Can we handle the truth? We are our own worst enemy.
This is an open letter of my opinion on the subject of cheating, the constant trampling and indecent and incorrect treatment of our athletes, the realities of the Anti-Doping Agencies, and a call to action.
This is just a letter to all, based on my own personal observations and has absolutely NO bearing on my associations with ANY of the numerous organizations or groups to which I belong, or any other individual. I have been involved in amateur and professional cycling for 30 years as a licensed competitor, official, coach, manager, and babysitter/psychologist/bike washer.
There are cheaters in cycling. I've said it, and now can never take it back. Every single sport in the world has cheaters, just as every single business or social group has cheaters. Obviously the fight against cheating with drugs in sport will continue, but we can always do more.
However, we have a unique problem within our sport that needs attention as well. We need to stop attacking our own, until we know for a fact that they have cheated. It's very easy for the media and the bureaucrats to come out with strong statements based on very little fact, when they see that we are doing it to ourselves! Even a murderer is considered an `alleged' murderer until he has been convicted. Perhaps we should withhold judgment until we know what the facts are. We have brought this upon ourselves, and we need to change our mindset. Just because we lost last week's Cat. 3 parking-lot criterium, it doesn't mean that the guy that won has a better doctor, pharmacist, or faith healer. Maybe, he's just better.
We all (fans, participants, sponsors, administrators, officials) want clean and fair competition and a level playing field. Yet, why are we (cycling) the only sport that attacks itself when an athlete is `presumed' to be caught cheating? Why is it that at the first sign of `doping' many so-called cycling fans, participants and officials jump on the headline bandwagon and begin to deride the `accused', as well as our sport? I have seen friends of jailed murderers defending that murderer, yet I can hardly find a cyclist that has faith in the word of an accused doper, BEFORE ALL OF THE FACTS ARE EVEN KNOWN.
It disgusts me when I read about cycling or ADA leaders making statements regarding the damage caused by a supposed `positive' test, and cycling fans becoming outraged by the latest round of "cheating." The real outrage is that we, as a sport, have allowed this to happen. The real outrage is the suspicion that is endemic to our sport, based on headlines and sometimes little fact. Outrage toward a convicted cheater is completely appropriate, outrage based on an inflammatory disclosure by a testing lab or ADA is not appropriate.
I will buy a steak dinner (or if a vegan, a dinner of their choice) to the first person that can tell me of another Olympic or Professional sport that requires its athletes and teams to:
a) Submit `whereabouts forms' to their ADA that details their physical location for each day of the year so that the surprise testers can find them (forms are usually required 30 days in advance!).
b) Submit to random and unannounced blood tests at 6:00am on the day of important competitions, in addition to all of the usual urine tests.
c) Require their employer/team to obtain periodic (minimum of 4x/year) comprehensive blood and urine tests to establish base-line values of blood, liver, and other metabolic functions. Any test that shows an anomaly is followed up with repeat tests and additional exams. At least 50% of these tests have to be performed at a UCI recognized lab.
d) Suspend the athlete from competition based on a preliminary analysis or screening, prior to any definitive findings. If a professional, the athlete is also suspended without pay from his/her team and the media is notified.
e) Damage or destroy the athlete's (and his/her team) reputation and economic viability based solely on ACCUSATIONS by WADA or a public agency. There is currently NO recourse for economic damage caused by knee-jerk reactions to the disclosure of private and pre-mature accusations of potential cheating. (Do I even need to highlight the differences in `official legal proceedings' between different countries?)
f) Force the employer/team to disclose private and personal medical information about an athlete all in the `cause' for fair play. What would happen if YOUR employer did that?
g) Allow external forces (public authorities) to determine which athletes and teams are allowed to compete in world-class competitions. A mere accusation is enough to keep riders from Pro Tour competition.
There is a lot of mis-information and ignorance of anti-doping processes and procedures within the cycling community. The existence of an abnormal `A' sample is only the beginning of the process, and is certainly not definitive. How many of us watch the counters on a gas pump to see how much gasoline we put in our tank? It is the same as waiting for a `B' sample to be analyzed (the A and B samples should be identical, as the initial bottle of urine is split into the 2 samples). We already know that the gas gauge reads `E' when we pull up to the pump, but we watch the counters anyway, just to be sure of our initial observations. There are many, things that can affect a T/E ratio, and an elevated T/E is only an indication that there are more definitive tests that need to be performed. I have seen a T/E ratio of in excess of 20:1 with the Testosterone level unchanged from previous and later blood tests, with no exogenous testosterone or banned substances found. This screening test was considered for removal about 6 years ago, as it doesn't actually identify cheating, only that cheating might have occurred. It is the same as a high hematocrit level; without additional analysis and follow-up procedures, the test is essentially meaningless (with the exception that the athlete can be suspended for 2 years anyway). After a finding of a positive B sample, the case goes to an `independent expert tribunal' (the athlete is not invited to this party, but can send a letter!) that is appointed by and paid for by the ADA, to determine if a doping violation has taken place. Can we say `conflict of interest?'
Cyclists, just as any other dedicated athlete, eats, sleeps and breathes with the objective of maximizing their capabilities and physical abilities. The only thing that separates a `cheater' from a `non-cheater' is the existence of the WADA list. I suspect that most athletes, regardless of their chosen sport/profession, will do just about anything to improve their performance using whatever methods or foods/drinks/supplements that ARE NOT found on the banned list, and are within their moral and ethical conscience. Let's not forget that the Olympic motto is Citius, Altius, Fortius. Why does the cycling community regard cyclists as somehow circumventing the system, when our own athletes are the same as any other athlete?
There will always be cheaters in sports, business, and life. We shouldn't assume the worst of an individual just because of the sport they have chosen to pursue. If an ADA were to ban high-altitude tents next Friday, does that make all of the owners/users of these tents cheaters? Who, outside of the ADA, determines the ethics and ramifications of such a decision?
Why do we have UNCONDITIONAL faith in the ADA, even when there is no way to verify their usually inflammatory and inaccurate statements? Why is it that I have never seen an ADA or NGB or the media retract an accusation when the athlete was subsequently exonerated? The ADAs define their own rules, interpret their own rules, create their own science, hide behind closed doors, use `independent experts'that are appointed by and paid for by the ADA, hold the athletes to different standards than they themselves are willing to accept, and have to answer to no one. They would like the general public to believe that they are infallible, and that the athlete has specific rights to mount a defense to a positive test. The fact is that the athlete has virtually no rights, and instead is forced to fight using technicalities in the process, and the ADA (and the ADA approved labs) has an agenda (and the resources) that an individual athlete cannot reasonably defend against. The athlete cannot argue against the positive test result, only the procedures surrounding the test....the ADA has already met their burden of proof, and guess what, you are already guilty.
I believe that the current anti-doping process is completely ass-backwards and tramples on the basic rights of the athletes, for the common good. Although I believe that there
MUST be a certain amount of stealth and randomness involved in the process of detecting and identifying the cheaters; the athlete should not be convicted and slaughtered in the media without a minimal amount of consideration and due process. There should not be ANY public disclosure until a definitive finding is made, and the ADAs MUST be made to allow an open door for their `tribunal'hearings and allow for the presentation of evidence of extenuating circumstances. Currently, the case has to go before an arbitration board (the 4th step in the process) before the athlete,s voice is even heard.
I can relate to you many stories, facts and documents that I have accumulated over the years regarding this topic, some of which are downright frightening. I know a lot more about the health and personal medical histories of athletes, than I care to know about. I also have learned more about the rules, regulations, and methods of the ADAs than I ever wanted to know. I have in my files, evidence of potentially purposeful screwups or collusion by USADA and the Los Angeles lab, which caused an athlete to be suspended. The same ADA has also suspended an athlete for a `positive' test for the metabolite of a specifically ALLOWABLE allergy medication. Incidentally, the ONLY athlete in the world to be sanctioned for this offense! We also know, through the media, of several athletes that have admitted cheating, even though they were tested many times over many years, and found to be `clean.' To believe that their (the ADAs) s*it doesn,t stink, is to have one's head buried in the sand. They make mistakes just like everyone else.
It is a fact that the athlete is held to a standard of `strict liability', in that the athlete is responsible for everything that enters his/her body. Have any of you ever seen a cyclist eat? Factor in that they are in a different hotel each night, possibly a different country, usually fighting off a cold or allergy, and traveling through any number of airports and race locations. It is impossible to know the source of everything that they eat, yet the ADAs stand (hide) behind this standard. When I've asked for a list of the over-the-counter supplements that will produce a positive test result, I always receive the same answer: it's too difficult and expensive to make a list. So the athlete beware!
It's also true that the ADAs hold the athletes to strict time-frames in which to make responses to accusations, while their own timelines are mere guidelines. This is why it takes such a long time to reach definitive decisions, while the athlete sits at home without a job, hoping and praying that the system is going to work. Unfortunately for many of them, they mistakenly believe that since they have done nothing wrong and have never taken a banned substance, the ADA will determine the truth and they will be cleared. Newsflash: they don't care about the truth, only in sensational headlines about their effectiveness.
Here's another goody. The ADAs want everyone to believe that all of the `accredited' labs follow the same procedures, and meet identical international standards. Why is it then that the B sample is always tested at the same laboratory that came up with the `abnormal' result with the `A'sample? They refuse to accept that there may be a problem with the lab (either equipment, testing materials, calibrations, personnel, etc.) and won't allow the athlete to request that the confirmation test (B') be carried out in a supposedly identical laboratory. Perhaps I'm a bit paranoid, but the same result should be found in ANY of the accredited labs.
Meanwhile, there is little to no room for `questionable' test results or extenuating circumstances...it's 2-years minimum for the first offense. An ADA leader stated in a VeloNews interview in December, 2004, that there are less severe sanctions available, and that he would consider extenuating circumstances, `If you have a deliberate, serious doping offense then yes, it's two years. If it's inadvertent, it can be cut in half and if there's no fault whatsoever, it can be less than that... and if you're captured and held down by a squad of Nazi frogmen and injected with something, there's nothing.' Try to convince WADA that something like this actually happened....unless you have video of the frogmen without their masks, their names, a sample of the injection, and documents that prove the time & date of your abduction as well as attestation to a chain of custody for all of the items necessary to mount a defense. Good luck. The mere fact that you have obtained a license in any Olympic sport (read the fine print next year), and an ADA has found a banned substance in your urine, means that you are guilty of a doping infraction. An athlete CANNOT present an argument that contains the words `no fault' or `inadvertent', period.
I'm not here to defend the cheaters; they should all get thrown out of the sport! My point is that the ADAs are acting as if they are completely infallible and have no baggage or agenda. They are also acting as policeman, prosecutor, judge, and executioner. In addition, they have the power of the press (they all have media relations departments) and virtually no external oversight. To me this a very dangerous situation, and will become more so as they can now sanction an athlete without direct evidence, and are doing so based on `statistical' and testimonial evidence. This is similar to McCarthyism, or worse, the Salem Witch hunts. Remember them?
That's when a suspected Witch was held under water until she drowned, proving her innocence. If she floated, she was executed for being a Witch. The current trend of utilizing physiological parameters to declare a `positive' is especially troubling to me, as it suggests that everyone in the world responds identically to everyone else when competing, training, eating, sleeping, and stress levels. I'm not an expert in such things, but I don't believe that everyone is the same, and I certainly don't believe that the ADAs know everything about the biological universe. To have blind faith in the statements of the ADAs is downright moronic, and we should all be scared.
The perception within the sports world that cycling has a doping problem that is worse than any other sport, is due to our own ignorance, apathy and actions. We would not be a target (of negative attention) if we actually defended our sport with as much vigor as when we deride it. We have cheaters, just like all other sports. I highly doubt that we are better or worse than any other Olympic or Professional sport. Unfortunately, our openness and willingness to crucify our own athletes before we know all of the facts, helps propagate this perception.
It is interesting to me that 5 of the riders implicated in the `Operation Puerto' affair in Spain have been officially exonerated by the judge, according to several online news sources. Yet, all of the media reports I've read in the past few days continue to reference the 9 riders and a team that were thrown off of the Tour....with absolutely NO mention of the fact that it was subsequently determined to be a MISTAKE. How about news of the 150 or so non-cyclists implicated in this affair? Why have we received ALL of the attention? Because we have allowed it for so long that it just seems like more of the same, to the mainstream media and the general public.
I'd like to see the cycling community come together and take action on 2 fronts:
1) We must defend our sport with the same vigor as those that want to attack it with selective `facts' and headlines The writers of the `news' stories are going to focus on the path of least resistance...currently it is cycling. If we remain silent, or worse, critical of our own sport, this is where the headlines will be focused.
For every story published, or water-cooler conversation that touches on a doping violation, we need to DEMAND equal space and EDUCATE that person about all of the athletes that have been harmed by false accusations, as well as the fact that no other sport takes the lead in the fight against cheating. In fact, no other sport (to my knowledge) has the transparency that we have afforded the media, and the public. We are our own worst enemy when it comes to systemic suspicion of ALL of our athletes. This is a mindset that has to change, and we owe it to ourselves to do it. I applaud the statements recently made by the T-Mobile Company, as they believe that we all must step up to make a difference. If we know for a fact that an athlete is a cheater, then we need to throw the bum out.
But, until a case has run its course, none of us will know all of the facts. Its up to us to be sure that we don't jump to a conclusion prematurely, and that we demand equal treatment of an athlete that has been exonerated, by the media. I challenge everyone to write or call the heads of their favorite federations and their favorite news writer (or least favorite), to set the record straight when appropriate. If we only see the information propagated by the ADAs, we'll never learn the truth and neither will the fans. The vast majority of our athletes are honest, extremely hard-working, the finest athletic specimens on the planet, and they are required to compete in the harshest conditions in the most difficult sport in the world. If we don't offer them the respect that they deserve, then who will? We must educate and defend, until we know for certain that an athlete has cheated.
2) As a part of our action, we must also know unequivocally who is a cheater and who is not. It is unacceptable that some are characterized as cheats when it is obvious that they are not, just as it is unacceptable that the ADAs cannot find reliable testing and fact-finding methods that are 100% reliable. If we (cycling) are going to tolerate the media and the public having access to `adverse' findings, then the ADAs better be damn well sure that they have found a cheater. Nor should we tolerate a process that offers the athlete no recourse when he/she has been wronged (the Astana-Wurth team should have been allowed in the Tour based on recent news reports. I also offer a recent Giro that had its Pink Jersey banned mid-race for a pre-existing infraction, that resulted in the loss of a start in the Tour as well as economic loss to the rider and his teammates. After the rider was exonerated, no one even murmured an apology!). Where was the outrage? If an ADA or accredited laboratory states that they have the science to tell the difference between 2 types of blood cells, then they better be prepared to determine if a high T/E ratio was caused by exogenous testosterone or some other external factor, BEFORE they go public.
Their proceedings must also be more expedient and transparent. If their decisions are based on sound scientific testing, and they have allowed the athlete to attend their proceedings and rebut their findings, then they should not be afraid to allow inspection by external organizations. In addition, if the athlete is to be suspended from competition during the proceedings, it is the athlete that should determine the speed of the process. Unless, of course, the ADA is prepared to compensate all parties involved if no cheating is found.
It is time for us to take back our sport from the cheaters, and those that wish to falsely characterize all of our athletes as cheaters. To me its pretty simple; I want to know with 100% certainty that cheating has occurred, I want to know about it quickly, and I want to know that the ADA is 100% interested in determining the truth, not creating a sensational headline. Until we reach this goal, we are at the mercy of the tide of public opinion, which is based solely on the effectiveness of the ADA's spin masters. Currently, there is too much doubt in the system to determine what has actually occurred, and this is unacceptable. There is also too much premature disclosure of findings, and serves no purpose but to inflame and create false impressions. Too often I see athletes that are, in my opinion, sanctioned needlessly, and at the same time I see athletes that I had a lot of respect for, admit that they cheated or caught a second time. Since no one except the athlete knows for certain, the truth of the scope of cheating is probably somewhere in the middle. Throughout all of it however, the innocent are cast with the same brush stroke as the guilty. Unfortunately, it's the innocent that are hurt by it, not the cheaters, since obviously they don't care.
Personally, I would like to see harsher penalties for drug cheats. But, I would also like to see a `conviction' that leaves no doubts, and is open to critical review. We need to have complete fairness in the process, and that includes when and how the media and public receives this information. If we continue to allow ourselves to be persecuted by inflammatory statements, and not complete facts, it is a disservice to all who enjoy cycling as the beautiful sport that it is.
- Ray Cipollini