I think I have a solution for Froome et al. A few posts ago I described the conundrum top riders find themselves in; how to prove the unprovable, that you ride cleanly. Reading and watching some Tour de France coverage this month has not made me any more optimistic, but not on account of the riders. It’s most of the media that seems to have learned little (with hopeful exceptions). But don’t despair!
Conscious of their failure to seriously address doping in the EPO era, it seems that many journalists have vowed to not make that mistake again. So every chance they get, they bug riders with the dreaded “Are you clean” question. Sometimes it’s even dressed up as a service to their audience, gramatical error included: “Can you promise our viewers you are riding clean?”
In the history of sport, I am not aware of any athlete who has ever spontaneously answered “No” to that question. This makes it a non-question, a podium purportedly showing the journalist’s commitment to “asking tough questions” without really asking anything. I am actually amazed at the patience riders have for this question.
I’m not sure which is worse, the journalists who keep repeating this same question or those who ask it once and then proclaim that “Froome has been asked the question, he has answered it and that’s what we have to go with.” Really, is that the media’s job? To ask a rhetorical question and then when you get the only answer you could possibly get, declare the case closed? Isn’t that exactly what they did in the Armstrong years, ask the same, get the same answer and go with it?
Careful, I am not accusing Froome of being in any way similar to Armstrong, what I am saying is that the media doesn’t give Froome any chance to prove he is far different from Armstrong. And no, publishing power data or blood values would not help him either – Armstrong has done some of that too in his career.
The epiphany came to me when I heard an ex-rider (Rob Harmeling) tell a journalist that he should continue to chase the doping story, but refrain from insinuating without proof or “lying in the bushes to follow riders”. Very sensible advice, but after initial disgust, riders may warm to the idea of finding some journalist behind a tree while mowing the lawn.
Would it not be a a godsend for Froome if a journalist spends the next year lying in the bushes following him, and then reports he found nothing? Would that not be one of the few ways even the most skeptical followers might be convinced?
Right now, I think there are only three ways in which credibility can be restored:
- Proof that the media is doing everything it can to unearth doping practices and coming up empty. This means not asking “are you clean” when there is only one possible answer, but true investigative journalism.
- A new doping test for a product that is super-effective and until-then undetectable. If you’re going to dope, you would do it with such a seemingly “no-risk-all-benefit” drug (why use something that is less effective or more easily traced). So springing a test for such a product on an unsuspecting peloton would show you who rides cleanly out of conviction even when there is “free speed” to be had. The last time this happened was with the CERA test in 2008, it could have happened with an AICAR test in recent times but unfortunately it hasn’t.
- It’s a version of #2, only less elegant. It is of course through retro-testing. If the AICAR test is now available and you retro-test samples from the past eight years and find nothing, that would be a very strong indication that the peloton is able to withstand the sirens of shady speed.
Note that I am not listing two other ways:
- Police investigations and the like. Many of the most recent anti-doping successes have come from police investigations, US government actions or anti-doping agencies. But while that is useful, it is unlikely to ever be of help to prove the opposite. No government agency would ever admit to having done a very extensive investigation into doping and having found nothing. You celebrate your successes and hide your failures. It’s ironic in a way, and applicable to investigations in all areas of society; the more they investigate the worse our world view becomes, because we only hear about it when they find something bad.
- The riders. There is really nothing any athlete can do to prove his innocence. Of course, dodging questions may look suspicious, but answering them freely is just par for the course. Even if you would come up with a novel, very credible looking tool to make your innocence plausible, such a tool would quickly be copied by clean and dirty athletes alike.
P.S. Just when I finished this, Brailsford from Team Sky said he would be willing to hand over all their data to an expert appointed by WADA, as a sort of “biological passport PLUS”. That’s a great idea, although when you think about it it shows how the passport is not working. Brailsford correctly states that the passport should be more than a few blood values, it should look at weight, power, etc. But right now there aren’t enough tests being done in the passport to even get a credible clean sheet with regards to the blood values.
Even better than giving an expert access to bio pass and internal team data, give a bunch of experts the power to take blood samples and get the power data for all riders. Fund it through the teams & riders, make this expert independent of teams & riders and independent of the UCI. Of course that is the independent anti-doping organization many are calling for, it’s just a matter of how to fund it (and some thoughts on that are here.)
Get the blood tests to several per month or per week, get constant info on power readings and before long you will have a system so tight that although it may not prevent all doping, it will make the micro-dosing so micro that the advantage is minimal. Thus clean riders can compete, and cheating ones have such meagre returns they may decide it’s not worth the risk anymore.