Friday, July 04, 2008

Doping - Standards Apply to Everyone

Floyd's appeal denied.

Rasmussen suspended for two years.

It seems like the whole anti doping thing is working.

Or is it?

Govenor Rell signed a landmark ethics bill earlier this year. It gives a judge the right to revoke a crooked official's pension. I guess that makes sense, right? If you broke laws while you were "earning" your pension (and perhaps using power you had in that position to break laws, like a corrupt politician or law enforcement officer), then it's only right that if you are convicted that you lose the right to that pension.

It's like if, say, I won the Tour de France by using massive amounts of illegal performance enhancing drugs and then I got caught. It would make sense that I would have to give up my prize money.

The big thing with this type of penalty is that it takes away something already promised. The law says that you broke the law while earning your pension and therefore you don't get to collect it. As a normal citizen, the whole "taking away from you" is a big deal, so the whole conviction process has got to be right.

A long time ago someone local to my old home got pulled over for driving under the influence. The fact he was drunk was pretty irrefutable - when he rolled down the window to talk to the cop that pulled him over, he vomited on the cop. A bit perturbing, I'm sure, but the cop duly did the breathalyzer test. It came back with some whopping number, I forget the actual number but I want to say it was like a .25 or .30, something where the driver should have been dead, not driving.

He was charged, arrested, and went to court, and plead not guilty.

And, unbelievably, he was released.

The cop, in his perturbed state, forgot to check a box on some paperwork. And therefore the whole procedure was nullified.

I was really upset when I read about the drunk guy getting off, ranting and raving for a day or two. But then a lawyer friend of mine pointed out that, look, the cop made a mistake and legally the drunk guy was improperly charged (or something).

Recently a certain Tom Boonen tested positive for cocaine. It happens to be illegal in general wherever he was, just like it is here, but from a sporting point of view it's different. Technically it's considered cheating in cycling only if you take it so that it's in your system during competition. And since Boonen wasn't racing, it wasn't a sporting violation. It was a non-cycling issue.

So what prompted the anti-doping authorities to release the essentially clean results?

That's where I have a problem with the whole thing.

Okay, if they are legally obligated to report illicit drug use to the authorities, then fine, they can do that. And then the police would announce that they are investigating Boonen for cocaine.

But the anti-doping agency really has no business announcing what is effectively a clean (from a sporting point of view) drug test.

I started thinking about how unfair it is for Boonen. Just to clarify, I'm sort of a fan of his but not really. I prefer to cheer on riders more like me, and someone who rides a 60 cm frame is nothing like me. I choose to cheer on the McEwens, the Abdus, the little sprinters.

Anyway, that's not the point. The point is that I thought about other doping convictions or announcements relative to this, and relative to some other procedural things I had to do or that I witnessed.

A recent doping fiasco is that of Floyd Landis. A friend asked me what I thought would happen - at that time it was well into the Wiki defense thing and it'd been dragging on for a while. I told him that I thought that Floyd seems guilty, based on the carbon isotope test, but their reasoning to do that test was what I consider (my opinion) to be a flawed ratio test. Therefore I figured he'd be found not guilty on a technicality.

See, the anti-doping procedure was to do the ratio test, and if that came out non-negative, they'd do the isotope test. If the ratio test was negative, they'd stop at that point. The ratio test didn't seem conclusive but they went ahead and did the isotope test anyway.

That's where I thought Floyd would triumph.

It's like the missed check box. If you don't follow procedure in collecting evidence, then you have to dismiss your findings. It's only fair.

However, Floyd was found guilty and disqualified from the Tour. In the process he lost out on about $400k in prize money as well as other stuff I don't know about (daily prizes etc).

In contrast to that "positive", think about Tyler's Olympic Gold medal. His blood tested positive for an external transfusion (i.e. blood doping) but the anti-doping laboratories froze the B-sample, destroying it, at least as far as testing was concerned. Because Tyler had only one of two samples confirmed as a non-negative, he was found not guilty on a technicality. It seems the labs followed proper procedure there and they correctly let Tyler go because they couldn't prove the first non-negative.

Again, the missed check box. But this time the offender was released, as per the rules.

Let's take this Governor's bill again. Say a state official is arrested on some charge which, if true, would allow a judge to revoke the official's pension. Based on a technicality, perhaps a missing check box, he's found innocent.

Should they take away his pension?

Absolutely not.

He could be guilty as sin but if he's found innocent for whatever reason, he cannot be punished for that crime. Heck, I would hate to pay taxes to pay a convicted official's pension. Yet that's what I'm doing now. The law says that those corrupt officials get their pensions. If they did the same crime now, they wouldn't, but back then, the pension wasn't part of the deal.

The prosecutors and law enforcement folk are all obligated to follow procedure, to do the right thing. And if they don't follow procedure, the person who allegedly did something will walk. That's the way things work.

If the prosecutors or law enforcement folk cheat in order to convict a state official, that's criminal and they can be tried. At that point the prosecutors or law enforcement folk are the ones in the hot seat, and they're the ones who could lose their pensions.

That is how anti-doping should work.

If a lab screws up somehow, say by releasing a test result, they should be penalized. Perhaps the technicians can be suspended for two years on their first offense, for life for the second. Maybe the lab would be considered "dirty" and have to go through its licensing procedures before doing another test. It's only fair because they are the ones that find the solid evidence used to suspend racers.

And if they do something to hurt a rider, like release results of a test, they should have to forfeit their salary, just like a rider forfeits his.

Trust goes two ways here, and right now I don't think either side is trustworthy. Do I trust a leaked non-negative test result?


The simple fact that it was leaked is a problem because it's supposed to remain secret.

A leaked test result should nullify the test result, no matter what. Remember Joe Papp? When did we first hear he was positive? When he testified at Floyd's hearing. There was nothing before that, nothing to suggest any unusual activities, save the fact that he'd retired from racing. Whichever organization did his testing did their job and never let anyone know about it.

If a test result is leaked, the test result should be nullified. Okay, fine, you can target that racer for a gazillion more tests, but the particular test which was leaked should not count.

After losing a few "positives" like this because of a lab's loose lips, I would bet that either the lab would tighten up or the anti doping authorities would use a different lab.

The first time we should hear about a positive is after the second sample is tested and it's official. We should never, ever hear about a "non-negative" (the first test is not a positive since it hasn't been verified by a second test, so it's called a "non-negative"), a name associated with a non-negative, not even rumors that "a highly placed rider" tested positive.

There needs to be one major change in the doping procedure for this to work. Every single second sample needs to be tested. There are a number of benefits to this and two huge drawbacks.

First, the benefits.

Every rider will be asked to verify that the second sample was not tampered with prior to the test. This means it won't be unusual for a rider to do this verification. The rider cannot be the source of the leak because they won't know if they were non-negative or positive. Therefore the rider cannot leak a result to get it nullified.

Testing the second sample will verify the lab's results, good or bad, not just the sample's contents. Any difference in results would throw out the case and nothing will happen to the athlete.

The drawbacks.

Okay, fine, it'll cost a lot of money. Right now it takes $1000-1500 for the most primitive tests. The test itself is inexpensive - about $450 or so. It's the (in the US) USADA personnel and the courier fees that cost a lot (some tests may cost $800+ in courier fees alone!). Getting a rider to verify the second sample will be a pain but it has to be done. This way there is no way the rider will know they're dealing with a non-negative.

By doing this, USADA (and WADA) will restore faith in the testing system. No lab will go running off its mouth because it'll be suspended from performing further tests for two years. And since the athletes won't know if they're non-negative, they can't spread rumors either.

If things worked this way, I'd have faith in the system. And I'd be satisfied with every single suspension. As it is now, it seems too shaky. I think both sides break the rules and that's not good.

Note: since I thought of this in a haze during Tour of PA, someone should drill holes in this idea. Otherwise I'll send it to the USADA :)


daniel m (a/k/a Rant) said...


That's a seriously fine piece of writing. Excellent analysis. I'm on board with what you say, 100%.

- Rant

Chole said...

I'll sign onto that! Too many of the doping stories in the media sound too much like it's the lab's fault. You'd think that there would be a system of checks and balances in place, but there's not.

Or maybe I've just got a soft spot for the riders in my heart.

Aki said...

daniel - thanks for the comment, esp from someone much better versed in the whole doping controversy.

Interestingly enough I came across a good book about doping the day after this post which I'll re-read for the third time before I post a review on it.

chole - I'm a suspicious one at heart but I think that it works both ways. I still think it's not good when someone "obviously" guilty of something gets away with it due to a technicality, but then I also think it's bad news when someone is released from prison 15 years after being wrongly convicted.