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Perceptions of a doper: Part III

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

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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 third and final installment of our interviewees’ thoughts on the topic. Have your own thoughts? Chime in in the comment field. — ed.

Tom Zirbel

Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies
Tom Zirbel is a convicted doper. But rightly or wrongly, he’s been given the benefit of the doubt by the majority of those observing the sport. Most (your author included) believe that his positive test in 2009 for the steroid DHEA was caused by a tainted supplement. Whatever the case, after serving an 18-month ban, he’s back racing.

“It’s a funny game because almost everyone at least starts out saying they are innocent, so you have to do your best to filter through it and follow your gut. If a guy is not apologetic and never owns up to it, that plays a part in how they are perceived. But I don’t think it is all one way or the other. I think a lot of people like David Millar and what he is doing now, and a lot of people can’t get past the fact that he did what he did and only admitted to something after he was caught red-handed.”

“I don’t think anyone is evil. You have to look at the motivations. A lot of times in that era it was just leveling the playing field. I really wish there was more consistency. I wish we knew more about why Lance’s case was dropped. For Contador it had to happen but he still didn’t get a proper ban. He’ll be able to come back very easily, compared to others who have to sit at home training and never racing for two years.”

Adrian Montgomery

Marketing/PR director, Scott Sports Bike Division
During his tenure with Scott, Adrian Montgomery’s seen the good and bad. Scott was team bike sponsor of Saunier Duval-Prodir when Riccardo Riccò tested positive at the Tour de France in 2008. But the bike maker’s relationship with Columbia-High Road was considered a success. Scott is sponsoring new Aussie squad GreenEDGE in 2012.

“In our eyes, if a rider gets caught, they are done. We don’t want them. No second chances. That was one of the main reasons that we went with (Bob) Stapleton (and Columbia-High Road). We had come off the (Riccò) scandal and we had to be able to sleep at night knowing that someone was doing an internal ethics program. It’s the same reason we’re now involved with GreenEDGE.”

“I just had a sponsor proposal come in from a German triathlete. I Googled him and the first thing that came up was that they had a ban against him for EPO use. First thing, I wrote back to the guy’s agent and said, ‘Nope, don’t even want to talk to you about this. It’s our brand name that gets dragged through the dirt just because our name is on the jersey.’”

Joe Parkin

Editor, Bike Magazine
Joe Parkin was there in the beginning, riding as a low-level European pro in the early 1990s, a time widely considered the start of the EPO era. Today, he’s on the other side, serving as editor of a mountain biking magazine.

“I would say that the biggest difference between then and now [is] probably the professionalism of the doping trade. In 1990, 1991, that was when we started to see EPO. Its use was kind of fair game if you could afford the price of the injections. When I was offered EPO and told to get on the program, it was going to be around two-to-three injections a month at $500 an injection. That was more than I made. My take home pay was around a $1000-$1200 a month. But if you could afford it, then it was ok.”

“A difference now is that these guys always declare their innocence, like when Tyler (Hamilton) and Floyd (Landis) got busted. For me, I’ve never heard of anyone who tested positive falsely. Take your lumps and come back.”

“The case with Lance is weird. Personally, I feel like the U.S. government shouldn’t be investigating sports. But I think the ‘I can’t believe he got away with it’ sentiment is due to his largess. If he had a different demeanor, people would be more willing to embrace him. But if he had a different demeanor, he probably wouldn’t have won seven Tours de France.”

Frankie Andreu

Team director, Kenda-5-hour Energy
We give the last word to Frankie Andreu, who brings the most unique perspective to our panel. Andreu is one of them, a racer who used banned substances and admitted it. But like so many before and after, his confession came long after his indiscretion. His last year as a pro was 2000, with the U.S. Postal Service team. Six years later, he confessed to using EPO to prepare for the 1999 Tour de France, the team’s first overall win.

“I think usually if someone admits what they did and takes responsibility, they get allowed back in quicker than someone who denies and denies and lies and lies and creates a bunch of drama. But it’s not uniform. Why was (Jan) Ullrich never let back in and (Ivan) Basso was? Jörg Jaksche admitted it and was never allowed near a race again.”

“And look at (Michael) Rasmussen, who never actually tested positive. He just had the whereabouts issues and he got kicked out of the Tour, and now nobody will touch him. There is no rhyme or reason to whether someone is allowed back in or not allowed back in. Maybe being a top rider is the key to it all. If you are a performer, the system is more forgiving and will allow you back in quicker than somebody else who maybe is not a top performer.”

“With Lance, I think the anger there is that people felt like this was a chance for him to clear his name. But instead, there are still all the questions, there are still all the accusations. He said he was going to be transparent and cooperate with the investigators. He could have put an end to this all if the investigation would not have closed. Now none of the questions are answered. We still don’t know.”

“I fit into this equation, too. I came out willingly and said I’d taken EPO and I’m still in the sport of cycling. It was a personal choice, and yes I got screamed at and yelled at. But it was something to clear my mind and to put out there in order for me to move on and show everybody that we have a huge problem and if we don’t fix it and admit what happened in the past, everybody is going to think that they can keep getting away with it and the whole sport will implode.”

“I don’t feel like I’m accepted by everyone. But there are other riders, Tyler, Floyd, etc. who spent so much time with the denials and the lies, and they weren’t accepted back in. So maybe it’s just about being truthful and honest and speaking about the problem and trying to make things better.”

Don’t forget to check out parts I and II