Missing the point

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With the fallout from the French Senate inquiry into doping and the 18 positive and 12 suspicious names being released from the 1998 Tour de France, the point seems to have been completely missed. Of the entire 238-page report, there is only a small portion of which refers to the names the riders whose retrospective testing has come back positive. This annex overshadows the 238 pages with 60 recommendations which aim to improve the effectiveness of anti-doping control in cycling and other sports.

The point of the French Senate Enquiry was not to name and shame the athletes. If you’ve been paying attention to pro cycling for a few years you won’t be shocked by any of these revelations. Not even Australia’s own Stuart O’Grady. To move ahead with anti-doping it’s necessary to dig up the old skeletons, but there is no point unless it gives us a way forward.

The French Senate report is a long and convoluted document written in French, so let’s distill it down and look at the bigger picture of what came out of the inquiry.

Commission of Inquiry into the Effectiveness of the Fight Against Doping

The findings from the Senate report entitled “Commission of Inquiry into the Effectiveness of the Fight Against Doping” are clear: all sports are affected by doping and deep rethinking about anti-doping policy is needed.

The names of the analytical findings from the 1998 and 99 TdF are listed in the appendix which beings with a tribute to Phillipe Gaumont (a former French pro cyclist who confessed to doping and explained many tricks of the trade. He died last May of a heart attack.) The appendix is 782 pages of doping control slips, testimonies, hearings notes, meeting minutes and so on, all which form the basis for the report. The athletes named are cyclists from the 1998 and 1999 Tour de France, but the discussion of doping practices is not limited to cycling — it traverses 14 different sports (alas, it is mostly about cycling, but rugby is also a big focus).

The UCI expressed their disagreement over the naming of the riders who returned adverse test results in the 1998 and 1998 TdF, but the Senate chose to reveal the names because:

“The revelations will advance the fight, because you cannot address a problem that is not known. It is for this reason that your rapporteur has given all means to have information on actual practices, and that considers it absolutely necessary to freely speak on the subject, and to disseminate to the public. In this context and with the agreement of the members of the inquiry, we made such a choice to include the Tour de France in 1998 and 1999 report in our annex which was forwarded by the Ministry of Sports.”

The appendix is a massive document to read, all in French, and takes quite a bit of time and effort to see which riders had positive or suspicious results. To see a visualisation of how rife the 1998 Tour de France was with doping, have a look at this chart put together by @dimspace of velorooms:

Click for a larger view.

But as we’ve seen in the past week or so, many are focusing more on the who-did-what revelations rather than the anti-doping reforms that the Senate Report outlines. In a sense the names are actually meaningless because only a small percentage of riders were tested. However, the amount of orange on this chart (positive or suspicious) is overwhelming. For me, it confirms what I’ve believed for some time — very few performances from that era were “unassisted”. Can we move on now?

The seven pillars

In many ways it makes sense that the media is focusing on riders and their indiscretions rather than anti-doping reforms. After all, senate reforms don’t make for headlines nearly as good as “Rider X took EPO in the 1998 TdF”. But in reality the Senate reforms are much more important and meaningful.

The French Senate Report lists 60 recommendations divided into seven chapters (or “pillars”) which aim to improve the effectiveness of anti-doping control in all sports, not just cycling. Not only for the integrity of sport, but for the health of the athletes. These recommendations can be analysed in isolation, but are constructed to work in an coherent framework.

Le-rugby-plus-touche-par-le-dopage-que-le-cyclisme_article_main copy

Here is a brief breakdown of the 238-page report and the French Senate’s recommendations for the French Agency against Doping (AFLD). You can find the full version of the report here (in French):

1. Know

Doping is a persistent problem in professional cycling and the presence of omertà is a complicating factor. Therefore, the Senate proposes the creation of a “Truth and Reconciliation” commission under the sports movement to shed light on the doping practices past and present.

It is debatable whether or not this will ever be effective, and like everything this complex, the devil will be in the detail when it comes to implementation. We’ve seen this fail time and time again, but can it work with the right incentives?

This section of the report also proposes to allow and support the implementation of retrospective testing to improve the current state of knowledge regarding the use of doping and health risks.

2. Prevent

Prevention is always the best form of medicine, and here is where the Senate proposes awareness campaigns and strategies aimed at prevention are a key activity in fight against doping. Proposals include:

  • the creation of a department of prevention
  • establishing an anti-doping charter in all schools and educational programs
  • developing an awareness campaign about the specific risks related to performance-enhancing drugs in gyms
  • providing training and awareness for physicians
  • prohibiting athletes from working with certain physicians

To me, these sound good in principle since they lead to better social stigmas against doping, but in order for these campaigns to be effective they will need to be well funded and well thought out. Like safety campaigns, it’s hard to get people to listen until after something goes wrong.

3. Check

The French Senate Report notes conflicts of interests with agencies who conduct the testing, and who is also in charge of growing or promoting the sport.

For example, The AFLD (French Anti-Doping Agency) already has responsibility for the anti-doping controls, but if a sample comes back positive, it sends the file to its federation. The federation decides the sanction imposed on the athlete in violation, which is an obvious conflict of interest (because they may not want to risk doing harm to the sport that their in charge of promoting). The report suggests that a clear gap be created between the department examining the case, and the one who decides the punishment.

In short, the promoter of sport should not also be the police.

The Senate also propose an increase and improvement to the spot checks of anti-doping controls in and out of competition (i.e. adjustments to the whereabouts program such that testers come at more unexpected times).

4. Analyse

The Senate proposes that the French anti-doping laboratory Chatenay-Malabry collaborate with a university to allow them to conduct research on anti-doping in addition to testing (the details of this proposal are unclear).

The Senate also proposes to expand the scope of the test analysis’ to include better scrutiny of “therapeutic use exemptions”.

Another initiative is to create a single list of banned methods or substances, regardless of when they were taken. For example, some drugs are taken out of competition to aid in training and recovery which cease to be detectable during competition.

5. Sanction

The report proposes the AFLD be given the power to sanction athletes “in the first instance” of a doping offence. Also, learning from the Armstrong case, Senators also proposed putting in a mechanism to reduce an athletes sanction which aims to encourage cooperation for information on trafficing and sytematic doping (depending on the degree of cooperation). Also proposed is to “expand sanctions on the basis of elements of non-analytical evidence” (testimony, biological passport, circumstantial evidence, for example).

They also propose:

a) strengthen penalties for using “heavy” products such as EPO and HGH. Four year bans for first offence, followed by lifetime ban on second offence.
b) Impose financial penalties. Today, sports federations cannot impose fines. When an athlete is making millions of dollars while using drugs, it must be sanctioned with fines of those amounts.
c) The introduction of collective punishment in team sports if two or more individuals have a doping violation.

6. Penalise

Most notable in this section of the report is the absense of making a doping viloation a criminal offense. The rational behind this is that it be a mistake to create competition between disciplinary and criminal sanctions (i.e. they believe that this would make a doped athlete guilty, which current law considers to be victim). It is also difficult to assess to what extent the effect that criminalisation has in other countries such as Italy or Sweden. Note that possession of doping products is already a criminal offence in France which allows police to launch an investigation.

Also suggested is the ability to give Customs officials the authority to purchase doping products for the purposes of fighting trafficking, stopping supply and for non-analytical evidence.

7. Cooperation

The seventh and final pillar aims to strengthen through agreements, data sharing between the AFLD and the various stakeholders (police, gendarmerie, customs, federation, justice) involved in the fight against doping, both in terms of location, custody, or the type of products.

The future of these proposals?

Of course this whole inquiry will be meaningless if the proposals are not implemented. In an interview with Midilibre.fr Jean-Jacques Lozach, the Rapporteur who carried out this inquiry, said, “there first will be a week of parliamentary debate in September. Then parliamentary meetings at the end of November, and then there is the framework law on modernization of the sport at the end of the year.” Note that this is an interesting example of the government getting involved in the regulation of doping in sport.

When asked about which specific proposals he will fight for, Lozach said, “There is the prevention and punishment which are inseparable aspects, it is essential to fight it. This, it seems to me, the heart of the next framework law. And then there’s the wish for France to be the leader of the anti-doping fight in Europe.”

To me, the omission in this report are concrete steps for better cooperation with the governing sporting bodies such as the UCI. If it’s buried within the report and I’ve missed it, it’s not very well spelled out.

The UCI’s statement regarding this report was dismissive of positive 1998 results, and essentially said that doping was a thing of the past. But did say that they will study the Senate’s recommendations even though much of it was was old news to them.

“In recent years, cycling has been totally transformed. It is now possible to race and win clean and there is a new culture within the peloton where riders support and believe in clean cycling. Cycling now has the most sophisticated and effective anti-doping infrastructure in world sport. Today, cycling leads the way in the fight against doping in sport.”

WADA’s president John Fahey statement released a statement to the report which says:

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) welcomes the French Senate’s report into the effectiveness of anti-doping which was published earlier today, July 24.

The report will help the anti-doping community in its efforts to improve the fight against doping in sport not just in France, but right across the world.

WADA is grateful to the French Senate for undertaking the commission, and I appreciate the opportunity given to our organization to take part in the process.

WADA will consider the recommendations of the report thoroughly.

Whether or not either body will do anything with the French Senate’s proposals is another thing, but cooperation from WADA is essential.


These recommendations aim to make anti-doping efforts more effective, which in my opinion is far more important than naming dopers from 15 years ago. However, these are only recommendations from the French Senate and even if they are accepted, they still need to be accepted by sport’s highest anti-doping authority, WADA.

This isn’t about the names. It’s about what needs to be done to solve the complex problem of doping in sport. The question is, will these proposed reforms be effective?

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