The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) last week announced that it plans to double the length of doping suspensions from two years to four for first-time offenders. It’s one of a handful of proposed amendments to WADA’s Anti-Doping Code aimed at tamping down cheating in sport. The new code will be put to vote at the World Conference on Doping in Sport in Johannesburg and would take effect in 2015.
The move for longer terms would affect “real cheats,” which WADA says includes those who use anabolic steroids, human growth hormone, masking agents, and who traffic in prohibited methods and substances. Other proposals include increasing the agency’s flexibility in sanctioning those convicted of cheating, lengthening the statute of limitations on offenses that can be prosecuted, and extending punishments to athletes’ support staff.
I say, “Bravo!” Any athlete who is using the substances on the “real cheats” list is clearly out to dupe the system, and if we’re serious about fairness in sports then more severe punishments—to a point—can only be considered a good thing. Cyclists are running neck-and-neck with the U.S. Congress in credibility at the moment, and the more that can be done to publicly signal an ambition to change will certainly help. Case in point: At this year’s Amgen Tour of California, it was refreshing—and it inspires some confidence—to see Tejay Van Garderen atop the leaderboard and no sign of Levi Leipheimer or any of the vestiges of the sullied past.
Some of the most zealous anti-doping crusaders have called for lifetime bans for first offenders, but frankly I’m relieved at WADA’s prudence. I think of Sylvain Georges, the AG2R-La Mondiale rider who returned a positive doping control at the Giro d’Italia for the vasodilator Heptaminol, which the Frenchman said he later learned is present in the over-the-counter homeopathic remedy Ginkor Fort that he had been taking to manage swelling in his legs. Without passing judgment on whether Georges ingested Heptaminol inadvertently or if he’s simply found a good cover, I’d argue that if the positive is indeed a result of a mistake then Georges hardly deserves a lifetime ban.
I can already hear the cynics maligning my naiveté: No pro cyclist would ingest anything without team approval, they’ll say, so the presence of any drug must signal intent to cheat. I understand that skepticism given the dark history, and I don’t blame the mistrust. But let’s remember that this is sport, which is meant to be light and entertaining and uplifting, and if we can’t at least try and give riders the benefit of the doubt then is there any point in tuning in at all?
Mistakes happen, athletes should be presumed innocent until proven otherwise, and there should be some leniency for riders who err and change. Four years is plenty for a first-time offense, and I applaud WADA’s attempt to add “more flexibility” to sanctioning and the “consideration of the principles of proportionality and human rights” to the new code.
WADA also gets it right in these new proposals with the provision that sanctions should encompass “athlete support personnel who are involved in doping.” One of the most unjust and ridiculous aspects of the entire doping debacle of recent years is the way that riders have been sanctioned and cast out while team managers, directors, doctors, soigneurs, and even financial backers aren’t held accountable. I’m not saying it’s impossible that there are cases where athletes acted alone. But it certainly seems that in many instances there’s been team complicity at the least and systemic cover-ups at the worst. (Just think of everyone who was involved if the USADA report about Lance Armstrong and US Postal is correct.)
If we continue to just hang the athletes out to dry, the people who are facilitating and benefiting from the cheating will continue to go on and do it elsewhere. Does anyone really believe, for instance, that Leipheimer was guilty but his team director, Patrick Lefevre, who has worked with convicted dopers in the past such as Johan Museeuw and Richard Virenque, had no inkling of what was going on? Teams are happy to take the results as they come, but they are quick to wash their hands of riders when they are caught. WADA’s proposal to extend sanctions to support personnel—as well as the extension of the statute of limitations from eight years to 14—should help to get at the broader networks that prop up the cheats.
Overall, the suggested changes to WADA’s Anti-Doping Code are smart and balanced. But the proposals fall short on the subject of how bans are applied. There’s no mention of backdating, a practice that has taken the teeth out of many sanctions in recent years. Frank Schleck, for instance, was handed a one-year ban for his positive for Xipamide, but he will only end up sitting out five and a half months as the ban, which was announced on January 30th, 2013, was applied retroactively to his failed test date of July 14, 2012.
The same was the case with Alberto Contador, who received a two-year ban for Clenbuterol but was only out of competition from February through August because of backdating. When riders are found guilty, they should be forced to sit out the full length of their term from the date of the decision—even a four-year ban could amount to little more than a slap on the wrist if 75 percent of it is written off through backdating.
The broader issue, however, is how long it takes for these cases to be prosecuted. Over 18 months passed between Contador’s positive test and the final ruling that saw him banned, and many therefore argued that it was only fair to backdate his sentence. Or how about the continued wrangling over Operation Puerto, which began in May 2006 and has still yet to be fully resolved?
When doping cases drag on, they also drag the sport through the. It leads to the type of cynicism that sees fans wanting to send athletes away for life no matter what. And it also raises the question of whether the authorities are serious about stamping out cheating or just dragging cases on long enough that we all get so fed up that we just want to forget it. I want to be able to urge fans to have faith and give athletes the benefit of the doubt. But it’s difficult when these cases never seem to resolve.
The best thing WADA could do—and the biggest proposal missing from the new code—is a means of streamlining and expediting consideration and judgment of cheats. After all, I’m tired of talking about it. Aren’t you?