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Interview: Verner Møller

Morten Flarup/Polfoto

The Scapegoat - Verner MollerWhen looking at Verner Møller's The Scapegoat - About the Expulsion of Michael Rasmussen from the Tour de France 2007 and Beyond I made the point that Møller is an important contributor to the anti-doping debate. Let me step back from that claim a moment and ask this question: is there really an anti-doping debate?

Anyone dumb enough to raise their head above the parapet and actually defend doping is going to find themselves shot down by the emotive double-barrelled blast of ‘What about the kiddies?' and ‘What about the corpses?' and that's the end of that debate. Is there any real debate within the anti-doping community? Looking at the case of the USADA Six there doesn't seem to be one: we're supposed to ignore the questions raised about USADA - and, by extension, all the national arms of WADA - and the way justice is meted out in this game. All that matters is all that's ever mattered: busting the dopers.

So the first question I wanted to put to Møller was this: is it fair to say that there is a debate when so few are able to point out the faults in the current anti-doping system without being shouted down as defenders of dopers and doping?

Verner Møller: "Well, I understand why you ask this question but to say it is not a debate may be taking it too far.

"It is true that the general media presentation since 1998 has been frustratingly blind to the complexities of the doping/anti-doping dichotomy. The media's thirst for scandals has been the driving force behind the coverage of the issue. It reminds me of Marshall McLuhan's famous statement: 'Good news is bad news: bad news about somebody or for somebody.'

"Disturbingly many academics have bought into the media narrative about the doping villains and the evil of doping per se and left the deficiencies and questionable morality of the anti-doping system unchallenged.

"Having said that, in recent years there has been a growing awareness among scholars that there are two sides of the coin and that the side which has not been in the media spotlight may not be the least corroded in a moral sense."

In The Scapegoat Møller questions the morality of the manner in which the anti-doping fight is being conducted by focussing on the case of Michael Rasmussen. One of the issues here is whether Rasmussen had a right to game the Whereabouts system and exploit its loopholes in order to hide from the UCI his actual whereabouts.

Here Møller focuses on the letter of the law rather than its spirit. In doing this he is acting on the point he made in his earlier The Doping Devil that, rather than running contrary to the spirit of sport, doping is actually a consequence of that spirit. That's not a defence of doping, merely an explanation of why doping occurs: sport actively and passively encourages cheating.

In looking at the Rasmussen case Møller compares the manner in which the Dane - and others - attempted to game the system to the manner in which accountants game the taxation system, in order to reduce their clients' exposure to tax. Accountants aren't generally known for their sense of humour, but they do have one relevant joke here: 'What's the difference between tax avoidance and tax evasion? About five years.' Tax avoidance is perfectly legal, but tax evasion can land you in gaol. So, cutting to the quick of the Rasmussen case, which does Møller think Rasmussen was doing: avoiding or evading the whereabouts rules?

VM: "I am not a lawyer so I may have it wrong but there is no doubt in my mind that a level-headed interpretation of what Rasmussen did would result in the conclusion that it was a case of avoidance not evasion.

"It you read the Articles explaining what constitutes anti-doping rule violations in WADC 2003, which was the Code in force in 2007, it is explicit.

"Article 2.1 states the obvious, that 'The presence of a Prohibited Substance or its Metabolites or Markers in an Athlete's bodily Specimen' are forbidden and what this means is explained in detail in sub-paragraphs and comments. 2.2 says that both the 'Use or Attempted use of a Prohibited Substance or Prohibited Method' constitutes a violation as well. Then we have 2.3 which is important for our understanding of the distinction between evasion and avoidance.

"This Article says explicitly that: 'Refusing, or failing without compelling justification, to submit to Sample collection after notification as authorised in applicable anti-doping rules or otherwise evading Sample collection.' Here the word evading is used explicitly and reasonably. If a person notifies you and you refuse to give a sample, or simply run, away you are clearly evading sample collection.

"However this was not what Rasmussen did. 2.4 is the directly applicable rule violation to his case. It says: 'Violation of applicable requirements regarding Athletes availability for Out-of-Competition Testing including failure to provide required whereabouts information and missed tests which are declared on reasonable rules.' A comment to this Article even says: 'A violation of this Article may be based on either intentional or negligent conduct by the Athlete.' In light of this - even though Rasmussen intentionally misinformed about his whereabouts it appears unjustified to accuse him of 2.3 evasion of Sample collection.

"The strange thing about the whole debacle is the story about going to train in Mexico when Rasmussen indeed stayed and trained in Italy. The wisest thing he could have done if he had wanted to cheat was simply not open the door when the doping control officers came knocking. Since he could only get one warning at a time and the procedure with notification, hearing and response time took more than a month from a written warning was received till a recorded warning was issued. So Rasmussen could have just accepted the possibility of getting a warning for a missed test. He had room for that in his whereabouts budget and he got the recorded warning for providing incorrect information anyway.

"However, Rasmussen had been informed by the Danish Cycling Federation that he would be ineligible for the Danish National Team if he received one more recorded warning in addition to the one he already had. That is the only reasonable explanation I can see for his attempt to short-circuit the whereabouts system. Rasmussen thought he had figured out a way to immunise himself to warnings."

The irony of Rasmussen gaming the system to his own ends is that he wasn't alone in that. In order for the media to ask Jesper Worre of the Danish Cycling Union about Rasmussen's Whereabouts failures, someone had to let the media know that there was a question to be asked in the first place, someone had to feed the media the story. Worre was then able to justify his breaching the confidentiality of the Whereabouts system by saying that, in answering this question, he had no choice but to tell the truth. Which, naturally, leads to the question of just who it was who encouraged the media to ask the questions they did n the first place?

VM: "It is true that the whereabouts information and warnings given in relation to the whereabouts rule were confidential and should not have been published. The then head of the UCI Anti-doping operations, Anne Gripper, broke her duty of confidentiality when she informed the press that Rasmussen was under suspicion for doping because he often went to Mexico to train. This was confidential whereabouts information.

"In addition to this Gripper did not erase Rasmussen's Whereabouts information when it expired as she should have according to the Regulations [the UCI rules as written somewhat oddly required Whereabouts information to disappear as soon as the dates it related to passed]. Instead Gripper used this information as evidence when the UCI opened the doping case against Rasmussen.

"Furthermore, Gripper issued a warning against Rasmussen claiming he had sent the Whereabouts update too late although she had the envelope in possession where she could see it had been stamped twice in two different post offices [the envelope is reproduced in The Scapegoat]. Gripper focused on the date stamped in the second post office which was four days late despite the first stamp was given at the post office near his home in Lazise, Italy, and this was on time, June the 4th 2007.

"Even though Rasmussen insisted the letter was sent on time and Gripper had the evidence at hand she maintained in her report to first the Monagasque Cycling Federation (where Rasmussen held his licence), and after his appeal to CAS, that it had been sent no earlier than the 6th of June. So it is obvious that the UCI did not respect their own rules and honour the guarantees they give the athletes, which should be a real cause for concern for any rider under the auspices of the UCI.

"Having said that I am confident that the leak about whereabouts information stems from the Danish Cycling Union (DCU) because at first it was only Danish media which got the information. Moreover, DCU had a motive. Prior to the Tour de France the DCU received from the UCI a copy of the written warning letter to Rasmussen. This led the Director Jesper Worre to inform Rasmussen that he had broken their agreement so he was not eligible for the national team and he was also unwelcome at the Tour of Denmark [run by the DCU].

"Then, when Rasmussen suddenly took the yellow jersey and his popularity in Denmark grew to hysterical heights the DCU must have realised that they would look stupid if they didn't select him for the national squad. Furthermore it would be a PR disaster that they had broken his contract to ride in the Tour of Denmark which took place about a month after the end of the Tour de France."

In 2007, the Tour's organisers, ASO, were at war with the UCI over the ProTour. When the Rasmussen scandal erupted during the Tour, ASO's Christian Prudhomme went on the offensive, wanting to know why the DCU had released the information during the Tour. The conclusion Prudhomme came to was that this was part of a UCI-orchestrated campaign to bring down the Tour. Pat McQuaid denied this claim.

In the spirit of joining the dots and looking for links that may not exist, I wanted to know if the elevation of the DCU's Peder Pedersen to the UCI was in any way unusual. Have Danes historically been well represented within the UCI's circles of power?

VM: "Well, it is true that there is no long history of Danes in the UCI.

"But I don't suspect there has been a direct Danish UCI conspiracy in an attempt to harm the Tour de France management although I understand if Tour Director Christian Prudhomme thought so when the case erupted, because otherwise it must have been impossible for him to understand that the Danish Cycling Union should abort the biggest success a nation can get in the sport of Cycling.

"In any case when Peder Pedersen in 2009 hoped to move up in the UCI hierarchy by becoming Vice-President he was unsuccessful."

So much for the who did what and why questions. Time to turn to the anti-doping system itself. One of the key failures of the present anti-doping system seems to be the manner in which it is fractured, with international and national federations (UCI and, eg, DCU) and the international and national doping agencies (WADA and, eg, ADD) all sharing a similar role when it comes to anti-doping. The problem here is that each body - at national and international level - interprets and applies the rules in accordance with their own requirements. Conflicts of interest inevitably arise. The system needs to be reformed.

VM: "I feel safe to say that the Anti-doping system is flawed in many ways and I think you point out some of the core problems. It is definitely a problem that the system is far from harmonised.

"The whereabouts system, for instance, does only cover a fraction of the professional riders. Riders on the level below the Pro-Tour only needs to be clean on racing days. They can spend the time in between races to juice up as they like.

"In the broader scheme of things it is also a huge problem that testing is carried out locally, so the French test the French, the Russians test the Russians, the Danes test the Danes, and the Chinese test the Chinese. It goes without saying that this opens for different approaches and priorities. Does a nation want to be the world best in the various sports disciplines or does it strive to be known as the World's best at anti-doping?"

It isn't just those charged with policing doping who have conflicts of interests. In The Scapegoat Møller points to the arbitrary manner in which ASO apply their own rules. Compare and contrast, for instance, the cases of Bernard Thévenet and Bjarne Riis. When, a couple of months before the 2007 Tour, Riis confessed to having doped his way to victory, ASO immediately responded by saying his name would be wiped from the record. And briefly it was although later a change of mind was thought appropriate and the Tour's current Guide Historique puts an asterix against Riis's 1996 win. However, back in the 1970s Thévenet confessed that his 1975 and 1978 victories had happened when he was using cortisone, which had been banned back in the 1960s. Rather than sticking an asterix against Thévenet's name in the Guide Historique ASO's Christian Prudhomme claims that Thévenet never confessed, that that story was a media invention.

Or consider how the Tour's organisers dealt with Michel Pollentier in 1978. As everyone knows, Pollentier was caught trying to cheat the anti-doping control on the day he'd claimed the maillot jaune on Alpe d'Huez. Had Pollentier actually popped a positive, the rules in force at the time would have seen him handed a ten minute time penalty and a suspended suspension, along with a paltry fine. Instead, Pollentier was turfed off the race. While it was Rabobank who pulled Rasmussen from the 2007 Tour, the team had been put under pressure by ASO to deal with the matter before they brought further embarrassment to the race.

The conclusion drawn by Møller in The Scapegoat is that the Tour is more driven by the level of media furore than the rules themselves. Here's what Møller had to say when I put these cases to him:

VM: "What has been exposed, particularly since Operacion Puerto in 2006, is that cycling is business and that the business interest is much more important to those who manage the sport than the sport itself. When a number of riders were removed from the Tour in 2006 the decision was made to avoid bad press. There were no basis for the manoeuvre in the Regulations.

"When the blood passport was introduced it was also more than anything a PR thing and most disconcerting when the first five riders were banned on the basis of their blood profiles all were riding on teams whose sponsors had terminated their commitment and announced their withdrawal from the sport.

"Similarly in 2008 those who were popped for CERA all happened to be riding with teams whose sponsors had prior to the Tour decided to leave the sport, Saunier Duval and Gerolsteiner.

"In light of this I find it hard to accept that the TV channel Sky - who also pays for rights to broadcast the Tour Down under 2012 for instance - is allowed to not only sponsor British Cycling but a Pro-Tour team as well.

"The financial link between sponsors and organisers are in my opinion too big to be sound. Especially after the rumours of an unhealthy relationship between Lance Armstrong and the UCI which includes the allegations that a positive doping test of his was binned. I think such commercial linkages should be avoided."

The question of the inconsistent application of rules raises another issue. Prior to the 2007 Tour the UCI asked all riders to voluntarily sign a ‘Commitment to a New Cycling' under which they pledged a year's salary as an anti-doping fine should they be handed an anti-doping sanction. Rasmussen (reluctantly) signed his name on the dotted line (the voluntary nature of the Commitment was somewhat undermined by the UCI insisting that riders wishing to ride the Tour had to sign it). When Rasmussen attempted to return to the sport after his ban one of the obstacles put in his way was the year's salary - €700,000 - he was expected to pay as an anti-doping fine. But what of the other riders who signed that Commitment and received similar bans, how many of them were similarly penalised?

VM: "Effectively one... if indeed the one in question, Cristian Moreni, actually was paying and was not in fact paid by the UCI to say he was paying.

"The Commitment was not judicial valid so the UCI lost a case against Vinokourov. After this they also dropped their demand on Rasmussen. Prior to the CAS ruling Moreni allegedly paid an undisclosed amount to UCI in honour of the commitment.

"What deal has been struck between the UCI and Moreni would be interesting to know. I was informed by Rasmussen that he called Moreni to learn how much he had paid but Moreni would not talk about it."

One place where you might find an answer to this question is in the UCI's annual accounts. If you have a few hours to spare it's worth working through the UCI Financial Statements for the last few years and seeing for yourself how few of the anti-doping fines levied by the UCI ever end up getting paid. This issue is not as esoteric as it may seem: as part of the case against Alberto Contador the UCI sought the payment of fine of more than two million euro. The current state of play on that fine is not known.

Them's the numbers. Let's move on. Much of the debate around Rasmussen concerned the question of how many Whereabouts violations he had on his record and how two plus two was still less than three. But what of the other issue concerning those Whereabouts violations, the UCI rule requiring any rider in receipt of a recorded warning in the forty-five days before a Grand Tour to skip that race? The UCI decided not to apply this rule, given that it was soon to be repealed. I asked Møller whether, in ignoring this rule, the UCI were in breach of their own regulations?

VM: "Firstly, the rule that a rider should be barred from a Grand Tour if he was issued a warning within forty-five days of the race starting was, in my opinion, unfair. Firstly because the question whether a written warning should be recorded or the rider's explanation was accepted was highly subjective.

"Secondly because a rider could get a warning from the national anti-doping agency without the UCI being informed about it. In fact Anti-Doping Denmark was the only anti-doping organisation in the world which at that time informed the UCI about issued warnings.

"Thirdly because Grand Tours are the bread and butter for the top riders and their teams and the reason why the three warnings rule was decided in the first place was to leave room for unintended human errors.

"Having said that, it is true that when it comes to the international sports organisations it appears that they can bend the rules as they like because it is their rules and it is 'only' sport."

The big question to end this. Are we wrong to think of cycling as a sport, and so try to impose ‘sporting' rules on it? Would it not be fairer to see it as an adjunct of the marketing industry, a form of entertainment, in which case, anything goes so long as we get the winner we want to get?

VM: "Sport and commerce are intertwined in all professional sports nowadays, and in my opinion it does not need to be either sport or commercial entertainment as you imply. But I understand why you ask the question. The problem for cycling as a sport is its organisation.

"It is unhealthy for cycling as a sport that the biggest races are private property. That is, the organisers can pick and chose among the teams they want in their race. If a team has a rider who is eligible to race according to the rules but has a tarnished reputation the organisers can bar the rider or the entire team from the race as happened to Astana after the Vinokourov-Kasheskin blood-doping case in 2007 which meant that Contador who was handed the victory after the expulsion of Rasmussen in 2007 was not allowed to defend his throne in 2008.

"These decisions are detrimental to the understanding of cycling as a sport and should be made impossible by structural change."

How that change can be effected ... well that's a whole other question. Or series of questions. If the real problem here is the biggest races being private property - and so governed in a somewhat capricious manner - should we not welcome the UCI's attempts to muscle in on the racing calendar with their own races? Or should we be asking questions of how ASO, RCS, Unipublic and the few other large race organisers interpret their own rules? Shouldn't we demand the same level of transparency from them as we are demanding from the UCI?

Rather than addressing these questions to Verner Møller, let's leave them for you to work out your own answers.

* * * * *

Verner Møller is the author of The Doping Devil and The Scapegoat as well as The Essence of Sport, Doping and Public Policy and The Ethics of Doping And Anti-Doping - Redeeming The Soul Of Sport.

Our thanks to Verner Møller for taking the time to participate in this interview.