Perceptions of a doper: Part I

The court of public opinion is fickle when it comes to convicted dopers. In Part I of a three-part series, we talk to cycling personalities about what drives acceptance in the public eye

In early March, Velo Magazine conducted exclusive interviews with a varied panel of individuals intimately involved with the sport of professional cycling. The goal: To find out why doping, or being accused of doping, elicits such diversity in response and outcome.

From Riccò to Zirbel, Armstrong to Contador, the court of public opinion is varied and unpredictable. Where fans welcome one rider convicted of performance enhancing drug use back as a spokesperson for clean sport, they crucify another.

These interviews formed the foundation for the editorial in our May 2012 issue, written by Caley Fretz and Neal Rogers, suggesting that empathy — and more importantly, how it is achieved — is the key component determining how fully the public accepts a convicted doper’s return to the sport.

Below is the first of three installments of our interviewees’ thoughts on the topic. Look for Part II on Thursday, featuring Christian Vande Velde, Dave Chauner and Dan Schmalz. We will publish Part III on Friday. — ed.

Travis Tygart

CEO, United States Anti-Doping Agency
As America’s top anti-doping cop, Travis Tygart’s had a front row seat at some of cycling’s most high profile cases. He helped successfully prosecute Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis. And after the federal case against Lance Armstrong was dropped, he declared that, “Unlike the U.S. Attorney, USADA’s job is to protect clean sport rather than enforce specific criminal laws. Our investigation into doping in the sport of cycling is continuing and we look forward to obtaining the information developed during the federal investigation.” It was a shot across the bow of the S.S. Armstrong, and a reiteration of USADA’s attitude towards rule breakers, which is simultaneously firm and potentially forgiving.

“I think it’s easy for us to understand that in this win-at-all-costs culture, some athletes will succumb to the temptation to cheat. So while it’s still wrong and they still need to be held accountable, that’s easier to understand. If someone is caught and they acknowledge that and are completely truthful and forthcoming with the truth, sports fan and USADA are quick to forgive and embrace those that want to move forward to do the right thing and hopefully change those pressures that are put on athletes.”

“The opposite is also true. When someone is caught and continues to either not be open and not be truthful, and even to take steps to attack those who were simply doing their jobs to protect clean athletes, or lie and lie under oath. That is what gets harder to understand, when you lie, cheat and steal, and become a hypocrite on top of it.”

“Some retire or just don’t fight it. That’s slightly more admirable than fighting it and forcing an anti-doping agency to spend a bunch of effort and time and money to prove what you know to be the truth. But those that put that stake in the ground and provide some useful information about why they did it, how they did it, who was involved doing it, and now they want to help that next generation of athletes to not have to face the same dilemma, that’s the most courageous.”

Joeri De Knop

Cycling reporter, Het Laatste Nieuws (Belgium)
Belgian reporter Joeri De Knop serves the world’s most rabid bike racing fans, and admits they’re much more willing to forgive and forget than supporters in other countries.

“Take the case of (Belgian) Johan Museeuw (three-time winner of both Paris Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders). He was implicated in a doping affair (in 2008), and he took a lot of criticism from the press. But not so much from the fans. Even today he is still a hero. They still love him. He is even a columnist for our newspaper. Maybe in Germany it’s not the same. They have a much different view on cycling culture. But in Flanders especially, it is different. He is forgiven.”

Jeremy Powers

Reigning U.S. national cyclocross champion
During his time as both a pro road and cyclocross racer, Jeremy Powers has had friendly relationships with Phil Zajicek and Ben Berden, two riders that were suspended for doping offenses. Berden was nabbed in 2005 and sat out 15 months. Zajicek received a lifetime suspension in 2011.

“Look at Phil. Here’s a person I was friends with. We had talked about not doing drugs on many occasions. So to me that was the ultimate scumbag move. If you are lying to my face, it’s even different than doing drugs. You are just a sneak and a cheat. It shows a lot about someone’s character. I stayed at Phil’s house and I constantly got lied to. I’ve never talked to him since that day.”

“Then take Ben Berden. He did a bunch of drugs and got popped, but it turns out he’s the nicest guy. He comes over here (to the U.S.) to race and he’s extremely nice, outgoing, and he tells it like it is. He says there were a ton of drugs going around back then. He got caught up in it and he’s paid his price. He can’t even get a contract in Belgium anymore because of all the bad press. But he’s been super nice and helpful. For me that’s the biggest thing, how they hold themselves after that.”

Brandon Dwight

Bike Shop Owner, Founder Dopers Suck
When Filip Meirhaeghe was popped in 2004, Brandon Dwight had seen enough. As a former pro, he’d suffered at the pace set by the cheating Belgian. Dwight launched Dopers Suck, a line of apparel emblazoned with anti-doping messages. It was his way of giving the middle finger to Meirhaeghe and others like him.

“For me personally, anyone who cheats to get ahead is just a bad person. I don’t like dishonest people. At the same time I do think everyone deserves a second chance, but there is a part of me that will always have feelings of doubt.”

“With Lance, I think he’s just too big to fail. As a cyclist and a bike shop owner, whether Lance was clean or not, I think it’s better for everyone that he didn’t get in trouble.”

Also read parts II and III