Innocent until proven guilty?
Along with cycling, my other major favorite sport that I like to follow is baseball. I'm American, I like sports, and I've never really seen the appeal of men hitting each other, so baseball it is.
While popular perception of cycling among fans of other sports would seem to be that it is riddled with drug cheats (more on this later), the reality is all sports likely are. The reality, as baseball is coming to realize, is that they had an era in which drug use was not only tolerated and accepted, it was an ingrained part of the culture. Hmm, does that sound the least bit familiar to anyone here?
There was Jose Canseco's book Juiced. Canseco, if you're unaware, was a baseball player who had a largely successful 15-year career built mainly off hitting home runs. His 462 are 32nd-most in history (as of the end of the 2011 season). His books revealed that his power was in large part due to performance-enhancing drugs, and he in turn accused hundreds of fellow players of also being on the juice.
It will be some time before we really know the full extent of influence Canseco's accusations have had, but in the short term, he has almost invariably been proven correct, given teary-eyed admissions, positive tests, and even Congressional charges that have followed. There's a reason Canseco's other book is called Vindicated.
And yet, fans and analysts have almost invariably come down on the side of believing players' explanations and even standing by them after they are popped and punished. The reaction is more that a suspension is some terrible thing that is happening to them rather than a punishment for a misdeed. Some players have confessed to using prior to the time when there actually was testing - most drugs have always been against the rules, but there was until very recently (I'm talking 2002) no real testing protocols. Perhaps the foremost of those is Mark McGwire, another home run king whose girth went unquestioned in 1998 when he broke baseball's single-season home run record, only to be largely disgraced in retirement when it became clear he did so by using PED's. Having admitted his drug use, he became a coach on the team that won this year's World Series.
Holmovka made a very astute post in the FanShot linking to news of Yoann Offredo's one-year suspension on multiple whereabouts violations. Manny Ramirez, another, you guessed it, home run king, gets a 50-game suspension for a second positive test. In our world, he'd be done for four years, minimum. This 50-game penalty even constituted a reduction from the 100-game suspension that baseball's Collective Bargaining Agreement should have called for.
Today further news was made in the world of doping, when 2011 National League MVP Ryan Braun basically got the Alberto Contador treatment in reverse. Braun returned a positive steroids test late in the 2011 season, which was publicly revealed only after the season had ended and he had been awarded his MVP. He was assessed a 50-game suspension by MLB, and appealed. Today his appeal was accepted, and the suspension was thrown out. He will face no penalty. This is the first time this has happened in baseball history, though as I've mentioned, baseball history with drug testing doesn't go back very far. The arbitrator deciding his case seemed to decide that it was likely he did indeed dope, but due to a procedural error on how his sample was handled by the anti-doping authorities, he could not be found guilty.
Hopefully you've borne with me through all the baseball talk, because I really am about to bring it back to cycling now. Through a discussion on the only other SBN blog I post to with any frequency, the differences in perceptions of doping and perceptions of the (accused? alleged? prospective?) doper are vast between the two sports. Perhaps it's cultural as well, and I'd love to hear the reactions of some European folks on this. It seems the baseball folks are willing to welcome Braun back as if nothing ever happened. While Alejandro Valverde seems to gradually be getting back in our good graces, there is nonetheless a contingent of fans who see only the scarlet letter D when he rides and likewise a contingent that is fine with him being back but all the same has an opinion of him that will likely never change for anything. And it is not favorable. Opinions run the gamut on other former dopers, but I think it's safe to say that outside of their home nations and those fans who would never leave their side for anything short of a murder conviction, that they have more non-fans than fans. And yet ours is the sport seen as rife with drug cheats.
I wonder if anyone else will notice the disheartening symmetry between the Braun and Contador cases. The arbitrator believes Braun probably cheated, but the anti-doping authorities' procedural error sets him free. The Court of Arbitration for Sport does not necessarily believe Contador did, but he cannot prove to a legal threshold that he did not. I can't help but wonder how the Braun case might be decided if it were presented to the CAS (it won't be - the CAS can only hear cases if the two litigants have previously agreed to recognize their judicial authority, and to my knowledge no baseball case has ever been heard by the CAS. Though it does make me wonder if such a clause might be argued for the next time a Collective Bargaining Agreement needs to be written and agreed to).
The same burden of proof seems to have fallen on Offredo and could fall on Alex Rasmussen next. Why is it that our sport places the onus on its competitors to prove that they are not doping, rather than on the officials to prove those that are, are? Even the Franco Pellizotti decision from two years ago seems to bear this out. So too the Alessandro Petacchi case from five Giri d'Italia ago.
The simple answer is that cycling is trying harder than any other sport to clean itself up. And if that's the case, I applaud the effort. But why? Is it because our sport is still, even after it catches and punishes cheaters at a faster clip than any other sport in the world, even ticky-tack violations by arguably its biggest star, seen as a haven of drug cheaters?
I offer no answers, but I intend to find out. Over the next several months, I will administer a survey to as many fans of as many sports as I can reach. I hope to find out what sports are seen as rife with drug cheats, with particular emphasis on where cycling falls on that scale. I will ask about arbitration, and acceptable penalties for positive doping tests, both in general and within the context of particular sports. I am not sure yet exactly how I will do this, and I imagine it will take some time to develop the survey, but this is something I deeply want to know. If anyone would like to help me develop and administer the survey, I welcome it. I will post my findings here sometime later this year.