Why whistleblowers are crucial for cycling and other sports: part 1

Don’t miss out on the latest CyclingTips updates.

Jump To Comments

A year ago, the notion of Russia potentially being out of the 2016 Olympics would have seemed unimaginable to many.

It’s one of the most powerful nations on earth, took 24 gold medals and 81 medals in total at the last Summer Games, and was then regarded as one of the top contenders for Rio 2016.

That all began to change with a December 2014 television programme by the German channel ARD [see full documentary with English subtitles here]. In it, devastating claims were made against Russian athletics, with two whistleblowers being particularly important in providing information.

Vitaliy Stepanov previously worked for the Russian anti-doping agency RUSADA. His wife, Yuliay, is a top 800 metre runner who was suspended because of doping.

Together, they gathered damning evidence and shared information that set things in motion. This eventually led to the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) setting up an Independent Commission to look into claims.

The commission concluded this month that the claims of widespread doping were true, and that RUSADA and Russian athletics should be immediately suspended.

If sufficient reforms are not implemented, the country will miss next year’s Olympics.

While it’s yet to be determined if there is any link to the country’s cyclists, whistleblowers have played a hugely significant role in the history of this sport.

One of the earliest to speak about doping was Irish rider Harry Reynolds, who had won a track world championship in 1896. Eleven years later he talked about drug use in the sport, telling New Zealand newspaper The Otago Witness that stimulants were used by some riders in short events.

“Some of the preparations taken for this purpose produce astonishing results, and will make a man ride in immensely better form than he ever shows in training,” he said in 1907.

However the after-effects were equally dramatic, with Reynolds saying that he had seen a competitor “lying in his dressing room practically unconscious” after a race.

Seventeen years later, in 1924, the French Pélissier brothers Henri and Francis told journalist Albert Londres that they used strychnine, cocaine, chloroform, aspirin, “horse ointment” and other substances in extreme events such as the Tour de France. “We run on dynamite,” was their claim.

Doping wasn’t banned then and wasn’t regularly tested for until the mid 1960s. Around that time, Irishman Shay Elliott spoke about drug use in the sport to The People newspaper. Despite that, resistance to testing remained.

However things became a lot more serious in 1967 when the British rider Tommy Simpson died on Mont Ventoux, with stimulants partly responsible for his passing. That highlighted the importance of fighting doping use and testing finally became widespread.

Tom Simpson winning the 1965 World Championships in San Sebastián, Spain
Tom Simpson winning the 1965 World Championships in San Sebastián, Spain. His tragic passing was just two years later.

Exposing Contador’s positive

Hajo Seppelt is a German journalist who has long looked into doping in sport and who led the ARD investigation into Russian doping.

Back in 2010 he also was part of a major cycling story, receiving information from a whistleblower that Alberto Contador had tested positive while winning that year’s Tour de France.

He sought information from the UCI on the matter, calling then-president Pat McQuaid. Although the result of the B sample should have been disclosed, the UCI had not yet released the news, but quickly moved when it became clear that Seppelt knew about the Clenbuterol case.

Very soon after he spoke to McQuaid, Contador’s spokesman Jacinto Vidarte announced the positive. Essentially, Seppelt had forced the issue out into the open.

“The Contador case was a good example of whistleblowing,” he told CyclingTips. “This was one of the bigger cases that we have done.

“It was absolutely important and underlined the significance of people who come forward with clear information about wrongdoing in the federation.

“It was similar to the recent IAAF example because they obviously wanted to protect the commercial interests of the sport’s governing body, but not the genuine sports values. If you see what happened in this particular case, they were waiting four or five weeks without revealing the A and B sample.”

Seppelt has never revealed the identity of the whistleblower in question. However back in 2011 he spoke about the circumstances under which he received the information.

“I can say that we have sources in the international world of cycling,” he told this writer then. “Let’s say it like this…there are sources in the international world of cycling, particularly in Spain, who don’t like to play the game.

“They hate the way people try to hide the stories in cycling, they don’t take that any more.”

Now, five years on, he said he didn’t want to get drawn into the debate about whether or not Contador deliberately consumed Clenbuterol. For him, the biggest issue was the delay in releasing the news, and what happened between the positive test and its eventual declaration.

“It was clear that the UCI had to follow the rules. That meant they had to release this case,” he said. “Zorzoli [Dr Mario Zorzoli, the UCI’s then-chief medical officer] was in touch with them and at that time they met somewhere.

[Note: Zorzoli and the rider met in Spain and, according to Contador, the UCI suggested to him that meat contamination should be stated as the cause of the positive test. This explanation was ultimately rejected by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. He was stripped of his 2010 Tour title and suspended].

“What has to be done in an independent doping testing regime was not followed correctly by the UCI at that time, at least some part of it.

“I would say this was a clear effort to avoid any bad publicity, any bad public awareness of the case.”

Amgen Tour of California 5e etappe

Kimmage, Landis and those in between

Similar example of wanting to avoid negative publicity occurred in the 1990s. Retired Irish professional Paul Kimmage released the book Rough Ride and talked about doping in the sport. This was rubbished by the UCI and others.

His depiction of a festering problem was then echoed by Giles Delion, a talented young French rider who won the Tour of Lombardy, plus the former world hour record holder Graeme Obree.

The duo were also not taken seriously, being ridiculed by the-then UCI president Hein Verbruggen. He dismissed their claims and said they were failed riders.

However the two didn’t have to wait long to be proven correct; the 1998 Festina scandal decimated the sport and very nearly ended that year’s Tour de France long before the riders reached Paris.

1999 was marketed as the Tour of Renewal, with the UCI and others saying the sport had cleaned up and that Lance Armstrong’s win was the start of a new era. French rider Christophe Bassons begged to differ, suggesting the sport hadn’t changed, but he was bullied out of that Tour.

He was also not listened to. Armstrong had returned from serious cancer, and the oft-repeated line was that he wouldn’t take chances after his illness. The UCI’s position and that of many others was that his Tour wins could be trusted.

That perception was however seriously dented when a number of whistleblowers came forward. Irish soigneur Emma O’Reilly spoke about doping on the team, Armstrong’s American team-mate Frankie Andreu and his wife Betsy went public with claims that he had admitted doping back in 1996, and triple Tour winner Greg LeMond also voiced his concerns.

Both LeMond and the Italian rider Filippo Simeoni questioned Armstrong’s work with the controversial doctor Michele Ferrari. Simeoni said he had been doped by him, leading to very public bullying by Armstrong in the 2005 race.

Despite that plus reports that retests of his 1999 Tour samples showed traces of EPO, it would be several more years before the Texan’s empire started to crumble.

This was also due to a whistleblower, with former US Postal team-mate Floyd Landis sending a series of emails in early 2010 and then going public during that year’s Tour of California with his claims.

Landis’ allegations against Armstrong and the team led to a federal investigation. While this was pulled without any clear reason being given, USADA took up the reins and eventually handed Armstrong a lifetime ban. That brought down the most powerful rider in the history of the sport and showed that whistleblowers can succeed where drug testing doesn’t.

Lance Armstrong intimidated Filippo Simeoni on stage 18 of the 2004 Tour de France. Simeoni had spoken out against Armstrong's coach, Michele Ferrari.
Lance Armstrong intimidated Filippo Simeoni on stage 18 of the 2004 Tour de France, bridging across to a break the Italian was in and telling the other riders that they would be chased down unless he agreed to sit up. Simeoni had spoken out against Armstrong’s coach, Michele Ferrari.

Without Landis, Armstrong would never have fallen. Similarly, without people like the Stepanovs – who are now in hiding – the IAAF scandal would not have been exposed.

Speaking the truth

Seppelt is clear on the importance of those with knowledge coming forward. He believes it is vital for clean, fair sport and is a fundamental weapon against corruption.

“I would encourage everyone who would like to share information to come to me and to share it,” he said, making clear that he is willing to look into further cases. “We are always 100 percent confidential. We protect our whistleblowers in the best way we can.

“So far we can say in almost 20 years in which I am working on doping issues ARD German TV never released any person’s details, and there was never any concern from whistleblowers as regards our coverage.”

The UCI’s anti-doping wing CADF also has extended its own invitation to whistleblowers to speak. It is has taken on a new investigator and has asked those with information to contact it via the reportdoping@cadf.ch email address.

Seppelt believes that sporting bodies need to actively encourage people to speak out.

“They need to motivate them to come forward with information,” he said. “To tell them that if they are also tainted with some wrongdoing in sports that they can get a reduced sanction, as is allowed by the WADA Code.

“They need to express support as international governing bodies, to have press conferences about a subject like this.”

Indeed, he argues – with justification – that the attitude those in power take to those who share information is crucial.

“They have to understand that this is necessary…that whistleblowers are not people who blame the sport, but who help the sport.”

Coming soon: Part II looks at specific examples of whistleblowers, and the personal effects on them after they spoke out

Feature image: Christophe Bassons in action during the 1999 Ronde van Nederland.

Editors' Picks