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Deciding To Dope: Where Does The Responsibility Lie?

A promising young rider enters the professional ranks and though he expects the difficulty of races to increase substantially the change nonetheless shocks him. A former winner of the Tour de l'Avenir, our young pro is suddenly struggling to make the grupetto. He fights hard to finish 25th on the GC in a small stage race the next year. Struggling, he asks teammates for advice, meets a doctor who prescribes weekly doses of a drug that will help his recovery. On another team, a perennial grand tour podium threat hears rumors that several of the top spots from the previous year's Giro d'Italia and Tour de France have been using a new synthetic hormone that boosts performance or have been skirting detection of EPO in their bloodstream by using micro doses every day. With something that has taken years to get near just out of reach, would he be remiss to pass up the opportunity others have taken? And what about the dependable domestique with a family at home who knows few lines of work outside sport who now needs assistance to do the work he used to do clean?

The prior situations are hypothetical but they are hardly difficult to imagine; some variation of these stories lies behind many of the doping positives (and missed positives) of the past twenty years. It is a common reaction to blame the individuals who decided to take proscribed drugs or use banned methods of enhancing performances. But there is a wider blame too, one rooted in the systems that encourage and facilitate doping. Apportioning out blame is a difficult task but, because of its implications for how we address doping into the future, an important one.

In his recent interview with Bicycling Magazine concerning his clouded past in the sport, Jonathan Vaughters highlighted the vulnerability young athletes experience and the importance of those who mentor them.

You have young men who are impressionable and ambitious and in love with their sport. They'll do anything to win a race in front of their mom. And these older people, in a position of power, how they mentor that athlete makes a big difference. Imagine the outcry if I was steering athletes to dope. If that happened, is that the athlete's fault? Maybe. But it sure as hell is my fault!

Days later, in a discussion on twitter with the guys behind the NY Velocity website, Vaughters engaged with one of the trickier questions concerning doping: if one guy wins clean, and it is known within a peleton filled largely with riders using illegal practices that he wins clean, is it seen as an opportunity that sparks more doping or an affirmation that riders can stop doping? In short, it is a question of what game is being played in the peleton. Is it a prisoners' dilemma where the incentive is always to dope, or is it a coordination game where all that is needed is impetus to move riders to their preferred position of not doping? The game being played has profound implications for how we deal with doping: in the former scenario, punitive measures are more important while in the latter the focus is more on building trust among riders that the process is fair.

Vaughters replied that clean riders winning would lead to less doping, not more; riders feel pressured to dope but few really desire to. Mankind is not inherently evil, those who have the keen competitive desires that is required to arrive at the highest levels of the sport. Instead, we respond to our environment, to the pressures both real and imagined that we perceive around us. This is no absolution of individual responsibility, but it does mitigate it and spread the blame to those who contribute to an environment that encourages and perpetuates doping in sport.

Team managers, doctors, trainers - these are the individuals who can push riders towards doping and facilitate it. So can teammates. The media and fans who question the veracity of any supposedly clean performance and contribute to a belief that winning without doping is impossible must also bear some of the blame. The list of who helps create such an environment extends in all dimensions.

If a broader spectrum of people are culpable for decisions to dope, how do we hold them to account? Should penalties be the same as for riders as the doctors who supply them or the managers who tacitly or even openly support doping? As Vaughters points out, he would feel more direct responsibility if he pushed one of his riders to dope than that borne by the rider. In Tyler Hamilton's just-released book, he recalls when then Team CSC manager Bjarne Riis - who has since admitted to doping in his career, including his victory at the 1996 Tour de France - put him in contact with Eufemiano Fuentes, a doctor who provided doping material and instruction to at least 38 professional cyclists. Hamilton's spiraling trajectory towards a doping positive in 2004 is well known, but one wonders exactly how different his career might have been had he never been introduced to Fuentes or similar doctors.

How do we deter and punish such transgressions by authority figures? One response is a lifetime ban from any involvement in cycling; this policy could possibly eradicate such bad influences, making the choice to dope harder for riders in practical terms and simultaneously less likely from exposure to individuals who advocate it. Issuing a lifetime ban to all authority figures - team doctors, trainers, managers - who have doped in the past is a tricky proposition, however. At its worst, it could prevent riders from stepping forward to acknowledge their past, denying the sport valuable cathartic moments and insight into ways drug tests were eluded and illegal supplies obtained. Similarly, it is difficult to distinguish between repentant and non-repentant dopers. Vaughters is the most prominent example of a rider with a past in doping who has changed course and ushered riders through the sport with strong emphasis on racing clean. Vaughters may not be a saint, but he is certainly no Manolo Saiz, the former manager of the powerful ONCE squad infamously caught with doping supplies in his briefcase. Knowledge is the best weapon against doping and depriving teams of potential managers who have the first hand knowledge but also a commitment to fight doping robs the broader anti-doping movement of influence where it most counts.

Focusing on those who actively encourage or facilitate doping is little easier because identification of such individuals is difficult. Standards of evidence are often limited to a rider's word against his doctor's, rarely substantial enough to stand up in judicial hearings. Such individuals are often caught only after shaping the careers and morals of many riders, after significant damage is done. But as the USADA case against Lance Armstrong and several members of the US Postal Team staff shows, it is still possible to remove the bad apples from the pool of trainers and doctors while they still have influence even years after the first transgressions.

With catching the broader network of individuals who make doping more likely difficult, we are left with an imperfect system - focusing on deterring riders while only relying on post-hoc sanctioning in a few cases like Fuentes and the US Postal staff members. Deterring riders is crucial and can change the playing field over time by decreasing the leverage other individuals have on riders but changing morals is done only incrementally. Perhaps it is time to focus on rectifying this, offering more shortened sentences to riders if they detail how they doped, who encouraged or facilitated it, and where their supplies come from. This has been done in the past but its use is seldom when compared to the large pool of suspended athletes.