Friday, 24 August 2012

Lance Armstrong, doping, and sport

Lance Armstrong has been fending off accusations of doping since his first Tour de France win in 1999. Today I read that he has decided to forego arbitration in a recent challenge brought by the American anti-doping agency. This effectively allows a default judgment against him by that body and the loss of his seven consecutive Tour titles. While reading about the many doping scandals associated with cycling: Jacques Anquetil, Team Festina, Eddy Merckx, Steven Rooks, Richard Virenque, and many others, I can't help but be disappointed that riders feel they need to use various doping methods to compete with others who are doing the same thing. On the other hand, as a fan of the sport, I find it impossible to enjoy any race when there is no way to know if the race results are final because a doping agency can at any time claim that the winner was doping and should be disqualified. I don't mind the idea of doping controls in cycling. It is not good for the rider's health and should be discouraged. However, the sport ceases to be interesting when it is doping agencies and not the ability of the racers themselves that determines the winner. The racers may as well have the quality of their urine samples judged and skip the race. The problem, as shown in the recent events connected to Lance Armstrong, is that anti-doping agencies feel that they have the authority to retroactively punish riders at any time, regardless how many years have passed since the offense in question. Why, if for very good reasons that are part of US law, are statutes of limitations not a part of doping control? Also, if doping control measures are so inept that they cannot be relied upon until many years after a purported offense, how can a later test or re-evaluation be trusted after such a passage of time? Also, how can an accusation made years after the fact be done without compromising the person accused? One solution could be for doping control to be exercised up to the moment of a race, and then to end right there. Riders are pre-qualified to race, but once this is done, the race results will stand, no matter what is discovered after the fact. In this way, results can be trusted by the fans, races themselves will be more interesting to watch, and responsibility will be placed where it belongs: on the doping authorities. If their technology is not able to reliably pre-qualify riders, then the technology used to control for doping is not sufficient for doping control at all. Until a method can be invented that is capable of controlling for this prior to the commencement of a race, doping control will always compromise the quality of the races themselves and unfairly prejudice a rider's ability to defend against doping charges. We aren't in the middle ages any more, when late accusations had the weight of absolute proof, but in a modern age where the accused--at least usually--have rights. As Armstrong notes in his defense against the current charges, after taking thousands of doping tests and passing every single one of them, all of the forensic evidence is in his favor. If this is true, either that type of testing is completely invalid and should be immediately dropped, or it conflicts so severely with the witness testimony the USADA is relying upon that no impartial observer could hope to reliably sort out which is true. If the tests are right, then Armstrong is innocent and the witnesses are lying. If the witnesses are right, then the tests are invalid and should never be used again. Either way, without some kind of time limit during which charges may be made, cyclists are not treated fairly by the system and fans of the sport have their enjoyment spoiled by the ever-present possibility that race outcomes can be overturned at any time. If the cycling anti-doping agencies had the health of the sport in mind, they would be willing to submit to some controls on their own activities that would pressure them to make timely reports and to live with the consequences. For the health of the sport, some kind of controls need to be placed on the anti-doping agencies. At a minimum this should include pre-qualifying racers and a statute of limitations. Until these are enacted, I intend to boycott all cycling events. I've gone to the Tour de France twice in person, but next year, I'll be vacationing in some other country. I won't be buying the Tour highlights videos that I started buying in 1999, and will no longer be buying team jerseys. What the USADA has done to Armstrong and others is an affront to the sport, and until it is redressed, as far as I am concerned, the sport is dead.