Are we too soft on cycling’s drug cheats?
Alberto Contador wins Vuelta Stage 17 (Image: AAP)
Two stories have been running hot in the cycling media recently. The return to competitive racing of Alberto Contador following a positive drug test and US Anti-Doping Agency giving Lance Armstrong a lifetime ban for doping violations.
I have asked myself the question for a long time whether the authorities have been doing enough to drive doping out of sport.
Sure, the UCI is doing more than a lot of other sports through the introduction of the biological passports, out of competition controls etc.
However, some riders are still trying to beat the system to get an unfair advantage over their competitors.
Simply, they are committing sport fraud.
I am not a professional athlete. Far from it. But I like to be as competitive as possible. But nothing has driven me to try to get an advantage over a fellow competitive outside training hard and being mentally tougher on the day.
So what drives a cyclists to dope? Is it the need to better than their competitors, the financially benefits or just the desire to win the biggest cycling race in the world – the Tour de France.
But the recent actions of Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador appear to be thumbing their nose at the authorities and at the punishment associated with the violation. During a speech a World Cancer Congress, Armstrong said:
“My name is Lance Armstrong. I am a cancer survivor, I’m a father of five. And yes, I won the Tour de France seven times.”
Contador is no better. When he crossed the line in Madrid after Stage 21 of the Vuelta he signalled to the crowd the number seven with his hands – seven grand tour victories. But two of those victories were stripped from him for doping violations. He would later say:
“Mentally, it is the image of the grand tours that I won,”
“What’s written down on paper could be one thing or another. But in the end what counts is your own feeling, and the memory that remains imprinted on the retinas of the fans. What’s on paper is secondary.”
If a cyclist has not accepted the punishment, then he has not clearly accepted any wrong doing.
These athletes are role models for the next generation of cyclists that are coming through the system. They should be telling them that doping is not acceptable, under any circumstance.
Self-confessed drug cheat, Tyler Hamilton, is happy to talk about his experiences, the wider problem of doping in the peloton and Lance Armstrong as he publicises his new book The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups and Winning at All Costs.
During a interview with Leigh Sales on the 7.30 Report, he said something that was quiet interesting.
“I was called by a federal investigator by the name of Jeff Novitzky and basically I went in front of the grand jury and told the whole truth. If not it’s a criminal – if you don’t tell the truth, you can go to prison.”
Why did Hamilton finally come clean? It was not the need to set the record straight. It was not his conscience telling him that it was the right thing to do.
It was not about giving the authorities an upper hand again. The drug cheats understand how athletes beat the system.
It did not matter that holding this secret was eating him up inside and that he was not prepared to take the secret to the grave. Hamilton need a reason to tell the world his secret.
It was the risk of prison. He did not want to go to prison or be separated from his loved ones. Finally, there was an incentive to set the record straight.
If prison was the only real incentive for Hamilton to come clean, then maybe, the UCI, WADA and the cycling federations need to adopt tougher penalties for drug cheats.
Doping is not a criminal offence, which limits the ability of authorities to hand down prison terms. But it does not stop them from permanently banning the athlete from competition. The punishment must be tough enough to send a signal that doping will not be tolerated.
Contador received a two-year ban, but he ultimately served just six-months away from competition as his suspension was back dated. He was immediately resigned by his team, therefore, he faced little financial consequences from the ban.
I have no faith that the authorities will take a tough enough position on doping that will cause a rider to question whether they should use EPO or some other performance enhancing drug. I am sure we will be having this debate in three years time.
But as Laurent Fignon said in his autobiography We Were Young and Carefree “There will always be a number of cheats, particularly because the core of our system, rather like the crisis-hit world economy, is completely perverted by money. It’s about money for its own sake.”
We have to turn off the money supply. The only way to do that is to take the riders out of the sport forever. Never to be welcomed back.
Too harsh? Maybe, but we must must get the incentives right so our young athletes do not get tempted to stick a needle in their arm so they can win.
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