Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Eye for Eye
Yesterday, two arguably related stories hit the wires within hours of each other. The first involved various outlets’ extractions from Bernhard Kohl’s “tell-all” interview with L’Equipe. In that interview, the young Austrian, who won the King of the Mountains jersey at last year’s Tour de France and then promptly got popped for CERA use, put forth the idea that the UCI’s much-vaunted (by them) and much-maligned (by others) biological passport system was actually helping riders dope by giving them a constant stream of good data about their blood levels. Using that information, they were able to stay in bounds while still mucking around with their blood enough to get a good boost.
A few hours later, the UCI announced that Katusha’s Toni Colom tested positive for EPO in a test conducted on April 2, two weeks after he won the final stage of Paris-Nice. The UCI statement prominently read, “This abnormal result is the direct result of a targeted test based on information taken from his blood profile and knowledge of his competition schedule.” In other words, “We got him because of the biological passport. Take that, you bastards.”
Well, didn’t that work out nicely? Now, maybe I’ve become too cynical, but it strikes me as a bit too coincidental that the UCI finally got their Colom press release prose just the way they wanted it for release the same day the Kohl article hit the newsstands. “But aha!” you say, “the UCI release says that Colom was informed of his positive the previous day, June 8, so it couldn’t have been timed to coincide with the Kohl article.”
You raise a good point, but by June 8, the cat was already out of the bag on what Kohl had spilled to L’Equipe. Run on Saturday, June 6 on the L’Equipe web site, this story gave a hint of what was to come, and ended with the note: “La confession complète de Bernhard Kohl, à lire ce mardi, dans L'Equipe.” Or, “read the complete confession of Bernhard Kohl, Tuesday in L’Equipe.” No, the teaser doesn’t mention Kohl’s disdain for the biological passport program, but with a few days of warning, it might not have been too difficult for the UCI to find out where else the interview would be headed. As we know from past experience, the walls of many of these organizations are notoriously thin.
So what’s the big deal? The problem is that playing this sort of tit-for-tat game with riders, test results, and sanctions just undermines the credibility of the testing system. When people see that news of positive tests is being released according to an organization’s political needs, rather sporting considerations, they become suspicious, and rightfully so. The take home message becomes that the regulations and associated testing are not there to ensure as clean a sport as possible in the most expedient manner possible, but rather that the tests and their results are ammunition to be carefully stored away until someone steps out of line. Then, with the organization’s actions in question, the tests are pulled out as a defense carefully wrapped in a cloak of proactive enforcement.
Of course, like I said, I may just be too cynical, and indeed the timing of the two stories may all be a big coincidence. Still, that coincidence only highlights another lesson the UCI and its associated tangle of testers and sanctioning bodies need to learn: that the appearance of impropriety can be just as damaging as actual impropriety. If they were so suspicious of Colom, why did it take over two months to get the testing done and make the announcement? And if they were comfortable with such a lengthy timeframe despite their suspicion, which they clearly were, why not wait another day or two to make the announcement? Had they done so, they might have avoided looking like they’re engaging in a petty schoolyard game of “Is not! Is too!” with critics of the passport system. At the very least, they might not have looked as if they’re sitting on a pile of test results, waiting to throw them out like aces in a game of blackjack. As it stands, we’re just left wondering how many more of those cards they’re holding, and whose faces are on them.
Kohl’s point raises another question about both the biological passport, and the various longitudinal tests teams are conducting internally. Kohl and others point out that supplying riders with their own data effectively provides them with a blood monitoring service, allowing them to manipulate their blood more carefully and stay within the rules. Put like that, giving them all that data sounds like a bad idea, eh?
On the other hand, most people, bike riders included, take it as a given that they have a right to access their own medical data. They do so first because, well, it’s theirs, and second because it gives them some means to identify and defend themselves against inaccuracies in the system. Finally, as we saw with the Armstrong/Caitlin testing fiasco, and with various similar testing programs put forth by teams such as Garmin, CSC, and Columbia, the public seems convinced that absolute transparency is the way to a clean sport. They want people’s blood values, damn it, online and in real time, and if a team does anything less, they must be hiding something. But of course, it’s kind of hard to give the world at large all the facts without the riders logging on for a peek, and using it however they see fit.
So which’ll it be? Transparency for all, or keep the blood data secret, thus placing blind faith in the hands of the testers? The first is certainly dangerous, if what Kohl claims is true. The second, unfortunately, is probably even worse.
One final note: It took us awhile, but the Service Course has finally made it to 100 posts. It’s too bad it had to be one about dope, but oh well, you work with whatever material's on hand.