Say it ain’t so, Floyd

Aug 5, 2006

So what’s a cycling fan to do, when the winner of the Tour de France, and an American at that, gets a positive drug test, especially after an epic stage like Floyd had a few short weeks ago? If you’re a regular person, or Greg Lemond, you just assume he cheated and he’s guilty and should be run out of cycling period. But the problem with drug testing is that it creates an aura of “guilty until proven innocent”, the same aura that dogged the entire tour after all the high-profile banishments hours before the race was to begin. Ullrich I’m not so sure about, he’s the type of personality who could very well have been doing something he wasn’t supposed to. Basso seems much less of a likely suspect, he’s not perfect and he doesn’t have the pressure to live up to. Much like Tyler Hamilton a couple of years ago, still trying to clear his name, after being accused of injecting someone else’s blood in order to boost performance. This from the guy that was known as the boy scout of cycling.

The same with Landis. They’ve found excessive testosterone in his system, and just like Tyler there are only two possibilities, either he knowingly put it there, or he didn’t. Since both Floyd and Tyler profess their innocence, and really would have been completely delirious to have doped purposefully and thought they could get away with it, I’m inclined to believe both of them. Otherwise, in Floyd’s case as in Tyler’s two years ago, either someone close to him did it without his knowledge, or it was some sort of contamination in something else he took (less likely with the blood), or there’s some sort of contamination in the test (also unlikely), or there’s some sort of conspiracy against them that would involve either someone on the team slipping them something or else at the lab itself. That would make a great tv movie, but it’s hard to imagine it happening, particularly with Tyler, who won a stage and finished on the podium but was nearing the end of his career anyway, what would be the point? Landis is more likely of a target, but still it seems farfetched that he could somehow be the victim of what would need to be a hastily conceived conspiracy, given that all his other test results were fine prior to his big stage win.

So if they didn’t do it knowingly, and it wasn’t done to them maliciously, then the possibility that it was some sort of accident has the most credence, although admittedly not much more than the other options. If the accident was in the inadvertent ingesting of some banned substance into their system, or for that matter even if somebody did it to them without their knowledge, and then one of them goes and wins a stage the next day, like it or not it’s still technically cheating I suppose. The UCI has determined what is an abnormal ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone (T/E). If you have that ratio (11:1 in Floyd’s case where normal is 4:1, although Floyd says it was because the E was low rather than that the T was high), then you have what the UCI considers an unfair advantage, whether it’s natural or an accident or malicious or self-inflicted.

And this is one of the several things that is wrong with the drug testing. Not only are the tests suspect and the testers themselves suspect, but the very idea of setting standard thresholds is the assumption that anyone that exceeds them for any reason has an unfair advantage, as though sports should be judged on such a level playing field that any sort of natural physical advantage is suspect. One could forsee a time in the near future if this continues where someone like Lance, with a natural resting heart rate of 35 bpm or whatever it was, would be banned because the UCI had decided that anything below 40 bpm was an unfair advantage, or just plain cheating.

The only time I can think of that someone was exonerated after testing positive was Gilberto Simoni having cocaine in his system during the Giro, which caused him to drop out, only to have everyone finally concur that he got it from his trip to the dentist shortly before the race began. But while it was a banned substance it wasn’t considered a performance enhancer, so a mea culpa was easier for WADA or the UCI to give in that case. Now with all those guys implicated in Operacion Puerto just before the start of this year’s tour, we’ve already found out that entire teams worth of athletes, Astana-Wurth and Communidad Vallencia, have been exonerated. In these cases they hadn’t tested positive for anything but only been linked to a doctor accused of doping, but the linkage alone was enough to drum them out of the tour and to have the main sponsors of both teams pull out of cycling, damaging their credibility and their careers for years to come. This is where this shoot first and ask questions later approach is at its most disturbing.

There’s a lot of unanswered questions in these cases, even Tyler’s, two years on, doesn’t seem to be any closer to the truth than it was when it started. This isn’t like Barry Bonds or Mark Magwire, where you can tell by the pattern of their careers, and for that matter just by looking at them, that something is fishy, and their repeated denials or refusals to comment sound more strident and desperate with every new allegation. But while there are plenty who think everyone is doping and Tyler and Floyd as just two of the more high profile ones to get caught, I’ve got to think there’s more to it than that. Given the relative weakness of the cyclist’s union to actually stand up for its members (unlike, say, the NFL Players Association), plus their guilty verdicts both in the media and the court of public opinion, and barring some sudden confession a la David Millar, it seems hopeless that we’ll ever know for sure.

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