Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Doping - It's My Sandbox

In the doping world there are the dope positives and the dope negatives, i.e. those who do and those who don't. The two don't seem to mix well. There are teams (and this is partially speculation on the my part) where some teams are sort of dirty and some are not.

The riders from the dirty teams seem to subscribe to a certain moral (non-) standard - and when an anti-doping movement hits the team, the "dirty" riders flee like rats off a sinking ship.

For example of this, take a look at T-Mobile. Last year, under its old world leadership, T-Mobile was a doping fiasco. The team leader, the (in)famous Jan Ullrich, retired under a DNA-linked blood bag cloud. Another racer, Oscar Sevilla, also found his way into the unemployment lines.

In response to this flurry of negative publicity the team staff were shuffled and the leadership replaced.

Suddenly their top remaining racer, one that vocalized support for the beleaguered Ullrich, quit his leadership role to move to another team (Astana) as a super-domestique, a non-leader. He was followed by a Tour stage winning German, a revelation from the 2006 Tour.

Two other 2006 revelations chose to stay with the team in the "cleansing" 2007 year. One, a dual stage winner in the 2006 Tour, ended up fired after blood tests revealed "abnormalities". Another tested positive for testosterone during a team training camp (Note: the team didn't test for testosterone or other drugs in their internal tests - just blood volume type tests). He is fighting for his job but it seems like he'll be let go too.

It didn't stop there. A lot of the support staff stayed on between 2006 and 2007 but as former team racers admitted to doping and receiving help from team personnel, the two doctors aligned with the team confessed their past doping activities and were let go from the team.

Even the team director confessed to doping for much of his career. However, in an unusual step, team management kept him, saying that he was so respected by his peers that they couldn't let him go.

It seems that the old school T-Mobile team was indeed strife with dopers. The reborn T-Mobile team is cleaning house, slowly perhaps, but definitely steadily. It's like getting rid of a cold - you get rid of the actual cold but it takes a while to cough up the phlegm.

There really aren't many people in the 2007 T-Mobile team left from the supercharged 2006 team. But then again, it's like sticking a big magnet in the middle of a bunch of magnetized steel. In this case it was a big anti-doping magnet. Some of the team members stuck and stayed. A whole bunch of other metal got pushed away.

Given the perceived level of doping in the peloton, it's actually amazing that not all the racers were kicked off the team. It gives hope to those that are so skeptical of the possibility of any clean riders (or as Jorg Jaske said, "the 3% that don't dope").

So where do those repelled doped riders end up?

There are teams out there that place victory over morality. Cheating, playing with a stacked deck, that's okay for those teams. Their sponsors demand victory at all costs. And they seem to welcome sketchy racers if there is a possibility of a win.

It's like the kid that shows up at the sandbox with a bunch of cool toys - but ignores all the sandbox rules. Kind of interesting when they show up but the game gets really old when you realize they're not playing by the rules.

One such team appears to be the Astana team. Their magnet is perhaps oppositely polarized to the T-Mobile one. Created from the wreckage of the much aligned Liberty Seguros team (which has the dubious distinction of having the first Grand Tour winner disqualified due to EPO), it grew a bit weed-like and chaotically into its current state. Now essentially the Khazakstan national pro team, the team is led by a movie character soldier with piercing blue eyes and shocking blonde hair. He's joined by Ullrich's former lieutenant (and a vocal Ullrich supporter). Others include a teammate at the pink team who won that stage in the 2006 Tour.

That last racer, the 2006 Tour stage winner, tested for testosterone in a surprise out-of-competition test during the spring. No chance for any masking agents, powder for the pee, just do it and pray they mix up the samples. Per official team policy, he was fired. He's German so not a threat to Khazakstan's national pride.

The lieutenant has been dogged by doping allegations from the old world Telekom/T-Mobile team. He's come out clean so far though. And he's German too, so not too much concern there.

The movie star leader? He just tested positive for blood doping - transfusing someone else's blood in order to gain a competitive advantage.

An interesting problem. He's Khazakstan. A soldier for his country. The Prime Minister is among his fans. In a country filled with strife, he's a hero that they look to for inspiration (or perhaps to escape their reality).

He got caught out by a new test, one not regularly used, and it was done after the competition (not the next morning). The kicker was that it was a blood test. This meant that all the normal procedures to mask one's urine's drug traces were useless. The movie star walked into the doping van expecting to pee into a cup and instead looked at a doctor holding a big syringe.

What a shock that must have been.

His teammate was able to escape for a bit (although I don't know what you'd do to escape a blood transfusion test - there's no "masking agents" for flourescent blood markers). But the leader, faced with the needle, he must have known the game was up. The next day he performed poorly, losing almost 30 minutes to the front runners. The following day, perhaps in a show of defiance, he set off in a day-long break and won a spectacular stage.

Too spectacular as it turns out.

Apparently he's pulled out of the Tour. And taken his whole team with him. I guess it's like those sandbox bullies.

If they can't play their way, they're leaving the sandbox. And taking all their friends with them.

Well, good riddance.

It'll be more fun in the sandbox now.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you that it's good when the bullies leave the sandbox. I just hope that, as they go kicking a lot of sand around in their petulant anger, they don't hurt our sandcastles (am I stretching your metaphor too far?). I love racing, but I don't want the bad vibes to trickle down to the F.J.C. sandbox.

Aki said...

Hate to say this but we've definitely had teams whose riders have tested positive at Bethel. I can't recall if we've had the actual racers but I don't think so.