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Q&A: USADA CEO Travis Tygart on fighting the doping battle

USADA CEO Travis Tygart speaks to Matthew Beaudin about the doping fight and trying to clean up the sport for good

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Editor’s note: In the November issue of Velo magazine, senior writer Matthew Beaudin explored the different paths taken by Levi Leipheimer, Christian Vande Velde, Tom Danielson, Dave Zabriskie, George Hincapie, and others after they confessed to using performance-enhancing drugs during their careers. This interview with USADA CEO Travis Tygart appears in part in that story, entitled “Shades of Grey.”

VeloNews: It seems like some of the guys who were involved have gone on to have successful careers in the bike industry, while others maybe not so much, at least for now. Do you think things have played out fairly for those who were involved and gave the affidavits? How do you see it now culturally, as well as professionally?
Travis Tygart: They’re obviously a brave group of riders, to come in and tell the truth. They put their careers at risk by coming in, rather than doing a duck-and-dive — retire and then walk away. Our hope is that they’ve been all embraced, not for the doping that they did, but hopefully they can be embraced for when given the opportunity to come in and take the stand with hopes of doing the right thing — that was to be truthful and to take the stand on a sport that had a deep and justified view on doping to hopefully change that.

VN: Some guys have had good luck, Christian Vande Velde is a broadcaster, and some guys have been quieter and are no longer in the forefront. You certainly did your job, but do you ever feel a bit of a tug for what might have hurt those guys in the long term?
TT: Nothing we did was aimed at hurting anybody. It was the decisions they made to violate the rules and use performance-enhancing drugs. Our hope was always to be realistic about the pressure that they faced and the culture that they lived in and just hold them accountable under the rule, but do it in a way that was fair and appreciated, where they fell on the hierarchy of culpability. Make no mistake, there were true victims out there that didn’t participate in the doping. Maybe they didn’t win or have success, so they left the sport prematurely. Those are the true victims and those are the people we should be talking about more. They were the ones who got more violated.

VN: Do you think the sport is at a better place now for giving second chances than say where it was 10 years ago?
TT: Our hope was a full truth and reconciliation was established immediately upon our recent decision. That was why we were hopeful that Lance was going to come in in June. Having that open disclosure would’ve been huge and a wave of riders would’ve felt empowered enough to spark a dramatic cultural shift. It’s taken a lot longer than we hoped, largely it was out of our control, but you’ve got three of the most powerful people in the history of the sport held accountable for their failure to address the issues. Being [Former UCI President Pat] McQuaid, the [UCI] general secretary, and [UCI] general counsel, and now they’re all gone. They were replaced about a year ago with a completely new leadership team. This new group took office completely looking after clean athletes’ rights. So this review [the Cycling Independent Reform Commission] they’re doing hopefully closes the book on the chapter, but you know, we have to remain vigilant at all levels going forward because this board particularly with its history, has to let go the temptations given how difficult it is and what the benefit of drugs can provide to it. In addition to that culture is an ongoing battle to ensure that clean athletes’ rights are upheld.

VN: It seems that USADA and other organizations have proven themselves as able to catch things when it comes to usage, but how do you predict things for the future? How do you take a longer view and what specifically do you look for?
TT: The heart of it is that it’s an ethical and cultural decision to be made by teams, trainers, sport directors, and athletes, and whether they’re going to participate in these types of conspiracies to defraud with the use of these PEDs. So it starts at the top and certainly USADA alone can’t change the global culture of cycling as a whole, but it really starts with leadership at the top and that the risk reward analysis is structured so that it’s against someone taking that risk. No one in their right mind is going to violate the rules if that means putting things like their relationship with family and friends at risk, simply because they want to win. But because it is so costly, there needs to be incentivizes to not take that risk and the people who play by the rules should be compensated handsomely.

VN: Isn’t the nature of cops and robbers that someone is going to be ahead? Are we even aware about any substances that maybe aren’t even out there yet?
TT: Look, I think what you just said about cops and robbers is unfortunate that you’re even using that analogy to sport, because this is sport. This is what kids grow up dreaming and hoping about. The athletes aren’t criminals, at least they shouldn’t be. The ills of criminal organizations or criminal intent have invaded sport and I’m certainly not ready to buy off on that yet, but I think at the end of the day, for at least the Americans that we’ve dealt with, they are just overly competitive so we’ve just got to create an even playing field that allows them to succeed without having to use doping or other criminal activity in order to be successful.

The Biological Passport is a great tool. Sure it’s not a cure-all, but it’s an important tool for now and it’s not just for blood testing. We’ve been doing urine analysis for several years now, so the ability to retain samples with testing at a later date, use intelligence gathering, and the use of law enforcement is critically important. We have to continue to be vigilant.

The bias should be towards clean sport, where the past, the bias has been towards dirty sport and I think the truth hit the power over since the reasoned decision came out and the truth prevailed.

VN: When fans watch a race like the Tour de France and see a rider succeed, do you feel they can believe someone is racing clean?
TT: I think every athlete deserves the presumption of innocence unless proven otherwise. I think absolutely that sports fans should believe what they see. I mean look, it puts a huge burden on those of us in the trenches, doing our best to protect clean athletes. It puts a big burden on us to ensure that testing is as good as it can be and look, we dream of the day that we remove any doubt because we have a testing system that can not only detect whether or not someone is using something, but also takes a different view by proving that someone is clean. That’s something we’ve talked about and been dreaming about for years. Of course we’re not there yet, but its something that we are working towards.

VN: The reasoned decision was certainly a groundbreaking piece of work and is something that will most likely be around for a very long time. How do you look at that and feel about having your name attached to something that is going to resonate for such a long time?
TT: It is what it is. We simply did our job to protect clean athletes’ rights and however it’s remembered, it’s remembered. The effort isn’t over, we’re still pushing ongoing cases and we’re still hopeful that the review that the UCI is doing is going to continue to push it in the direction we always wanted, which was a restart of a really dirty culture and moving into an environment that promotes a clean one.

While certainly we hear from athletes, coaches, experts, team owners, and others that it’s a totally different sport today then what it was in the recent past, certainly with the Postal Service days. You know, if one athlete’s right to compete is violated, then that’s a problem in our eyes and we’re going to try to continue pushing the culture away so that doesn’t happen.

VN: Do you feel like fairness is a subjective thing at this point when it comes to how those who provided information and confessed to doping themselves are treated?
TT: I think fairness goes to the rules and having a judgment call to see where it’s allowed. Certainly, we could’ve given some of the riders who got six months two years, but in our mind that wasn’t fair or right under the rules. Our hope was that they would come in and participate and be a part of the solution rather than retire and leave the sport behind. We also thought they would not give that same fairness to coaches and team directors who violated the rules.

As you can probably see, the greater good was to completely clean the system out and around here, the term is, “dismantle the system” because the structure of doctors, coaches and team directors had two parts to their salary. Part of their pay was to help riders train and race, but the other part was to help racers use the drugs in order to win. So we saw that if there were people in sport still that hadn’t been caught, they’d most likely continue to do what they’d been doing.

So our decisions were to be fair within the rules, use discretion judiciously and thoughtfully. At the end of the day, there was a process for anybody who didn’t agree with our decisions. The UCI or WADA could’ve appealed, but no one felt the need to do so during the given time period.

VN: At what point will you be able to declare success, or is that something that’s never achievable for an anti-doping agency?
TT: When not a single athlete’s right is violated to compete on a level playing field. That’s the point when we’ve had success and I can tell you that the USADA staff is dedicated day in and day out, weekends, 24/7, hoping to achieve that, if we can.

VN: Well certainly that’s the goal, but is the task itself Sisyphean?
TT: I think that when one clean athlete’s right is upheld and decision to do it the right way is vindicated it’s a success. Not necessarily because of us, but sport and athletes have to appreciate that and some of them certainly do.

This is a tough and ugly fight sometimes and shame on us if sometimes we are tired, dreary, or unwilling to battle that, but it’s probably no different an effort than for athletes who are trying to represent this country and win — the right way. But we care about those athletes and those that represent the integrity of clean sport and everything that good sport can do for society.