Photo: Gingo Scott/Shutterstock

When Zero-Tolerance Goes Too Far

by Adam Roy Oct 11, 2010
Have cycling’s anti-doping agencies gotten too aggressive?

TWO WEEKS AGO, Alberto Contador became the latest cyclist to get burned by doping allegations when the International Cycling Union announced it had provisionally suspended him after he tested positive for small quantities of the banned substance clenbuterol.

Contador has maintained his innocence so far, blaming the positive test result on a contaminated steak he had eaten the night before. It’s a song and dance that’s sadly familiar to cycling fans, the same not-my-fault routine performed by every cyclist who’s ever been caught doping. Only this time, experts say that it may be true.

While the practice is illegal, clenbuterol is sometimes given to animals to boost their growth and produce more lean meat. Sports medicine specialist Dr. Andrew Franklyn-Miller told the Associated Press that clenbuterol-spiked meat was a plausible explanation, and that the small quantities of the drug found in Contador’s body most likely did not impact his performance.

It’s clear that something is broken in the sport of cycling, and cyclists are part of it. Contador is just one of four Spanish athletes suspended for positive drug tests over the past few weeks. The FDA is reportedly investigating cycling’s biggest name, Lance Armstrong, for doping violations he allegedly committed earlier in his career.

At the same time, anti-doping officials have become so zealous in their pursuit of suspected violators that they’ve begun to toe the line between aggressive and hostile. An increasing number of investigators seem to be driven less by their commitment to justice than by a salacious desire to see successful athletes shamed.

France’s anti-doping agency recently announced that it would be giving FDA special agent Jeff Novitzky and his team access to blood samples given by Armstrong during his 1999 Tour de France win. It seems like an awfully convenient arrangement, considering that an eight-year statute of limitations prevents the French agency from retesting the samples.

Never mind that Armstrong has been tested and retested like a lab rat during well over a decade as a professional cyclist. Never mind that none of the innumerable doping controls tour organizers have subjected him to have caught him.

There’s no doubt in my mind that athletes who dope deserve to be punished. But when we mete out punishments to the non-guilty and guilty alike, we take away any incentive to play fair. We’ve created a climate in which every winner is a presumed cheater, even when ten years of clean drug tests say otherwise.

The moral that many cyclists will likely take away from this story is that even playing fair doesn’t guarantee they’ll be safe, a dangerous message to be sending to young athletes looking for reasons to stay clean in a sport with an entrenched doping culture. That’s a steep price to pay to punish Contador for taking a quantity of drugs so small that it wouldn’t likely have he according to most scientists, it wouldn’t likely have helped him in any measurable way.

Likewise, the kind of “hammer-him-til-he-breaks” tactics that have characterized the FDA’s anti-doping investigations are troubling, regardless of whether or not Armstrong cheated. It’s as if the agency cared more about drawing publicity to its often unglamorous work than about uncovering the factual truth behind the allegations.

As someone who loves cycling, it’s been bad enough seeing the pros abuse the trust of their fans. It’s even worse to see government doing it. Whatever happens, here’s hoping the showboating stops soon.

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