA was formed, in part, due to the fact that penalties were all over the map when it came to doping violations, with drug cheats in some countries getting one- or two-year suspensions, while others would get little more than a slap on the wrist, even for a second or third violation.

The solution that emerged from the First World Conference on Doping in Sport, held in February 1999 in Lausanne, Switzerland, was to introduce a degree of uniformity, not only to penalties, but to testing procedures and standards around the globe. That first was a relatively simple task, since it required only the incorporation of those penalties into the World Anti-Doping Code. The latter has proven a bit more formidable, requiring the creation of an entire department at WADA, solely dedicated to the task of the “harmonization” of rules, testing methods and lab standards. It’s an ongoing task, but they are more consistent than they ever have been in past years.

But regarding penalties, the idea drew opposition from the onset. Indeed, former UCI president Hein Verbruggen opposed the uniform application of penalties so vigorously that cycling and football (soccer here in the U.S.) were the last two sports to join WADA. They did so only under threat of seeing both sports banned from Olympic competition.

It was a cyclist — former track racer Tammy Thomas, an American — who earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first athlete to receive a lifetime ban from sport for her second doping violation. It’s important to note that such bans extend not only to the athlete’s original sport, but to all those under the control of Olympic-affiliated governing bodies. One cannot, for example, be suspended from cycling and decide that it might be a good time to become a competitive cross-country skier.

Part of the problem with WADA’s initial goal of establishing uniform penalties is that their application was left to individual national governing bodies. So while the WADA code called for mandatory penalties, governing bodies still exercise some degree of discretion in handing down those suspensions. The controlling factor, however, is that any penalty handed down by a national governing body can then be appealed by either party to the International Court of Arbitration for Sport.

The most recent example involves former Astana star Alexandre Vinokourov, who tested positive for homologous blood doping during the 2007 Tour de France. A national hero in Kazakhstan, Vinokourov received only a one-year suspension from his national governing body. That decision was subsequently appealed by the UCI as being too light and CAS issued a preliminary ruling on Wednesday ordering that his ban be extended to two years. Of course, the adjudication process itself took almost that long, so Vinokourov, first suspended in July of 2007, will be eligible to return to the sport at the end of next month.

Aggravating and mitigating factors

In the 10 years since the creation of WADA, the organization has re-examined the whole idea of mandatory minimum — and, as far as first offenses are concerned, maximum — penalties. At the 2007 Conference on Doping in Sport, WADA delegates adopted some revisions to the Code that allow for hearing panels to consider both aggravating and mitigating factors when setting the length of a suspension. The new rules have loosened its strict liability approach to some doping violations, allowing those charged to argue that they didn’t knowingly ingest a given banned substance.

Successfully arguing that position won’t necessarily get the charges dropped, but could result in a shorter suspension. Indeed, that was already the outcome in some earlier cases involving tainted supplements, but the new Code incorporates that approach into the rules. (Of course, that will only work for a limited range of substances and it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a charged athlete successfully argue that he had no idea how EPO or someone else’s blood managed to appear in his system.)

As I mentioned, the new code also allows for harsher first-time penalties when there aggravating factors, such as a direct role in distribution of banned substances, are involved. Under the revised Code, a first-time offender could receive up to four years if a hearing panel decides that those factors play a role in the offense. Again, both parties retain the option of appealing the case to CAS.

So why was Hamilton’s ban for just eight years? Pragmatism? USADA probably could have pursued the case through the hearing process and very possibly gotten a lifetime suspension. That process, however, is expensive and time-consuming. Hamilton accepted an eight-year ban and USADA didn’t have to spend the resources to get it. The net result is probably the same, since Hamilton will be 46 when his suspension is over and it’s doubtful that he’ll opt to return to the sport in any capacity other than as a masters racer who dabbles in competition for the enjoyment of it. His ban also extends to involvement in capacities other than as a competitor, such as a coach or director. Enforcement of that aspect is often difficult, since some of those roles are not governed by licensure through the UCI.

In Jeanson’s case, the matter was heard by the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sports. However, the panel took some mitigating circumstances into account when handing down its penalty. Jeanson has willingly cooperated with investigators and detailed not only her involvement, but that of her former coach André Aubut and physician Maurice Duquette. Jeanson might return to cycling, but it’s doubtful. From what we know of her case, cycling turned out to be a painful experience for a woman who began her career as a 16-year-old and she may well have reason to stay away.

Email Charles Pelkey

“The Explainer” is a regular feature on VeloNews.com. If you have a question related to the sport of cycling that our editors might be able to answer, feel free to send your query to WebLetters@CompetitorGroup.com and we’ll take a stab at answering. Not all letters will be published and some questions may be combined with those of other readers. Please include your full name and hometown.

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