Opinion: How to move on from Armstrong affair and safeguard sport for future years
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Sunday, December 16, 2012

Opinion: How to move on from Armstrong affair and safeguard sport for future years

by VeloNation Press at 2:55 PM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling, Doping, Opinion
Proposal for a new, incentives-oriented anti-doping tool

Lance ArmstrongThe conviction of Lance Armstrong and Michelle Ferrari for their extensive doping activities and their related conspiracies marks a watershed moment in the history of cycling: for the sport’s self-evaluation, reflection on the past and future, and potential reform, as relates doping, writes Jake Stephens.

The revelations included in USADA’s Armstrong, et al, case, as well as subsequent athlete admissions, have broken the long-standing, self-interested omerta which is endemic to – and necessary for – the perpetuation of doping practices in the sport. Through this crack in the wall of silence and denial, a torrent of discussion has followed among athletes and the press and the fans, creating pressure and singular opportunity for change.

Momentum has begun to build, as evidenced by the newly formed Change Cycling Now group, which includes key, prestigious anti-doping advocates such as Jonathan Vaughters, Michael Ashenden, and Greg LeMond, and which met recently for the first time to discuss proposed anti-doping reforms.

The questions to address in achieving reform include matters of culture, governance, science, accountability, and the historical behaviour of athletes already in the peloton, many of whom have grown up as professionals in a world where strategic cheating was part of the game. It is a tangled mess requiring creative new solutions, if there is to be real change.

To solve the problem – in the near term and the long term -- effective doping reform must include new mechanisms which fundamentally attack the incentives which drive cheating in sport. This article proposes a new tool -- a new anti-doping structure -- which addresses one of two key incentives for cheating, a structure for discussion and inclusion in the next wave of reforms.

Teams and athletes cheat for two reasons: Money and Glory. Winning a Grand Tour or a Monument is to become a god. And top athletes earn real money, six- and seven-figure salaries and commensurate prize purses. God-ness and earning outcomes weave together. Bans from sport are intended to address both motivations: Glory, through discrediting the athletes as cheats and stripping their titles away; and Money, by preventing an athlete’s participation in future competition for a period of time so they can’t earn potential salaries and purses, perhaps are even stained in future contract negotiations.

However both of these effects have always been less-than-sufficient. The problem persists. Issues with the current anti-doping mechanisms are wide, including back-dated bans with friendly timing, prosecutions which targeted second-tier stars, quick returns to competition by a team management culture, which often includes former athletes from the high point of doping culture, and by insufficient action on the part of central institutions like the UCI.

Prosecution of Lance Armstrong, the king of the cheaters, has struck a great blow to the glory awarded him. Lance’s fall has been pronounced and his shame comprehensive; a man forever rendered to stinging question marks -- for the rest of his life – and forced to separate himself from the causes and organizations he championed. An important message was sent to the sporting world: Not even Lance is above the Law.

Furthermore, the prosecution of management and staff has broadened the scope of those held accountable, tackling management, staff, and medical professionals. Just as importantly, the message was sent that in today’s world, secrets only last so long. The extent of the effort and organization required to cheat is a vulnerability, a ticking time bomb for all those who cheat.

The next step is to drive a nail into the heart of the financial incentives to cheat. A system must be implemented which exposes cheaters, their supporters, and their beneficiaries to future financial consequences if they are ever shown to cheat – and a parallel future-testing program must also be implemented, providing for the acquisition and long-term storage of test samples.

In short, a material portion of the wages and winnings of athletes must be partially withheld for future distribution, years later, after final future drug tests are cleared. The structure would work along the following lines:

Fifty percent of all salaries and purses for athletes above some threshold would be withheld at the time of award, deposited into separate banking or investment accounts. Providing the athletes remained proven clean, part of these sums (say, half) would be released to the athletes on an annual basis over the following five years -- and the other half would be released as a lump sum after a longer interval, say ten years, provided a final test battery is passed from stored blood and urine samples, if no intervening subsequent tests or investigations have proven guilt. The program would be phased in over a short (say, three year) period, to provide a financial planning transition period to those affected, a short period of time being reasonable given typical contract lengths and the already tentative future earnings security of professional cyclists.

Significantly, this system would bring the full weight and fear of future testing technology to bear in the anti-doping arms race. Currently, the informed doper operates in a detection avoidance paradigm based on doper’s knowing the full extent and nature of current detection testing methodologies -- and then developing and employing their own counter-detection doping methodologies which protect them from non-negative results.

During the withhold period, withholdees could direct the type of investment or banking accounts the funds are kept in, allowing them to earn returns on what is intended to be theirs, and effectively providing them a retirement account system. But funds would only be released for use upon later-date proof of legitimacy – still being non-positive at that time. Just as importantly, the management and staff of the teams would be subject to similar holdbacks.

Part of changing the doping culture will require changing the incentives of all those involved, all those benefitting financially from cheating. Attacking the financial futures of all benefitting parties, should guilt be proven, will add a serious new scrutiny from those involved in the support of cheating, as well as new moral considerations for those engaged in cheating directly or indirectly (whether management, soigneurs, team leaders, or domestiques), as their actions would directly impact not just themselves but all their colleagues.

Additional considerations for this system: Only the portion of salaries beyond a base threshold, say 100,000€, would be subject to withholding, in order to protect the lower earners ability to support themselves; however, for purses, the entire withheld portion would be withheld for all those receiving distributions, staff and teammates included. This feature will ensure that lower-earners don’t lose basic salary and subsistence, but do have their upside put at risk in the event of benefitting from dishonest competition.

In order to address the indirect benefit provided by cheating teammates, test failures by teammates would trigger a partial forfeiture of withheld funds to benefitting parties. Athletes who wish to return to competition following a ban must remain in random testing programs during the ban, to address athletes use of ban periods to dope unimpeded and thereby realize longer-term athletic gains.

Forfeited funds, in the event of test failures and non-analytical positives, could be used to fund future anti-doping activities. Similar consequences need to be developed for top-UCI management as well, but must be coupled with full independence on the part of the anti-doping authorities.

In summary, a system of earning holdbacks would not only create a longer-term accountability from the athletes – with serious financial consequences for the top earners, wherein millions of dollars would be at risk of loss in the event of the development of new drug tests in the future – but restructure the incentives of all of those in the economy and culture of professional cycling, with a view to the future.

Equally important, this system will destroy a key pillar of doping programs -- anti-detection via informed knowledge of current detection technology -- by bringing the full weight of future testing technology to bear, creating massive new advantage for the anti-doping authorities, which currently operate in a never-ending game of catch-up.

Aspiring constantly for clean sport in cycling is critical for the authenticity of experience which is the heart of our beloved sport -- for fans and athletes alike, all of whose dreams and inspirations centre around the core of being able to believe in the competition. A well-constructed earnings withholding program, along with other reforms and a reconciliation process which allows truthful discussion as a starting point for change, can create the required environment for clean sport, by aligning the incentives with the desired outcomes.

Hopefully, this proposal can serve as a starting point for the addition of a new, incentives-oriented anti-doping tool in upcoming reforms.


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