Monday, March 9, 2015

Inside the CIRC Report: Part I, Doping Knowledge

This is the first of what will be a series of posts on the Cycling Independent Reform Commission Report (available here). The report is substantive and covers a range of different issues. These posts are as essentially notes for me to help organize my thoughts, and if readers also find them of some use, so much the better. Comments are of course welcomed.

This first post asks, what did UCI know about systematic doping in cycling?

Prior to the release of the CIRC report, there were competing narratives on what UCI knew and when it knew what.

On the one hand, in 2012  the Daily Mail reported that that, "[Hein Verbruggen] the former head of world cycling knew about [Armstrong's] drug abuse and encouraged him to cover up his doping."

On the other hand, in response the Telegraph reported of Hein Verbruggen, "The man accused of covering up Lance Armstrong’s drug-taking has hit back at the American’s claims, branding them “b---s---”.

So which is it?

There is a bit of confusion here, which can be traced back to the USADA "Reasoned Decision" for entering headline-type allegations into the public discussion which, after investigation, do not appear to hold up. Even so, in the end, the CIRC concludes that UCI was not only deeply aware of doping in cycling, but helped to cover it up.

First the bits that need some clarification.
  • There has been rampant speculation that donations Armstrong made to UCI were in effect "bribes." The CIRC report finds "no evidence" to support a linkage between the donations and favorable treatment of Armstrong. However, "CIRC considers that UCI did not act prudently in accepting a donation from an athlete, all the more so given the rumours about him doping."
  • CIRC finds no evidence to support that UCI covered up a positive test of Armstrong at the 2001 Tour de Suisse. In fact, Armstrong's test was merely "suspicious" but not positive. CIRC notes that this is contrary to affidavits by Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis as part of the USADA "Reasoned Decision." CIRC raps USADA for allowing such allegation into the public discussion without proper investigation.
  • CIRC finds that UCI was complicit in facilitation Armstrong's backdating of a prescription: "it should have been obvious to UCI that the medical certificate provided by his doctor was backdated and solely provided to justify a posteriori the traces of triamcinolone found in the rider's urine." CIRC says that the UCI should have reported Armstrong and his doctor to "the criminal authorities and the relevant medical boards."  In this instance, CIRC does not name names, but Verbruggen was the head of UCI when it facilitated Armstrong's evasion of consequences for the positive doping test.
Based on these bits of CIRC report, earlier today Verbruggen issued a statement, which read in part:
I have studied the CIRC report and I am satisfied that it confirms what I have always said: that there have never been any cover-ups, complicity or corruption in the Lance Armstrong case (or, indeed, in any other doping cases) . . . 
In stark contrast, Brian Cookson, the current head of UCI called on Verbruggen to resign his position as "honorary president" of the UCI:
I am very concerned by what I read in the report about [Verbruggen]’s actions and I will write to him asking him to consider his position as honorary president.
The CIRC report goes into considerably more detail about Verbruggen's and Pat McQuaid's leadership of the UCI. These details offer ample support for Cookson's call for Verbruggen's resignation and makes Verbruggen's claim to exoneration look pretty silly.

Based on a review of various episodes 1992 to 2006, here is CIRC's very hard-hitting bottom line:
The doping problem was well known to the UCI leadership and it was clear to everyone that doping was endemic in cycling. Hein Verbruggen had acknowledged this, in principle in his campaign manifesto when running for president of UCI in 1991. After his election, UCI employed a strategy of diverting public opinion from the fact that UCI was responsible for the doping issue in cycling. Doping was portrayed by UCl leadership as the faulty (and surprising) behaviour of a few individuals, but not as endemic group behaviour or as a structural problem within its sport.

Not only did UCI leadership publicly disregard the magnitude of the problem, but the policies put in place to combat doping were inadequate. Credit should be given to the UCI insofar as it was at the forefront of anti-doping in introducing new testing techniques. However, the science is only one part of anti-doping strategy. To have an effective antidoping strategy, it is essential to get the right sample from the right rider at the right time and to the right laboratory. In the CIRC's view, there was not enough willingness to put such a system in place. The approach to doping was one of containment, with a focus on protecting health. Looking at the tools available to UCI to combat doping, there was no satisfactory commitment to push the fight against doping beyond the limits of health protection. Anti-doping policy was for the most part based on a predictable and quantitative approach. Going after the cheaters was perceived as a witch-hunt that would be detrimental to the image of cycling.

Since UCI's anti-doping strategy was directed against the abuse of doping substances rather than the use of them, only the visible tip of the iceberg was tackled. Deterrence was not an integral part of the strategy. Instead, the CIRC considers that the policies of announcing sample collections, notifying riders and leaving them unattended, gave riders the opportunity to adapt and to evade testing positive through medical supervision, whilst at the same time giving the impression to the public that cycling was trying to address the doping problem.

The emphasis of UCI's anti-doping policy was, therefore, to give the impression that UCI was tough on doping rather than actually being good at anti-doping.
Doping among professional cyclists was known to UCI, which sought to manage it as an unspoken norm of the sport. UCI went so far as to facilitate doping, intentionally and also as a consequence of health measures, and to protect athletes from scrutiny. The CIRC report offers a pretty depressing tale of corruption, abuse of power and disdain for rules.

People ask who won the Tour de France during this era. The CIRC report makes this question a bit more complex, and it is something I'll return to in the near future.


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