Riders are still able to avoid the latest detection methods for ‘doping’ by taking small but regular amounts (micro doses) of banned substances according to a new report.
The report was set up to investigate the International Cycling Union (UCI), clearing its bosses of outright corruption but outlining a number of their failings. It also suggests that the UCI did not really want to catch cheats and therefore turned a blind eye to anything but the worst incidents and breaches.
The report has been conducted by the Cycling Independent Reform Commission whose author’s accuse former UCI presidents Hein Verbruggen and Pat McQuaid of failing to follow their own anti-doping rules and showing preferential treatment to disgraced former champion Lance Armstrong.
The investigation consists of interviews from 174 anti-doping experts, officials and riders and other parties. It was compiled by chairman Dr Dick Marty and two vice chairs, Professor Ulrich Haas and Peter Nicholson. There is no doubting their credentials when it comes to investigations; Dr Marty is a Swiss politician who formerly investigated the CIA’s use of secret interrogation prisons in Europe. Professor Haas is a German anti-doping expert and Peter Nicholson is an Australian who has investigated international terrorism and war crimes.
It may seem a little extreme to use such experts and expenses but it is certainly a serious issue, perhaps more so than it would seem on the surface. For example many of the interviewees suggested the UCI should only try to contain the problem and make sure the riders did not kill themselves and that actually catching the cheats was bad for the sport’s reputation.
UCI president Brian Cookson, thanked the panel for its work, seeming to agree with a lot of the indicated failings. He said: “It is clear that in the past the UCI suffered severely from a lack of good governance with individuals taking crucial decisions alone. Many [of these decisions] undermined anti-doping efforts, put the UCI in an extraordinary position of proximity to certain riders, and wasted a lot of its time and resources in open conflict with organisations such as the World Anti-Doping Agency and US Anti-Doping Agency.”
Cookson added that his predecessors and those close to them regularly interfered in anti-doping cases which “served to erode confidence in the UCI and the sport.”
The investigation explains that one of the most detrimental periods was the early 1990s when Erythropoietin (EPO), a method that increases oxygen delivery to the body through blood, became readily available. Following this time there was a Mafioso-like philosophy of ‘Omerta’, which is a code of silence and secrecy not to report anything to the authorities. The suggestion of there being a cover-up culture was also apparent in the report’s conclusion stating that “going after the cheaters was perceived as a witch-hunt that would be detrimental to the image of cycling.”
With no test for EPO until 2000 the report says “it would have been hard to overestimate the prevalence of drug use in the peloton” at this time, suggesting that it would have been more unlikely for a rider to be clean than to be doping during this period.
Lance Armstrong Doping
Even after the introduction of a test for EPO, governance of the sport seemed poor, especially with its handling of Lance Armstrong on several occasions. Examples of this include:
- World champion Laurent Brochard in 1997 and Armstrong in 1999 were both allowed to backdate medical prescriptions to avoid sanctions, a clear breach of anti-doping rules.
- Armstrong was allowed to ride at the 2009 Tour Down Under despite not being available for testing the required six month’s beforehand.
- After the 2006 report into Armstrong’s alleged positive tests at the 1999 tour senior UCI staff were desperate to shift blame away from the rider and onto the laboratory that leaked the results and the World Anti-Doping Agency.
- The UCI asked for and accepted two large donations from Armstrong and enquired about a more regular gift as late as 2008.
- The UCI repeatedly defended Armstrong against accusations of cheating, supporting him in two high-profile legal cases.
One of the cycling professionals interviewed felt that even today, 90% of the peloton are doping. This is only one opinion, but a common response to the commission, when asked about the teams, was that probably three or four were clean, three or four were doping and the rest were classified as ‘don’t know’.
The 227 page report may be considered as a blow to professional cycling but the Cycling Independent Reform Commission did acknowledge the vast improvements made towards the anti-doping campaign, particularly after 2006. This included a more aggressive approach to catching cheats, greater investment in anti-doping and the early adoption of the biological passport.
The biological passport monitors the rider’s blood changes over time and is considered the most effective tool in the fight against cheats since the EPO test was introduced. According to the report the biological passport means that micro doses of doping products are now used boost performance by just “3-5% gains, instead of the 10-15% in the EPO era.”
Cyclists Doping in 2015
Interviewees made it clear that the doping culture has not been eradicated with many concerns centring on the ready availability of unethical doctors and falling cost of doping products. The lack of knowledge of where riders are training or who they are training with at all times may also be a factor.
Suggested possible solutions to the doping culture include:
- Centralised pharmacies at races
- A powerful rider’s union
- A greater encouragement of whistle-blowing, without them being publicly criticised
- More testing done overnight to catch those taking micro doses
- Retesting of samples when scientific advances allow
A culture of drugs within any sport should not be acceptable, as it may encourage fans of the sport to embrace potentially dangerous substances, especially if the negative aspects are swept under the rug or there are little consequences for the competitors caught using them. For more information visit Our Drug List here
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