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Anti-doping: Is the cure worse than the disease?

Editor’s note: VeloNews contributor Steve Maxwell and his TheOuterLine.com partner Joe Harris sought out Professors Paul Dimeo of the University of Stirling in Scotland and Verner Møller of Aarhus University in Denmark to pen an opinion piece about the state of anti-doping efforts in the sport of pro cycling. The following is an excerpt of their column.

A note from The Outer Line: Although most participants in the day-to-day hustle and bustle of pro cycling and the mainstream cycling press may not be too aware of it, there is actually an ongoing and robust discussion in academic circles regarding the effects of anti-doping regulations on elite sports. Indeed, there is a significant community of scholarly practitioners around the world who are actively researching and debating the longer-term effects of anti-doping programs, conducting regular global conferences on the topic, and writing interesting and provocative papers and books.

Two of the primary observers and critics of existing anti-doping approaches are Professors Paul Dimeo of the University of Stirling in Scotland and Verner Møller of Aarhus University in Denmark. This duo has produced a number of recent papers essentially arguing that in the wake of the systematic doping scandals of the past, a sweeping anti-doping hysteria has created what economists refer to as “moral panic” — a perceived crisis which threatens the existing social order. Worried that these scandals could effectively destroy the sport, its leaders have often and impulsively addressed the doping problem in zealous, arbitrary and even irrational ways. Møller and Dimeo argue that differing objectives and an uncoordinated alliance between WADA, national anti-doping agencies, law enforcement authorities, sports organizers, and the media has led to an often confusing and disastrous situation — resulting in an array of unintended consequences, inconsistent and inequitable application of the rules, and a situation where anti-doping efforts may actually be doing more harm than good.

This perspective may seem improbable or dubious to some. And it is a somewhat politically perilous position to take in today’s environment of moral outrage about past doping practices; it is often much easier today for previously fawning fans or journalists to “pile on” to Lance Armstrong and his compatriots, than it is to step back and objectively look at the underlying situation and current approaches. But Møller and Dimeo’s thesis is interesting and worthy of closer examination. In their recent paper “Anti-Doping: The End of Sport” they review the era of the Festina and Puerto scandals, and make the argument that anti-doping approaches must be more rational, consistent and compatible in order to protect the competitive spirit of sports. The Outer Line has recently had an extended discussion with Professor Dimeo, and he has worked with Professor Møller to provide the following brief summary of their primary ideas and findings.

Many people within pro cycling are now saying that the war on drugs in cycling appears to be won; the conventional wisdom is increasingly that “things have turned the corner.” It appears that we’ve had a clean winner of the Tour de France for the last four consecutive years. There have been no major new drug busts or cheating scandals for several years. It no longer appears possible to dope with impunity, as so many riders did a decade ago. Today’s riders say that omerta is an anachronism, and that they don’t face the same no-win decisions that their elders did a decade or two ago. And all stakeholders within cycling are certainly eager to promote this new vision of a cleaner sport — to help attract new sponsors, larger audiences, and more television coverage.

One hopes that we have indeed turned the corner, and that the various international and national anti-doping organizations — WADA, USADA, UKAD, and so on — formed over the last two decades have finally begun to have a lasting impact on addressing this problem in cycling, as well as in other professional and Olympic sports. But we would argue that the agencies involved with anti-doping and the approaches employed to date to solve the problem are so overlapping and complex, so inconsistently utilized, and so inequitably applied that, in effect, the cure may be worse than the disease. We argue that anti-doping has gone too far and now poses more of a threat to the spirit of athletic competition than a solution.

We highlight a number of well-known examples in pro cycling to illustrate this argument:

– Although many might point to the USADA Reasoned Decision and the “Armstrong affair” as the death knell of the modern doping era, this case itself actually illustrates many of the problems with current anti-doping approaches. We are by no means Armstrong apologists, but we must question the inconsistencies of holding one person (or a few people) responsible for the sins of a whole generation, and more importantly, what this kind of witch hunt implies for the overall nature of competitive sports. Why have Armstrong’s Tour de France victories been revoked, while those of other well-known dopers’ victories remain intact? How far down the list of top finishers during the Armstrong years does one have to go to find a certifiably clean rider? It is well known by now that most of the runners-up during those years also had undeniable doping connections. Why has this punishment and sense of moral outrage not extended back to Anquetil, or to Merckx — who also tested positive for drugs three times in his career? We do not condone doping, but we believe that it basically spells the end of competitive sport if we insist on erasing victories when, at any point in the future, it may be found out that the winner was cheating. Cheating has always been part and parcel of sport, and we have to find a way to live with it and try to moderate it in order to maintain any competitive structure for elite sport at all.

– There are numerous situations where this tendency toward anti-doping hysteria has effectively overwhelmed the rules of the sport. Bad decisions have been made — based not upon logic or the regulations of the sport, but upon presumptions, concerns about public image, or perceived credibility issues. A prime example is the forced withdrawal of leading riders — including Basso and Ullrich — from the 2006 Tour de France. This decision was made on the basis of their suspected, but not proven, involvement with Operation Puerto. This deprived fans and sponsors of the best performing riders. Moreover, it undermined one of the essential features of sport — that top races should be a competition of the best talent.

– Another example of perception concerns outweighing the actual rules of the game is the case of Tom Boonen, excluded from the 2008 race due to an out-of-competition positive test for cocaine. This should not have led to a ban because — whatever one’s opinions about recreational drug use — cocaine is only banned within the competition timeframe. These decisions were taken based upon public perception and image concerns — not the rules of the sport.

– Indeed, it often seems that pro cycling is transforming from a sports competition into a credibility contest. Consider the expulsion of Michael Rasmussen from the 2007 Tour. His dismissal, as well as the exclusions in 2006, was not conducted in the spirit of fairness, and none of these riders, at the time of the event, had actually been caught breaking any rules. Suspicion was apparently preferred to proof by the anti-doping agencies and race organizers, who too often seem willing to bend the rules on a whim.

– Another example where cycling authorities followed their preferences rather than the rulebook was the 2010 case of Alberto Contador’s positive clenbuterol test. This may also be a case where the capabilities of rapidly advancing analytical technology got ahead of both the rules of the sport and general logic. The level of clenbuterol found in Contador’s blood was 400 times less than the published WADA minimum standards. Nonetheless, his victory was revoked, and perhaps worse, it took two years just for a decision to be made. Contador’s disqualification made Andy Schleck the winner — and Schleck’s reaction is illustrative of the fundamental threat that the current approach portends. “I battled with Contador in that race, and I lost,” he said. “My goal is to win the Tour de France in a sportive way, being the best of all competitors, not in court.”

We cite these examples because they controvert the important sporting dimensions of tradition and progression. We should be able to refer to the record books to see who has won, and we should be able to check the improvement in performance times. We need, fundamentally, to know for certain that the athlete who wins a race is actually indeed the winner of that race. Yet, the decision to identify certain known dopers and rewrite the history books undermines these dimensions of sport. The consequence is a lack of certainty as to who won anything. The fact that the 1999-2005 Tour de France titles have not been reallocated is a farce. However, any detailed analysis of the top ten finishers in each of those years would show how hard it would be to find a definitively clean rider to award the title to — so reassigning the victories would also be a farce. This simply demonstrates how detrimental current anti-doping practices have been to the Tour de France, and it is further underlined by the blatant inconsistencies in the administration of the winners list. Bjarne Riis is still the 1996 winner, despite admitting to doping, but the UCI apparently thinks this goes back too far in time. Armstrong’s 1999 victory has been eradicated but Marco Pantani has kept the 1998 title, won partly because of the Festina scandal, even though he too was a known doper. There are numerous other and well-known examples of this sort of directionless administration of the rules.

Read the complete opinion piece on The Outer Line >>